When we analyze the regional diversity within a country, what if instead of analyzing the political boundaries of a country, we, in turn, analyze a country’s ecoregions and contextualize them as diverse geopolitical subregions? In my interpretation, if an ecoregion, in terms of species, landforms and natural communities, is a space that varies from another physical space, why can’t we say the same about a country’s geopolitical regions?
What if we think of a geopolitical ecoregion as a distinct political space, with different ethnic groups, distinct political organization and governance, with their own social complexities, and their own economic specializations, however, within the context of a physical ecoregion, meaning: a group of people inhabiting the same landform and/or space (ecoregion), yet with distinct particularities that change when transitioning between one ecoregion onto another.
In this article I shall briefly introduce another analytical concept by analyzing Guatemala’s ecoregions as different geopolitical subregions. In Guatemala’s case there are three different physical regions: pacific coastal plains, highlands and the Petén rainforest lowlands; however, in order to be more specific, and to appreciate the diverse complexities from one ecoregion to another, I shall outline four specific ecoregions as geopolitical subregions: 1) Ermita Valley, 2) indigenous highlands, 3) Motagua river valley thornscrub, 4) tropical moist forests, and 5) pacific coastal lowlands. Lastly, this is a personal, general analysis and my own interpretation of how my country’s ecoregions ought to be defined and understood from a geopolitical viewpoint.
1. Ermita Valley
Guatemala’s capital was transferred more than three times, due to diverse environmental conditions and social strife during the colonization era (from Iximche to the Almolonga Valley, because of indigenous resistance between the Spanish conquistadores and the Kaqchikel tribe; from Almolonga to Antigua Guatemala, because of flooding; and from Antigua Guatemala to its actual location, the Ermita valley, because of an earthquake). Yet, eventually, it was the Ermita valley that was finally chosen to become Guatemala City’s permanent settlement. As if it were a constant lesson of trial and error. This choice was no coincidence. It was thought in geostrategic terms, by taking into account both climatic conditions and transportation/communication/commercial strategic corridors. However, the topographic barriers were never entirely considered.
Guatemala City (14º N) lies in the Ermita valley, which is, ultimately, a convergence zone of diverse climatic conditions. Guatemala city sits at an elevation of 4,900 feet, giving Guatemala City a very stable—yet fresh—temperature ranging between 15º C and 23º. Additionally, because of the tropical easterlies that blow (5º to 25º N/ 5º to 25º S) from the northeast, these winds tend regulate the wind circulation of Guatemala City. Also, mainly from its southeast, due to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean (43 NM/79KM in a straight line from Guatemala City to Puerto de San Jose), high-pressure oceanic winds stemming from the Equatorial Counter Current warm ocean current, clashes with the highlands’ daily low-pressure gradient alongside the warm tropical easterlies, which influence the warm, rainy season (from May to mid-October).
As a consequence, these climatic convergence zone gives the Ermita valley throughout the day constant rain showers during the warm, rainy season, meanwhile, during the cold, dry season (end of October to March) the Equatorial Counter Current low-pressure system drifts away from Guatemala city, ultimately providing Guatemala city clear blue skies. All in all, Guatemala City, in the Ermita Valley, has a quasi-Mediterranean temperate climate, in spite of being located in the tropics. Politically and economically what does this mean? Guatemala City has the perfect conditions to increase its demography. Guatemala city metropolitan area has one of the largest demographics in Central America, with almost 5 million inhabitants. Guatemala city has 1 million inhabitants less than El Salvador and Nicaragua, 3 million less than Honduras, yet with more population than Costa Rica and Panama. It was no surprise that Guatemala City, was chosen to be Central America’s General Captaincy during the Spanish colonization. And it is the main demographic center that receives most of the internal migration, needless to add an increasing migration from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The ecoregion of the Ermita Valley, where Guatemala City is located, allows one to label Guatemala, in accordance to territorial morphological terms, as a ‘compact’ country. This means: From the Ermita Valley, Guatemala’s borders are relatively equidistant, by specially taking into account the distance from the Ermita Valley to Honduras via Chiquimula (# 4 on the map), to El Salvador via Jutiapa (# 13 on the map), and to Mexico via San Marcos (#17 on the map). In the geopolitical imagination of Guatemalans, Belize is considered a non-Central American country, but, rather, it is perceived as a Caribbean country. Also, from Guatemala’s point of view, Belize was taken from Guatemala because of bad political and commercial decisions. As a result, the Ermita Valley is the pivotal axis of all Guatemala. It is near its most important seaports (Puerto Quetzal and Champerico); it is the economic and financial capital powerhouse of the Central American Isthmus; and it is strategically located from the a) food-producing areas (Motagua River Valley Thornscrub); b) coffee belt (mainly from nearby regions such as Antigua Guatemala and Sololá); and c) commercial large-industrial agriculture and cotton-producing areas in the pacific coastal lowlands. Yet, in spite of its advantages, as I shall shorty introduce, politically, the Ermita Valley—or core geography—has a hard time in politically controlling and subduing its periphery.
