• 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.

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.

Data from the census and from other specialist studies shows the deep inequalities that continue to exist between Indigenous and non-indigenous people, above all with regard to health, education, work and income, these inequalities being even greater when it comes to Indigenous women. The socio-economic situation of Indigenous people in Guatemala continues to show deep inequalities due to structural problems such as social exclusion, racism and dispossession of their livelihoods, all of which places them in a situation of poverty or extreme poverty. Poverty affects 75% of Indigenous and 36% of non-indigenous people,1 while chronic malnutrition affects 58% of Indigenous and 38% of non-indigenous people.2 The Constitution of the Republic does not recognise either the existence of Indigenous Peoples or the multicultural composition of society. The country has ratified UN agreements on Indigenous Peoples such as: ILO Convention 169 (which the Constitutional Court elevated to constitutional status in 2010, forcing the country to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including the right to prior consultation), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the FAO policy on Indigenous and tribal peoples. In practice, however, exclusion is prevalent, for example, in the national media, which prioritises Spanish as the official language while Indigenous languages have limited cover solely in the local media.

The population census and Indigenous Peoples

In September 2019, the Guatemalan Institute of Statistics submitted its report on the XII Census of the Population and VII Census on Housing, conducted in 2018.3 The results, widely challenged by different sectors of society, indicated that the country has a population of 14.9 million, 3.7 million more than at the time of the 2002 census, giving year-on-year growth of 1.8%. This is a significant demographic change to previous censuses, which had population growth nearer to 2.5% per year.

The census data offers significant findings for Indigenous Peoples in relation to the principle of self-identification. The Indigenous population, classified by the census into Maya (with their 22 ethnic groups), Garífuna, Xinca and Afrodescendants, are found across all of the country’s departments and municipalities, although each people has a clear geographic focus. While the 2002 census gave the Indigenous population as 39.26% of the total, this rose to 43.75% in 2018 (6.5 million), some 4.5 percent more than the last census. Even so, the Indigenous organisations felt that insufficient publicity had been undertaken to promote self-identification and that the actual census had been hampered by events arising due to the political crisis around the war on corruption and impunity. This emerged in 2015 and was a dominant feature until 2019 and was largely expressed in people’s mistrust in their current government, in some areas to such an extent that it was simply not possible to conduct the census.

Some Indigenous Peoples ran their own self-identification campaigns, and this did result in greater visibility; for example, between the 2002 and 2018 censuses, the Xinca population increased from 16,214 to 264,167 inhabitants, the Ch’orti’ from 46,833 to 112,432, the Garífuna from 5,040 to 19,529 and the Poqomchi’ from 114,423 to 208,008.4 Other peoples showed increases close to the country’s growth rate: for the first time, the category of Afrodescendant or Creole (27,647 inhabitants) was included, and also the Maya Chalchiteko people (33,541 inhabitants), who were officially recognised as a linguistic community in 2003.

There were also a number of controversial aspects, however. For example, the Uspanteko people declined from 7,494 to 4,909 inhabitants and, on closer inspection, other cases could be seen in which Indigenous Peoples who were more numerous in previous censuses had now virtually disappeared, reflecting the policy of denial and invisibility prevalent in many parts of the country. For example, in Quezaltepeque municipality, Chiquimula department, there was a drastic and rapid decline in the Indigenous population: it fell from 81.3% in 1955 to 22.51% in 1964, to 20.2% in 1973 and, by 2018, only 11 inhabitants were self-identifying out of a total population of 28,075, surprising when you consider that the organisation known as the Indigenous Community of Quezaltepeque operates in this municipality.

In sum, despite the notable 4.5% increase in Indigenous numbers within the country’s ethnic composition as a whole, far more effort is needed to ensure that censuses make better use of the principle of ethnic self-identification. This information must also be used to re-direct development policies towards a cultural perspective that embodies the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Corruption Pact and the end of CICIG’s mandate

The International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), established in 2006 by the United Nations, faced counter-attacks from those being denounced during 2019. The high-impact complaints submitted by the CICIG seemed to be giving Guatemalan society an opportunity to bring these scourges to an end but the 150+ high-ranking people held in preventive detention in a military barracks mobilised their resources and political influence throughout the year, bringing members of parliament, judges, politicians and business people together in the so-called “Corruption Pact” aimed at putting a stop to CICIG’s work.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2019, President Jimmy Morales (also singled out for corruption) accused CICIG of not following due process and called for an end to its operations. This was rejected by the UN Secretary General and so President Morales decided unilaterally not to renew CICIG’s mandate.

Indigenous Peoples made various legal complaints and mobilised against the action of the Corruption Pact, stating that this would be a great setback in the war on corruption and impunity; in addition, they warned that any re-establishment of the old power groups would weaken the justice system and increase Indigenous organisations’ vulnerability to people who would be able to act with total impunity to loot their natural resources and establish extractive projects on their territories.5

Exclusion and racism in the general elections

General elections took place in 2019 to elect the President and Vice-President, Members of the Congress of the Republic and local councillors. As in previous years, these elections highlighted once more the lack of Indigenous and women candidates standing for election.6  Of the 23 presidential slates, only four had Indigenous candidates, the case of Ms Telma Cabrera, an Indigenous leader from the Maya Mam, being the most notable. She came fourth, the highest place achieved thus far by an Indigenous candidate, and would have had a good chance of reaching the second round had the negative campaign run against her denigrating her for being a woman, Indigenous and a social activist not affected her chances.

Yet again, no more than 10% of members elected to the Congress of the Republic are Indigenous, in contrast to the 44% of the population who self-identify as such, according to the latest census. Moreover, Indigenous congressmen and women run as part of a political party and not in accordance with Indigenous Peoples’ principles, so their legislative representation is severely disadvantaged. Overcoming this problem of poor Indigenous and female representation in the Congress of the Republic was one of the proposals included in the frustrated constitutional reforms that were not approved by Congress. Indigenous participation was, by contrast, greater at local level, particularly in municipalities with a higher proportion of Indigenous population.

One concern for Indigenous Peoples was the formation of a Security Cabinet, announced by the new government and featuring former members of the military who were active during the armed conflict that blighted the country from 1960 to 1996, resulting in thousand of primarily Indigenous deaths. The social organisations believe that this situation represents a threat to the continuity of court cases for genocide that are currently being prosecuted against former soldiers involved in massacres of the Indigenous population.7

Migrant caravans and Safe Third Country Agreement

The tightening of US migration policy, including the construction of a wall along its southern border, limited granting of visas and mass deportations, has been aimed at the Central American countries of the so-called “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, three countries which generate large flows of migrants seeking to escape poverty, corruption and impunity along with the violence that is prevalent in the region.

Under pressure from the United States, which was threatening the imposition of economic sanctions, Mexico and the three countries of the Northern Triangle have undertaken to reduce their migrant flows, and they have had to sign up to the Safe Third Country Agreement, meaning they must receive and house migrants from any country in the world while they process their applications for US visas. Massive migrant caravans coming from Honduras and El Salvador crossed Guatemala for the Mexican border in 2019 with the aim of continuing onwards to the United States.

This has represented a harsh blow to Indigenous Peoples’ right to migrate, especially when one considers that migration has historically formed one of their main options for family survival. In addition to this, the money sent home by these migrants has been a primary source of foreign currency for all three countries for the last 10 years.

Dubious hydroelectric projects

The hydroelectric projects that are being established or planned on Indigenous territories have been strongly criticised for failing to comply with environmental laws and violating the right of the Indigenous Peoples affected to be consulted and yet the planned work continues apace due to the government’s collusion. At the end of 2019, the government approved the Rocjá Pontilá Project of the Hidro Energía S.A. company on Maya Q’eqchi territory in Alta Verapaz department8 despite opposition from both governmental and non-governmental bodies who warned that this project would form a serious threat both to the ecosystem of the Laguna de Lachúa National Park, considered a sanctuary of biological diversity, and to the livelihoods of the Indigenous population. For its part, in 2019 the Spanish National Contact Point (PNC), responsible for meeting the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises,9 ruled on a case that had been submitted to it by the Alliance for Solidarity (AxS). This related to the role of a Spanish company, Cobra del Grupo ACS, in the Guatemalan company Corporación Multi Inversiones S.A’s construction of the RENACE hydroelectric complex. This complex consists of four projects on the Cahabón River in Alta Verapaz department, part of the Maya Q’eqchi territory. The report concluded that the Spanish company had failed to meet the OECD Guidelines, specifically Chapter V on the Environment and Chapter II General Principles A.2 and A.10.10

The Spanish PNC felt that significant changes had occurred in some reaches of the Cahabón River within the project’s area of influence, with potentially negative effects on the local communities. In addition, they recommended that the Spanish company insist that its local partner, Corporación Multi Inversiones, participate actively in the process, proactively seeking ways in which to improve the quality of life of the local communities, demonstrating an interest and commitment to their well-being and working with the Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice to implement the judgment that requires a community consultation to be held, as well as helping the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to conduct a new independent environmental impact assessment.

