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.
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.
The case of the indigenous women of Sepur Zarco, who have suffered from sexual violence, finally comes to court next week. They will be testifying against impunity.
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.
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.
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.”
Carlos Chen Osorio is the only survivor of a Mayan Achí family whose members were brutally slaughtered by the army in five different massacres perpetrated during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war against the inhabitants of Río Negro, a town in the northeastern department of Baja Verapaz. Chen lost 40 family members and today he leads the Association for the Integral Development of Mayan Achí Victims of Violence, an indigenous organization based in Baja Verapaz that seeks compensation for war victims.