2. Indigenous Highlands
Though in ecological terms, this region would be denominated as a sub-temperate moist forest. In my mind, when it comes to the highlands of Guatemala, I believe that they should be addressed as the ‘indigenous highlands’. This is the most diverse, yet economically poorest geopolitical subregion of Guatemala, and the hardest to politically control and understand as a citizen of Guatemala City. In my view, the indigenous highlands encompass two subregions within the highlands: The western and central indigenous highlands. This ecoregion consists of approximately 45% of Guatemalan territory.
The highlands of Guatemala (though located in the tropics) have a mixture of tropical savannah and temperate climate. As a result, the seasonal variations are usually felt at lower elevations, nearby the pacific coastal lowlands. Because of the microclimates (low-pressure cells during the day and high-pressure cells throughout the night, in addition to the fertile volcanic ash and soil pH) in this region, the borderlands of the pacific coastal lowlands and the indigenous highlands have one of the best quality-produced coffees of Guatemala and the world. However, as the elevation increases, the less fertile and rockier the land is. Consequently, the indigenous populations in the highlands depend upon subsistence agriculture—i.e. corn, beans, grain, wheat, potatoes, and animal grazing—instead of high-yield cash crops as their counterparts in the pacific coastal lowlands.
The indigenous highland region of Guatemala is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which runs northwest-southwest from Mexico (originally a part of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental), making its way into the Honduran-Nicaraguan border up to the Cordillera Isabelia in Nicaragua. This region, which traverses Guatemala across the Honduran and Salvadoran border, into Nicaragua, circumscribes a total of 6 different mountain chains known as ‘sierras’. Out of these 6 sierras, 3 sierras (e.g. Cuchumatanes, Chamá, and De Las Minas) belong to the Indigenous highlands. Last but not least, Guatemala’s main river system is a Pacific Ocean drainage area; most of the rivers and streams that originate within the indigenous highlands drain in the Pacific Basin. Nevertheless, despite of highland-originated rivers, Guatemala does not have a proper navigational river system—except for the lower end of the Motagua River—given the topographic constraints amid its different watersheds in the form of valleys and sierras. For this reason, commercially speaking, population centers in the highlands, without a proper navigable system, have been historically disconnected with the rest of the country. Put it simply, one valley and its villages is an entire different world compared with other villages in another valley. In addition, because of the topographic barriers, Guatemala has had a hard time achieving a full political and economic integration with the highlands. And at the same time, due to a wide-array of social and geographical conditions, this region has one of the highest numbers of chronic child malnutrition in the whole country, which clearly given the poor levels of education, lack of strong government institutions, isolation, and soil fertility, this region overall can be considered Guatemala’ socially most diverse backcountry.
Politically, for the Guatemalan central government, the indigenous highlands, is the most diverse and challenging ecoregions in Guatemala. It has over 16 different Mayan languages, and 24 ethnic groups. The Mayan languages are spoken by the numerous indigenous tribes emanating from the valleys and sierras within the highlands (only in Huehuetenango, # 10 in the map, 9 Mayan languages are spoken!) As a result, it’s no wonder why most of the war theaters of the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), was fought in the indigenous highlands, mainly in the Ixil triangle of northern Quiche (# 7 in the map) alongside most of the western highlands.
