International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



Guatemala: A Country of Mountains [1]
Susana Palma
Social Development and Population Unit/SEGEPLAN

The shape of Guatemala’s terrain is directly related to the geological processes of its complex mountain systems. Its mountain network, an extension of the Andean mountain range, is divided into two chains, the Sierra Madre and the Cuchumatanes. The highest point in Central America, the peak of the Cuchumatanes, reaches more than 3,800 meters above sea level.

Guatemala is a country with expansive mountainous terrain. Of its 108,889 sq. km of national territory, 49,000 sq. km – or 40% of the country – are mountainous. This 40% is at least 500 meters above sea level, while 35% percent reaches over 1,000 meters, and 3% of the national territory is more 3,000 meters above the sea.

The average low temperature in the highlands of Guatemala’s mountains is 10ºC, while the average low temperature at the foot of the mountain is 20ºC. Rainfall and humidity are greatest at the foot of the mountain facing the winds from nearby sources of moisture.

More than half of Guatemalans depend on these mountains as their source of fresh water. Some 2,500 sq. km, or 2.3% of the country’s surface area, are covered by lakes and rivers. The country’s per capita water resource is 11.9 per 1,000 cubic meters. In this context, 9% of the country’s water resource extraction is for domestic use, while 74% is for agriculture, and 17% is for industrial use. The country utilizes 9.2% of its hydroelectric potential (CCAD, 1998).

Water may be the resource that defines the limits of sustainable development. (FNUAP, 2001). While the amount of available fresh water remains essentially constant, the balance between increased demand and the amount of water available is already uneven. In 1999, 82% of the country’s population had access to drinking water, and approximately 77% to sanitation services. Alarmingly, only 77% of the rural population had access to drinking water and sanitation that same year (INE, 1999). This is closely connected to the occurrence of water-borne illnesses that result from insufficient coverage and sanitation. The mortality rate for intestinal infections reached 2.6 per 10,000 inhabitants in 1998 and, for diarrhea, it reached 3 per 1,000 in children under 1 year of age in 2000 (MSPAS, 2001).

It is also worth mentioning that mountain forests are crucial for the country’s ecological health, since they protect the watersheds that provide fresh water. These forests have been disappearing at an accelerated rate in recent years. Maps show that 65% of Guatemala’s mountains were covered by forest in 1999.

Along these lines, Guatemala’s mountains are guardians of natural and cultural diversity, as well as of languages and traditions. It is estimated that 18 of the 19 Mayan dialects are spoken in these areas, and the country’s 14 “zones of life”, as classified by Holdridge, are found in these mountainous regions. Such subtropical mountain forests in the western part of the country contrast with the dry forests found in the east.

Mountains are home to 45% of Guatemalans, of which 6 in 10 are poor. Statistics show that 16.3% of households – 18% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas – lack adequate housing. Indicators also reveal that 19% of the country’s households have children that do not regularly attend formal schools. In rural areas, that number is one in four households. Finally, wage and labor indicators show that 7% of households in Guatemala, and 11% of rural households, live on incomes that are not sufficient to meet basic needs.[2]

Guatemala has the largest population of all countries in the Central American isthmus, and although its population growth rate has slowed in recent years, it still remains high. For the period 1995-2000, Guatemala’s population growth rate was only slightly lower than that of Nicaragua and Honduras. Guatemala’s population is also extraordinarily young: half of the population is under the age of 15 in mountainous regions.

The population growth rate is over 2.6% and, as the population grows and demand increases, the need for water, food, and energy resources endangers the sustainability of the mountains. While population growth in rural areas is not necessarily harmful to the environment, the scarcity of available land causes many poor people to migrate and settle in areas that are fragile (such as the department of Petén, which houses the greatest number of protected zones in the country) or especially prone to natural disasters (such as the steep hillsides of the capital city).

Due to these reasons, the country urgently needs to take steps to preserve the sustainability of the mountains. This process should start by achieving balance between social, economic and ecological objectives, since disregard for any of these areas could jeopardize sustainability.

One possibility could be the development of tourism in these zones, after a thorough environmental impact and risk assessment, since such an initiative could lead to increased settlements in vulnerable areas. Another possibility is the production of oxygen or other greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs, considering that 70% of Guatemala’s land is suitable for forestry. At the same time, the country must strengthen environmental education for children and young people and implement reproductive health programs in order to slow population growth[3], reduce poverty[4], and improve the situation of women, since these are all important factors for development. Water sources must also be protected by stopping or slowing deforestation.

The steps outlined above will guard against disasters in mountain regions. These steps represent a shared social responsibility, adopting a new ethical framework for conservation, for our own benefit and for that of future generations.


  1. Presented during the International Day of Natural Disaster Reduction
  2. Families who do not meet their basic needs are generally defined as those whose heads of households are illiterate and have at least four or five dependants.
  3. This fact must be highlighted, especially now that Guatemala has an official Social and Population Development Policy.
  4. The current Strategy for Poverty Reduction must be strengthened. This strategy was developed in 2001.


CCAD Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo
(Central American Commission for the Environment and Development)
FNUAP Fondo de Población de Naciones Unidas
(United Nations Population Fund)
INE nstituto Nacional de Estadística
(National Institute of Statistics)
MSPAS Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social
(Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance)