• Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Guatemala is home to 24 principal ethnic groups. Although the Government of Guatemala has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous peoples continue to face a number of challenges.
  • Peoples

    Indigenous people in Guatemala counts 6 million, belonging to 24 ethnic groups
  • Challenges

    21.8 percent of the indigenous population is affected by extreme poverty, compared to 7.4 per cent of the non-indigenous population.


Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

Guatemala is home to 24 principal ethnic groups. Although the Government of Guatemala has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous peoples continue to face a number of challenges, especially in terms of political participation, health, employment, income, housing, and education.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted

Guatemala adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007.

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

Guatemala is estimated to have 6 million indigenous inhabitants, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of the country’s total population.

The principal ethnic groups are the Achi’, the Akateco, the Awakateco, the Chalchiteco, the Ch’orti’, the Chuj, the Itza’, the Ixil, the Jacalteco, the Kaqchikel, the K’iche’, the Mam, the Mopan, the Poqomam, the Poqomchi’, the Q’anjob’al, the Q’eqchi’, the Sakapulteco, the Sipakapense, the Tektiteko, the Tz’utujil, the Uspanteko, the Xinka, and the Garífuna.

The country still lacks a differentiated statistical base on indigenous peoples, especially on indigenous women, but it is well-known that there are disparities between the indigenous and the non-indigenous population in employment, income, health, and education.

The statistics clearly demonstrate persistent racism and discrimination against indigenous peoples. Despite representing more than half of the population and participating actively in the country’s economy, their political participation is not equitably reflected.

Main challenges for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples

One struggle of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples relates to political participation. The electoral system is marked by exclusion and indigenous peoples primarily participate as voters, rather than as candidates with true possibilities of being elected.

With respect to health, employment, income, housing, and education, there is a great disparity between indigenous peoples and the rest of the population. Official data indicates that extreme poverty affects 21.8 per cent of the indigenous population, compared to 7.4 per cent of the non-indigenous population.

Reports on the social situation of indigenous peoples published by several different sources show an enormous contrast between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Despite the magnitude of the problem, the state has not developed any specific strategies to change this state of affairs.

Another challenge of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples relates to the absence of a water act. The use, management, and conservation of water is not officially regulated, and many types of businesses take advantage of this by not paying for their water usage, nor contributing to water conservation, and assuming no responsibility for pollution caused by discharges of waste.

The majority of groundwater recharge areas are located within indigenous territories, and the affected indigenous peoples do not receive any support from the state or from the various water users to protect the aquifers. Several communities have demanded that the state commence a broad discussion to draft a water act, but they have yet to be met.

Potential progress for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples

34 years after committing rape and sexual slavery of a group of 15 women of the Maya Q’eqchi people, in February 2016, army officers were sentenced to 120 and 240 years of imprisonment. The case sets a precedent worldwide, since it is the first time a crime of sexual abuse during an armed conflict has been tried in the same country where it was committed.

Other cases of crimes committed by the military against the indigenous population during the armed internal conflict remain in impunity.

In October 2016, organizations of indigenous peoples held a massive march demanding recognition of their collective rights to land and indigenous and communal territories and filed a series of specific legal complaints with the justices of the Supreme Court regarding restitution of territorial rights. Representatives of the Q’eqchi, Ch’orti, Kaqchikel, and Ixil peoples submitted files on the plundering they have been subjected to.

Historically, the legal claims of indigenous peoples over territorial rights have not reach the courts, but in the past five years some cases have received a favorable response, which indicates that the possibility is opening for the state to restore the rights that have been denied them.

Case: Hydroelectric project affecting the Chuj and Kanjobal communities

The Chuj and Kanjobal communities in the department of Huehuetenango in northwestern Guatemala continue defending their ancestral territories demanding the suspension of the hydroelectric project being built by the Spanish-owned company Ecoener Hidralia on the Cambalam River.

The project started construction without respecting the right to free, prior, and informed consultation with the indigenous peoples, thus directly affecting the livelihoods of the local inhabitants. The government’s response favored business interests and several indigenous leaders have even been arrested, though later freed when not found guilty of any crime.

Finally, in an official communiqué, the company announced the suspension of its investments, alluding to the project’s social impact, and a social peace and order is returning to the affected communities. Now these communities must recover from the impact of the murders, kidnappings, assaults on women, and the incarceration of their leaders.

Indigenous film wins prestigious prize at Berlinale 2015

Indigenous voices have been a focal point of the Berlin International Film Festival, known as Berlinale, since 2013. The festival’s NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema series is devoted to telling the stories of indigenous peoples worldwide, and highlights a different major region every second year.

This year’s festival focused on Latin America, and an indigenous story from the Pacaya volcano region in Guatemala was awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that “opens new perspectives.”

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Guatemala. UN experts call for an investigation into the violence in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán

A group of United Nations independent experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, issued a press release today urging the Government of Guatemala to clarify the violent events that occurred on 4 October 2012 in the locality of Cumbre de Alaska, in the municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, Sololá that resulted in the death of 6 indigenous persons, as well as 33 indigenous community members and 13 members of the military being injured.

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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