Moreover, it was through the indigenous highlands that the Spaniards first penetrated Guatemala, while allying themselves with the Kaqchikel tribe, by defeating the then-most powerful K’iche’ tribe. Eventually, the Spaniards betrayed the Kaqchikel tribe and ravished the Indigenous highlands throughout the entire colonization period until Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821. As a result, in the modern-era, there is still a large degree of resentment towards the mestizo and white population, specifically towards the private sector and large Guatemalan corporations from Guatemala City. In spite of the fact that this area has a huge potential for hydroelectric and mining projects, many Amerindian communities have sabotaged these projects, with the support of foreign NGOs that have pushed indigenous auto-emancipation plans in the region, further destabilizing Guatemala. Nevertheless, regardless of their commonality, the indigenous groups in the highlands have never been able to politically unite themselves, (in some villages, deep in the mountains, some of them rarely speak Spanish), which, as a consequence, has led Guatemala—in spite of their indigenous population—to be a state governed by mestizo and white presidents.
If there would be an analogy that would best describe the Guatemalan highlands, it would most certainly be the Russian North Caucasus: These indigenous groups are part of the same state but different nations as a whole, living in fragmented spaces and finding shield and in the mountains. Though many of these groups speak Spanish, they still do so with a heavy indigenous accent, because they have still conserved their traditional and cultural Mayan identity and language in their communities. Because of this, each valley and sierra represents separate political entities, where they have their own enforcement of laws and linguistic barriers. Also, because of their own law enforcement customs, there is a high number of lynching, and rarely the Guatemalan state has enough coercive power to enforce their monopoly of security in the indigenous highlands.
The indigenous highlands, rather than uniting Guatemala, have historically, culturally, politically, and commercially fragmented Guatemala.
3. Motagua River Valley Thornscrub
If you would journey from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios, Izabal (Guatemala’s only outlet in the Caribbean Sea), you would notice how arid and dry the Motagua River valley ecoregion is—which is why the biggest common denominator is the thornscrub. This ecoregion, also known as ‘el oriente’ (the east), is actually more like Guatemala’s wild west; it is mainly the spiritual base of Guatemala’s most notorious drug cartels that operate in the form of family clans. Think of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia and then think of the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion as something similar, except for the sea, olives and pasta.
Geographically, one of the main climatic reasons on why this ecoregion tends to have a semi-arid, savannah-like climate, is because of the orographic effect that originates with the combination of both the tropical easterlies and the North Equatorial Current from the Caribbean Sea, converging into Izabal’s (#11 in the map) topographic obstacles (Sierra De Las Minas, Sierra Santa Cruz, Sierra Del Merendón, and to a lesser degree, Mico mountains). For this reason, the Foehn winds, coming from the northeast, which bring moist marine air from the Caribbean Sea, crash into Izabal’s numerous topographic barriers. When these moist marine winds surpass Izabal’s sierras, they descend with a warm, dry air, as a result, creating a rain shadow effect on the leeward slopes of the sierras (particularly the Sierra De Las Minas) that face the departments of Zacapa, Chiquimula, El Progreso and Jalapa. Yet, one of the primordial reasons on why these departments are not complete deserts alike is because of the Motagua river system and its tributaries, including the numerous valleys amid the diverse sierras that separate these regions (e.g. Sierra del Merendón), thereby providing this ecoregion with enough wind circulation, sunlight, and rain, equaling to arable land and soil fertility. Because of this climatic phenomena, The Motagua River Valley Thornscrub has sufficient soil fertility to produce perennial crops, mainly in Zacapa and Jalapa, and to a lesser extent Chiquimula; however, El Progreso has an agriculturally unworthy limestone bedrock floor, therefore, it is the least inhabited departments of all Guatemala, mainly serving as a transit point between Guatemala and Puerto Barrios, Izabal. And also, because of this climatic variation, the northern part of Chiquimula department—which is one of the most arid departments of this ecoregion—is considered a red zone concerning chronic infantile malnutrition. As a consequence, this ecoregion, geographically, is an ecoregion of extremes: It either has fertile valleys, good enough to produce tropical fruits and raise beef cattle, or it has a limestone bedrock type of soil, limiting the arable land and thus limiting population capacity support.
