Guatemala & Population

Guatemala’s 1950 population of 2.9 million has skyrocketed to nearly 14.5 million people, and at the current growth rate is expected to double within the next 30 years.

Last month’s Revue included an important article, Green Gospel by Thor Janson, which highlighted the environmental damage traditional slash-and-burn farming is causing in Guatemala and elsewhere. He appropriately emphasized the need for community buy-in through education to halt this common practice. However, curbing population growth remains an equally crucial factor for saving our rainforests, which has pushed the population Janson mentions up to the Petén in the first place, and continues to force poor farmers to abandon their paltry, over-farmed plots in search of new land.

Guatemala’s fertility rate, at 4.1, is one of the highest in Latin America and, among the poorest 20% of the population, that figure jumps to an average of six children. Guatemala’s 1950 population of 2.9 million has skyrocketed to nearly 14.5 million people, almost a quintupling in the last 60 years. And, at the current annual growth rate of 2.5%, the population is expected to double within the next 30 years. The cause of this rapid growth is not only that its citizens have many children but also that, thanks to the widespread availability of antibiotics, vaccinations and some minimal health care, more children are surviving. One of the few socio-economic indicators reflecting well on the Guatemalan government is the reduction of infant mortality, from a rate of 57 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to a rate of 33 per 1,000 live births in 2009. None of us wishes that infant mortality were higher. But, Guatemala MUST take immediate and vigorous action to reduce its population growth rate if it is going to be able to successfully address the basic responsibilities of a government: providing its population with health care, education, job creation, personal security, and safeguarding precious natural resources, including the country’s vast rainforests.

We are now three generations after that golden population in 1950 of 2.9 million. With each small farming family having perhaps an average of three surviving sons and dividing up their plot of land into three pieces, the average son now has only 1/9th the extension of land his grandfather had. This fact of life has contributed enormously to the push of people into the Petén with their slash-and-burn techniques, but also created a wave of illegal immigration to the U.S., where an estimated 1.5 million Guatemalans now live.

Yet no Guatemalan government in the past 50 years, since the birth control pill became available, has mounted a full-scale effort to educate the populace about modern contraceptive methods, nor to make them widely available. Had it done so, as did the governments of Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil and even Iran, it would not be struggling to avoid becoming a failed state.

And with the continued “machista” culture, widespread poverty, influence of the church, cultural and geographic isolation, any government in the near future is unlikely to undertake the massive public education campaign that is necessary. In fact, in a recent forum of 12 presidential candidates, not one endorsed family planning. Not one stated the importance of government involvement in educating young people about family planning. Not one wished to make family planning methods widely available and affordable to even the poorest Guatemalans. All this despite the fact that in 2005 Congress passed a law guaranteeing access to scientifically based sex education in schools and the provision of free family planning methods through government-funded clinics and health posts.

Simply put, unless Guatemalans commit to slowing the rapid population growth, the rainforest that Thor Janson and so many others love will vanish within our lifetimes.

Sue Patterson is the founder of WINGS, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that creates opportunities for Guatemalans to improve their lives by providing them with family planning education and access to reproductive health services. To learn more about WINGS’ work in Guatemala, visit or contact WINGS at or at +502 7832-5130.

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