• 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 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.

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

Guatemala is estimated to have 6 million indigenous inhabitants. The official census from 2002 estimates that 45% of the population is indigenous, but alternative reports indicate a figure closer to 60%.

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.

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 of the main struggles for indigenous peoples in Guatemala relates to political participation. The electoral system is defined by exclusion of indigenous peoples, and they 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% of the indigenous population, compared to the 7.4% of the non-indigenous population. Despite the magnitude of the problem, the state has not developed any specific strategies to change this state of affairs.

Another challenge for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples relates to the absence of a water act. The use, management, and conservation of water are not officially regulated, and several private companies take advantage of this by not paying for their water usage, nor contributing to water conservation, and without assuming any 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 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.

After provisionally protected the communities of the Q’eqchi people by opposing the construction of two internationally funded hydroelectric projects in their territory, the Constitutional Court eventually issued a final judgment that approves the continuation of the projects and forces the Government to formulate and approve a regulation to standardise the holding of community consultations. Indigenous and social organizations expressed their opposition. This ruling violates the rights of indigenous peoples, ILO Convention 169 and the laws of the country itself because community consultations do not require any regulation and must be carried out according to the mechanisms of the indigenous peoples.

Potential progress for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples

In 2016, 34 years after committing the crimes, a group of army officers were sentenced to 120 and 240 years of imprisonment for raping15 Maya Q’eqchi women and force them into sexual slavery. The case sets a precedent worldwide since it is the first time a crime of sexual abuse during an armed conflict has gone under trial in the same country where it was committed. However, other cases of crimes committed by the military against the indigenous population during the armed internal conflict remain in impunity.

Indigenous women deprived of their liberty in Guatemala

Racism and patriarchy present profound challenges within the Guatemalan prison system. The penal system is a reflection of the discrimination experienced by Indigenous women all over: for being women, Indigenous and poor. In the face of this adversity, the Colectivo Artesana promotes public policies that protect the human rights of Indigenous female prisoners. False accusations, planted evidence, fraudulent use of bank accounts and the absence of translation services during the legal process are among the many recurring irregularities.

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Epistemic violence against Indigenous Peoples

The world of the Q'eqchí. Photo: AEPDI - Q'eqchi Ombudsman Office

Injustice regarding the validity of ancestral knowledge has been one of the many racist practices established by the colony. For five centuries, a systematic attack has persisted, in a bid to bring an end to the creation, conservation and transmission of the knowledge of native peoples. In recent decades, religious fundamentalism has rebooted this symbolic violence to divide Indigenous communities and benefit from the installation of extractive projects and large-scale agricultural monocultures.

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Indigenous World 2019: Guatemala

Guatemala continues to suffer from a lack of reliable data on its indigenous peoples. The 2018 Population and Housing census’s ability to survey and report on the country’s ethnic dimension is limited, given that it has been conducted in the midst of an unprecedented political and institutional crisis. The data which will be generated as a result will likely mirror the figures from the last census in 2002, which estimated indigenous peoples at 45% of the population.

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The Indigenous World 2021: Guatemala

Guatemala has a population of 14.9 million people, of which 6.5 million (43.75%) belong to the 22 Mayan (Achi’, Akatec, Awakatec, Chalchitec, Ch’ortí, Chuj, Itzá, Ixil, Jacaltec, Kaqchikel, K’iche, Mam, Mopan, Poqomam, Poqomchí, Q’anjob’al, Q'eqchí, Sakapultec, Sipakapense, Tektitek, Tz’utujil and Uspantek), one Garífuna, one Xinca and one Creole or Afro-descendant peoples.

Indigenous people continue to lag behind Guatemalan society as a whole in terms of health, education, employment and income, a situation that is worse for Indigenous women. This is because structural racism lies at the root of the inequality and social exclusion, as well as of the violations of the fundamental rights, of Indigenous Peoples. Although the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala recognises the existence of Indigenous Peoples and calls itself a multicultural society, and despite the fact that the country has ratified international agreements on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, in practice, the social, economic and political gap between the Indigenous and non-indigenous population is a wide one. For example: the state invests USD 0.4 per day in each Indigenous person and USD 0.9 per day in each non-indigenous person;[1] poverty affects 75% of Indigenous people and 36% of non-indigenous people;[2] chronic malnutrition affects 58% of Indigenous people and 38% of non-indigenous people;[3] and, in terms of political participation, Indigenous individuals represent no more than 15% of parliamentarians and high-ranking public officials.

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Indigenous World 2020: Guatemala

According to figures from the 2018 census, Guatemala has a population of 14.9 million inhabitants, 6.5 million (43.75%) of which self-identify as Indigenous, from the Maya, Garífuna and Xinca Indigenous Peoples, or Creole (Afrodescendants). The Maya can be further divided into 24 groups: the Achi’, Akateco, Awakateco, Chalchiteco, Ch’orti’, Chuj, Itza’, Ixil, Jacalteco, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, Mopan, Poqomam, Poqomchi’, Q’anjob’al, Q’eqchi’, Sakapulteco, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Tz’utujil and Uspanteko.

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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.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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