Geostrategically, this ecoregion is a region of valleys, sierras and rugged hills—however not as high as the indigenous highlands. Due to the Motagua River valley’s proximity to the Honduran Caribbean coast and proximity to the tropical moist forests ecoregion, indirectly, makes the Motagua River valley a natural gateway towards Mexico, Belize and further inland. In terms of drug mobility and illegal immigration arousing from Honduras, this ecoregion has become a leading entry point and node to Guatemala. Chiquimula (# 4 in the map) is the most geostrategic of all four departments that make part of the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub ecoregion. Chiquimula is close enough to the Sierra Madre of Honduras and El Salvador, yet far-flung from Guatemala’s government control, protected by the sierras of Zacapa and Jalapa.
Ethnically, the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub is an ethnically homogenous region, with chiefly both white and mestizo Spanish-speaking population. There are only two Mayan languages in the region—i.e. Poqomam and Ch’orti’—which are known indigenous minorities. Many European migrants, exclusively those arriving from the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean Europe that, after disembarking in Santo Tomas de Castilla, populated this valley conformed by multiple migrants alongside the already-settled mestizo population since colonial times. This ecoregion has a population and shared identity with those of Salvadoran and Honduran borderlands, oftentimes carrying firearms as part of their cultural identity. When their honor has been disrespected, violence or negotiated settlement is one of the leading cultural traits within the residents of this ecoregion. At first glance, as a Guatemalan, in my mind, the toughest and most loyal bodyguards usually originate from this ecoregion. But it is because of this culture of blood, honor and patriarchal hierarchical social structure that, according to Guatemalan stereotypes, it is this ecoregion’s population that resorts to violence and blood, if not settled by a respected town member or patriarchal figure.
Crime is low in this region, with no gang cliques, as in the case of Guatemala City. Yet, this is not because there is a strong authority that enforces the law accordingly. Rather it is the drug cartels that enforce their own codes of honor and security amongst their areas of controls, by building community clinics, restaurants and other commercial assets that emphasizes a sense of loyalty amongst the various townships via employment for the communities. One reason why mainly this population shares the same ethnicity and political identity, is because this ecoregion has been an important—and only—transit route between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios, therefore, many Spanish immigrants settled in this region, which can resemble at times, to those dry-arid regions of southern Spain, such as Extremadura, Andalucía, for instance. Furthermore, according to Guatemalan historians, it was such population that brought their own cultural legacies to this area of Guatemala, and thus shared with southwestern Honduras and northwestern El Salvador.
4. Tropical Moist Forests
Izabal and Peten (# 5 and # 11 in the map) represent another hinterland in the Guatemalan regional mentality. Though this ecoregion is scientifically and more accurately described as a tropical moist forest, in simpler terms, is pretty much known as a jungle rainforest. In essence, these two departments represent Guatemala’s jungle forests. This ecoregion is moderately populated since most of the population, in the case of Izabal, revolves around Lake Izabal and confined to the main transportation corridor from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. In the case of Peten, this region, given its size (35, 854 km2), is theoretically underpopulated; most of its population gravitates around Flores (Petén’s principal city) and its widely distributed cities in the lowlands, nearing Izabal and Alta Verapaz. Notwithstanding, it is also an imperative region that has been pivotal in the geopolitics of Guatemala, from both a historic and modern day viewpoint.