Criminalisation of Indigenous rights defenders

The report of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, presented to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination during the country review (session 98/2019),11 indicates that there has been no significant progress in human rights for Indigenous Peoples. No legislation has been adopted, for example, with regard to access to, respect for, registration or security of the ancestral ownership of Indigenous lands; in contrast, evictions are continuing without Indigenous Peoples having had due process through the courts. Ten draft bills of law on Indigenous issues, including the Law on Indigenous Jurisdiction and the General Law on Indigenous Peoples, made no progress through the Congress of the Republic in 2019, demonstrating the legislators’ lack of interest in these issues, and the structural discrimination that is prevalent in Guatemalan society.

This report also indicated that the state had neither respected Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their lands and territories, nor their self-determination. The government does not guarantee prior consultation; quite the contrary, it is continuing to grant licences to the extractive industries in Indigenous territories and to criminalise human rights defenders. During the year, numerous attacks, aggression and threats were reported against human rights defenders and communities, with a growing number of murders and imprisonments of Indigenous leaders. The report indicates that, in the first six months of 2019 alone, there were 327 attacks on human rights defenders, including 12 murders, 18 attempted murders and 61 cases of criminalisation.12


Notes and references

  1. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala”. December 2015: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/ pdfs/Guatemala2017-en.pdf
  2. Ministry of Food and Nutritional Security (SESAN), Government of the Republic of Guatemala. “Análisis de Situación, nutricional de Guatemala”. Last accessed 14 February 2020, available at: http://www.sesan.gob.gt/wordpress/wp- content/uploads/2018/05/Situacion-SAN-Guatemala-dia-1.pdf
  3. Guatemalan Institute of Statistics, XII Censo Nacional de Población y VII de Vivienda. Last accessed 14 February 2020: https://www.censopoblacion.gt/
  4. Guatemalan Institute of Statistics, XII Censo Nacional de Población y VII de Vivienda. Resultados del Censo 2018. Last accessed 14 February 2020: https:// censopoblacion.gt/explorador
  5. “ONU urge de nuevo a Guatemala garantizar sistema de justicia independiente contra corrupción e impunidad”. El Periódico, 11 February 2019: https://com.gt/nacion/2019/02/11/onu-urge-de-nuevo-a-guatemala- garantizar-sistema-de-justicia-independiente-contra-corrupcion-e- impunidad/
  6. “Misión de la OEA resalta desigual participación de mujeres e indígenas en la política guatemalteca”. El Periódico, 13 August 2019: https://elperiodico.com. gt/nacion/2019/08/13/mision-de-la-oea-resalta-desigual-participacion-de- mujeres-e-indigenas-en-la-politica-guatemalteca/
  7. “Militares integran Gabinete de Seguridad de Alejandro Giammatte”. El Periódico, 13 August 2019: https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacion/2019/10/25/ militares-integran-gabinete-de-seguridad-de-alejandro-giammattei/
  8. “Gobierno de Jimmy Morales dejó aprobado proyecto hidroeléctrico Pontilá”. El Periódico, 29 January 2020: https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacion/2020/01/29/ gobierno-de-jimmy-morales-dejo-aprobado-proyecto-hidroelectrico- pontila89/
  9. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. 2013: https://www.oecd.org/corporate/ mne/
  10. Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Government of Spain. “Línea Directrices de la OCDE para Empresas Multinacionales – Punto Nacional de Contacto Español”. Last accessed 14 February 2019: http://www.comercio. mineco.gob.es/es-ES/inversiones-exteriores/punto-nacional-contacto-lineas- directrices/PDF/191216-Informe-Final-caso-E-00007.pdf
  11. Informe del Procurador de los Derechos Humanos de Guatemala al Comité de Naciones Unidas para la eliminación de la Discriminación Racial con ocasión del examen de país (sesión 98/2019). Last accessed 14 February 2019: https:// tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/GTM/INT_CERD_ IFN_GTM_34504_S.pdf
  12. “Guatemala: 327 agresiones a personas defensoras en 2019”. International Federation for Human Rights, 5 August 2019: https://www.fidh.org/es/temas/ defensores-de-derechos-humanos/guatemala-327-agresiones-a-personas- defensoras-en-2019

Silvel Elías is a lecturer in the Agronomy Faculty of the San Carlos de Guatemala University.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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