• 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.

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.

Guatemala has ratified ILO Convention 169 (which the Constitutional Court elevated to constitutional status in 2010, obliging the country to recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples), the United Nations 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. However, in practice, exclusion is prevalent. For example, there is a national media that prioritises Spanish as the official language while the Indigenous language media have only limited local coverage.


The year 2020 began with newly-elected representatives to the Presidency, Congress and local councils, coinciding precisely with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic shone a light on the social exclusion and structural racism affecting Guatemala’s Indigenous population, and severely affected their living conditions, exacerbating their poverty and food insecurity. And yet the pandemic also showed how resilient Indigenous people can be when faced with these situations, drawing on their knowledge of traditional medicine, good living, territorial governance and solidarity.

The pandemic did not stop the Indigenous struggle for recognition of their fundamental rights, although criminalisation of land and territorial defenders also increased. Even more than its predecessors, the new government has shown a lack of interest in Indigenous issues, taking the structural racism that persists in Guatemalan society to new levels not seen since the signing of the Peace Accords (1996).

From pandemic to pandemic

And behold, during the 25th year (1520) the plague appeared, oh my children! First, they were sick with coughs, they suffered from nose bleeds and urinary infections. It was truly terrible the number of deaths that occurred at that time.

This is how the Memorial de Sololá, Anales de los Kaqchikeles [Memories of Sololá, Annals of the Kaqchikel][4] relates the pandemic brought by the Europeans, which spread rapidly among the native population. Historians estimate that, by 1525, when the Spanish invasion of Guatemala took place, the native population had already plummeted by 50% and, 25 years later, by 80%. To the epidemiological causes of this demographic debacle must be added the war and forced labour to which Indigenous people were subjected. Diseases against which they have no immunity have been a recurrent feature of their history and, together with wars, exploitation of their labour and abuses in the form of the collection of taxes, have been the cause of the disappearance of numerous Indigenous communities.[5]

Vulnerability and racism

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the profound ethnic inequality that continues to prevail in Guatemalan society. Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable due to poverty, social exclusion and structural racism. According to the multidimensional poverty index, the rate of poverty is 80% among Indigenous people and 50.1% among non-indigenous people,[6] thus creating an unequal basis from which to attempt to prevent the pandemic in terms of frequent hand washing, the use of masks, disinfectants and essential medicines, items that most Indigenous people simply cannot afford.

Social exclusion is demonstrated in a lack of health services sufficiently equipped to meet the needs of the Indigenous population, especially those living in remote areas.[7] The pandemic has shed light on the neglect of the health system generally as a result of privatisation policies. The few hospitals and health centres operational were already on their knees before the pandemic and, although the government boasted of its investment in their improvement, in reality this related only to a few temporary centres with makeshift equipment that did not live up to the needs of the situation.

Structural racism has further manifested itself in the failure to include Indigenous therapies and healers in prevention and treatment programmes. There have also been no culturally-relevant communication programmes in native languages. In addition, many of the lockdown measures were not evenly implemented. In the city of Sololá, Indigenous people blocked the Inter-American highway in protest at the government's restriction on the transportation of local products while large companies were exempt.[8]

In the midst of the pandemic, in an act not seen since the end of the civil war, the President of the Republic, Alejandro Gammattei, publicly humiliated the Indigenous mayor of the Kaqchikel people of Comalapa, Chimaltenango. This affront marked a rift between the government and the Indigenous people, who denounced this racist and overbearing treatment and demanded substantial changes in the way the state is run.[9]

The government formed a State Council to address issues of national importance, including strategies to address COVID-19, to which various sectors of the country (businessmen, religious leaders, civil society) were invited. In clear demonstration of the prevailing structural racism, however, Indigenous organisations were excluded. At a meeting to establish strategies to face up to tropical storm Iota, the President of the Republic deliberately denied entry to the Mayor of San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz, an indigenous Q’eqchí, despite the fact that his municipality was one of the most affected by the storm.[10]

In addition, the promise of economic support consisting of USD 400 distributed in three monthly payments to those with an electricity bill was reduced to a total of USD 165 with no explanation as to the reasons for the reduction, in addition to which thousands of Indigenous families with no electricity were excluded from this support.[11]

Impact on living conditions

The most severe impact of the pandemic on Guatemala’s Indigenous population has undoubtedly been the loss of human life, especially the elderly, healers, midwives, spiritual guides, men and women who have fallen victim to this disease. One unfortunate loss was that of Mr. Reginaldo Chayax Huex, leader of the Maya Itzá people in Petén department. He devoted his life to his people’s cultural revival, including their endangered native language, herbalism and natural medicine. He was also a great promoter of environmental protection through the creation of the Bioitza Indigenous Community Reserve.[12]

The pandemic has also made living conditions, particularly for the Indigenous population, more difficult due to the restrictions on movement and access to markets and sources of labour. People have been unable to travel in order to study, work, sell their products or purchase supplies for their various activities. As a result, poverty and food insecurity have increased and the greatest effects will be felt in the immediate future.

The impacts on Indigenous women emerged in the additional workload they had to endure in relation to household tasks and the impossibility of carrying out their economic activities. In fact, they have been more restricted than men in terms of their mobility both inside and outside their communities. 