Geographically, the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion is a combination of low-level sierras (Sierra de Santa Cruz, Sierra de Chama), low-elevated highlands (Maya Highlands), coupled with limestone plains that bound together this particular ecoregion. This particular ecoregion has the right ‘ingredients’ of climate and weather: 1) the right amount of insolation (solar energy), 2) temperature, 3) pressure, 4) wind, and 5) precipitation to evolve into tropical rainforests, and one of the last virgin rainforests of Guatemala (e.g. North Peten). Yet, the climatic reason why this ecoregion is composed of different subtropical, warm, moist forests is because of the perpendicular angle in which the North Equatorial Current passes right through this region. Without elevated topographical obstacles, the North Equatorial Current alongside the Trade Winds, provide the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel Island, Belize and, essentially, Peten and Izabal, with plenty of rainfall (around 120 inches) from the humid waters of the Caribbean sea. Agriculturally, this means that Peten, with its limestone type of lowlands and dense forests, is not the most suitable region to plant and harvest cash crops, as opposed to the pacific coastal lowlands. Consequently, it is an agriculturally inadequately developed region, with minimal cash crops. Yet, when it comes to livestock, palm oil, underexploited oil basins (e.g. La Libertad refinery), and vast space to develop, it is one of the most promising regions of Guatemala. Meanwhile, Izabal, though it has the same moist rainforests as Peten, generally speaking, the Izabal-Zacapa ecological frontier, provides Izabal with some commercial agriculture potential—i.e. bananas, cotton, cocoa, some coffee and livestock. However, to the western side of Lake Izabal, as like the case of Peten, Izabal has basic subsistence agriculture and some mining projects, as with the case of the Fenix Nickel Project.
Peten, compared with the relative isolation of Izabal, is another hinterland in the Guatemalan political map. Historically, the Spaniards colonized Peten 160 years after their settlement in the Guatemalan indigenous highlands—it was left alone for more than a century. Peten was one of the hardest landscapes to secure and to stabilize. Long story short, Peten was one of the first spaces on which the Mayan civilization took place. Nevertheless, after the Spaniards subdued, with an army of Aztec warriors, most of the Guatemalan highland kingdoms, it was the Itza tribe and other tribes of hunters and gatherers, that resisted the most against the Spanish thrust for colonization space, materialized in the form of Christian missionaries. All in all, Spain penetrated Guatemalan lands during the 1520s, however, the Itza and Mopan tribes would prove to be the most battle-hardened tribes of all Guatemala, delaying the full Spanish takeover of Peten and Guatemala until 1697. Peten’s fierce tribes and inhospitable terrain, prove to be one of the most difficult landscape in Guatemala to secure; the remnants of the Itza and Mopan tribes would be absorbed by the Alta Verapaz highland Q’eqchi tribes. Eventually, Peten, would be contested by the British throughout the British colonization of the Caribbean, but secured by the Spaniards and eventually inherited by the Guatemalan government after border disputes between the Yucatan General Captaincy and the Guatemala General Captaincy. Finally, Izabal’s history is not as dramatic as Peten’s was. In order to fight the pirates that plagued the Honduran Caribbean coast, the Spaniards decided to build a port that would be eventually known as Santo Tomas de Castilla, currently the most important seaport of Izabal, and Guatemala’s only outlet to the Caribbean. Izabal, unlike Peten, was used by the Spaniards as their main transportation and communication corridor between Guatemala City and Izabal, thus making Izabal another strategic point in Guatemala’s history.
Peten and Izabal illustrate two important examples in the tropical moist forests ecoregion of Guatemala, however, with different historical legacies. The former was hard to subdue and conquer while the latter was simply used as a node that would lead to the exploration and conquer of modern-day Honduras and further onto the isthmus. For this reason, Peten and Izabal (# 5 and # 11 in the map) played a leading role in the Spanish conquest of the Central American Isthmus. Geostrategically, however, Peten presents itself as if it were a separate country within Guatemala, and with a tremendous amount of Mexican influence. As aforementioned, the Yucatan General Captaincy (modern-day Mexico) would be the departing point of the Spanish expeditions, notably from Campeche, Merida and Salamanca de Bacalar onto Nojpeten, the Itza tribal kingdom, indirectly knitting the would-be Mexican influence, after the Mexican emancipation from Spain. Therefore, unsurprisingly, during the late 1950s, the Guatemalan government fostered internal migration from the Motagua River valley, pacific coastal lowlands, and central indigenous Highlands (specifically Alta Verapaz) to acculturate Peten. (In 1866 Peten was formally absorbed into Guatemala political geography, thereby reflecting the isolation and indirect dispute Peten was between Mexico and Guatemala.) Also, during the 1960s and 1970s, Peten was used as a base by the Guatemalan military regimes to creep and intimidate Belize of potential invasion. However, given ongoing civil war (1960-1996), and a threat by the British Government, Guatemala desisted in retaking Belize.
Commercially and geographically, Peten and Izabal remain isolated places. The indigenous highlands block political control of Peten and Izabal; as a consequence, both territories have become an extension of the drug cartels that originated in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion. Last but not least, Izabal is only connected by one important interdepartmental highway from Guatemala City, thus easily being cut whenever violent protests erupt in Guatemala City. Furthermore, because of the topographic obstacles from the Motagua River ecoregion, and the tropical moist forests and sierras of Izabal, Peten is a region where it is preferable to fly instead of a lengthy 8 to 10 hour drive. Consequently, Izabal and Peten, remain another hinterland in the Guatemalan geopolitical map.
5. Pacific Coastal Lowlands
As initially mentioned, Guatemala is a country of many hinterlands and borderlands. But if there is a region that represents the core geography of Guatemala, and a region that is fully controlled by the central government, that would be the pacific coastal lowlands; not only an area where the government exerts full control, but also an area that represents the bread and basket of Guatemala as a whole.
The Coastal lowlands is comprised by 5 separate departments, sharing similar mestizo ethnicity and stable climatic conditions, without much variety as the indigenous highlands, neither an unbalanced orographic rain shadow effect as in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion, nor the limestone, unfertile soil variety of the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion. To a large degree, because of the Pacific Equatorial Counter Current, in this ecoregion, during the day, cool air descends, traveling in an onshore flow, until eventually is lifted when reaching some of the volcanic areas close to the Ermita Valley. Eventually, when the air ascends, these sea-hugging lowlands enjoy a continuous onshore sea breeze flow, steadily providing the right amount of humidity, insolation, temperature and air, influencing the soil pH (between 6.8 to 7.2) of the plains. During the night, when the land cools down, the ocean becomes warmer. And as the cool air descends from the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley’s hillsides, a refreshing land breeze aids this particular region. Lastly, in the same vein, since most of the indigenous highlands rivers, tributaries and small streams drain in the Pacific Ocean; these watersheds yield Guatemala’s most important developed agricultural spaces and industrialized areas.
Economically speaking, this is the bread and basket of Guatemala. But, apart from an economic viewpoint, this is the only ecoregion that remains the most reachable, unobstructed ecoregion of all. For this obvious reason, this eco region represents Guatemala’s core geography. And since the colonization epoch, this ecoregion has been the most developed, connected and transited with both the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley. Yet from a security point of view, it represents an open space for illegal immigration contraband groups and an easy gateway for criminal gangs (e.g. MS 13 and Barrio 18) that arouse from El Salvador, which easily reach the Ermita Valley, via Jutiapa (#13 on the map). Also, contraband and narcotics that stem from Ecuadorian (e.g. Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas) and Colombian pacific ports (e.g. Bucaramanga) flawlessly make their way into the pacific coastal lowlands, eventually crossing into Mexico, without having to pass through Guatemala City. As a result, in spite of the rapid urbanization and industrialization this region upholds, it is a clear path for Colombian and Mexican cartels to commercialize in a hassle-free, point-to-point operational environment. Nevertheless, all of these departments are within an ease reach by the Guatemalan central government, if compared with the highlands and the tropical moist forest ecoregions.
• Even if this has been a generally, non-academic personal analysis, we have seen that by describing each geopolitical subfield, in the form of ecoregions, we are brought to ponder and grasp the intersection of how physical geography and political geography come to terms with each other—something unfortunately mainstream academia does not support.
• Guatemala is one of the most difficult territories within Central America to exert and control political dominance and economic integration. It is a highly fragmented country, but this fragmentation is experienced best in the indigenous highlands, where still, up to this day, after 500 years of Spanish domination, indigenous groups have conserved their identity, customs, laws and sense of governance. From an anthropological and academic viewpoint, it is one of the most fascinating countries of all Latin America. But from a statist point of view, the indigenous highlands are a buffer zone between Peten and the Ermita Valley, by shielding and isolating from government control the majority of the indigenous groups as well as control over the cartel regions and Mexican influence in the Peten basin.
Halford Mackinder, who unfortunately has been deemed as a determinist and bigot, had argued that geography is there to either be taken advantage from or simply to limit oneself. I wonder what the position of the Guatemalan government is. Moreover, if they are actually conscious of our barriers as a nation…