Indigenous Peoples’ strategies for dealing with the pandemic

Despite the severe impacts of the pandemic, the Indigenous Peoples have been resilient, mobilising their traditional knowledge and practices for the prevention and treatment of disease in the face of delayed and insufficient government assistance. Indigenous medicine has been important for strengthening the immune system, controlling fever and reducing respiratory congestion. This largely comprises native plants found on the ancestral territories, both in backyard gardens and in natural areas protected by the communities. The traditional use of steam baths (tuj, chuj or temascal) using native plants has been used since ancient times to improve the immune system and is frequently used by midwives in their therapies.

The Q’eqchí people use infusions of wild guava leaves (Psidium guajava); the Ch’ortí use Quina (Cinchona officinalis), a plant from which quinine, the active component for treating malaria, is extracted. The plant known as Tres Puntas (Neurolaena lobata) has also been used, which is attributed with antibiotic, antimalarial, antiophidic and anti-inflammatory properties. Plantain (Plantago major), known for its expectorant properties, is also drawn up.

Although the official health services do not acknowledge that Indigenous medicine is capable of preventing or treating COVID-19, Indigenous Peoples continue to rely on their own therapies. On International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous organisations stressed the need to be included and participating in COVID-19 response strategies, asked to be consulted and demanded culturally-relevant approaches.

For the Indigenous communities, the pandemic has resulted in a re-evaluation of traditional medicine and of healthy eating based on native products and has reaffirmed the need to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and to defend their ancestral territories.

Where’s the money?

There were several peaceful demonstrations in November 2020 across the country protesting at the abuse of power, corruption, discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, and the lack of government attention to the pandemic, along with the alleged approval of an unrealistic budget for the country.[13] The government suppressed these protests, resulting in deaths, injuries and arrests. The K’iché Indigenous organisation of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, the Xinca People’s Parliament and the Indigenous Peoples of Sololá led a further protest in the capital for the same reasons.[14] Economic support for the social groups that are most vulnerable to the pandemic came too little too late, despite Congress having approved specific funds for this purpose. With the slogan: Where’s the money? society demanded transparency and fairness in the use of public funds.

Beyond the pandemic

In October and November 2020, the Central American region was devastated by hurricanes Eta and Iota, wreaking havoc on the people and their livelihoods, especially the Indigenous Peoples of the Atlantic Coast or Northern Lowlands. In Guatemala, those most affected were the Q'eqchí, Poqomchí, Ixil, Mam and Ch’orti peoples. Quejá, an indigenous Poqomchí community in San Cristóbal Verapaz, Alta Verapaz department, suffered a landslide that resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people, with at least 100 more missing.[15] Then, tropical storm Iota caused huge devastation, including the flooding of several towns that were subsequently declared uninhabitable, such as Campur and Sesajal, two Q'eqchí communities in San Pedro Charchá, in Alta Verapaz department, where around 900 homes were completely submerged.[16]

There was no halt to the criminalisation of community members defending their territories and natural resources from dispossession and extractivism despite the pandemic. One widely repudiated act was the murder of Domingo Choc, a Q’eqchí Indigenous healer from San Luis, Petén department. Domingo Choc was murdered in his own community, accused of practising witchcraft. This reflects the systematic way in which the production, preservation and transmission of native peoples’ wisdom is attacked in an attempt to impose other ways of knowing, thinking and believing. It is a clear manifestation of epistemic inequality in which Indigenous knowledge is underestimated for its supposed lack of scientific rigour or is cancelled completely because it goes against the beliefs of the dominant religions.[17]

The following individuals were also murdered over the year: Alberto Cucul Cho (Q’eqchí park ranger), Medardo Alonzo (Ch’ortí leader), Fidel López (peasant leader), Abel Raymundo (Ch’ortí leader), Benoît Maria (French citizen dedicated to defending Indigenous Peoples), Misael López Catalán (community leader), Carlos Mucú Pop (Q’eqchí leader) and an Indigenous leader from Purulha, Baja Verapaz, among others. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) emphasises that these events targeted people who were defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights.[18]

Among the more positive aspects of the year, the following are noteworthy: a) the appointment of Mr. Francisco Calí, an indigenous Kaqchikel, as UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples;[19] b) four favourable rulings issued by the Constitutional Court in favour of the restitution of Indigenous ancestral lands to the Ixil and Ch’ortí peoples, promoted by the Mesa de Tierras Comunales [Community Lands Board];[20], [21] c) the ruling of the Constitutional Court suspending the activities of the CGN mining company operating in Q’echí territory and requiring consultation of the community;[22] and d) the recognition by the municipal authorities of Itzapa, Escuintla department, and Taxisco, Santa Rosa department, of the Xinca and Mestizo communities’ rights of ownership and ancestral occupation of their ancestral territories located in the Pacific Coastal Region.[23]


Silvel Elías is Maya K’iché, lecturer and coordinator of the Rural and Territorial Studies Programme (PERT) in the Faculty of Agronomy of the San Carlos de Guatemala University.

This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here



Notes and references

[1]Inversión en pueblos indígenas, según el presupuesto ejecutado en 2015.” [Investment in Indigenous Peoples, according to the 2015 budget implemented] Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies Guatemala, July 2017. https://www.icefi.org/sites/default/files/inversion_en_pueblos_indigenas_0.pdf

[2]Situación de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala.” [Human Rights situation in Guatemala] Guatemala, IACHR, 31 December 2020. http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/multimedia/2016/guatemala/guatemala.html

[3]Análisis de situación, nutricional de Guatemala.” [Analysis of Guatemala’s nutritional status] Ministry of Food Security and Nutrition. http://www.sesan.gob.gt/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Situacion-SAN-Guatemala-dia-1.pdf

[4]Memorial de Sololá Anales de los Cakchiqueles.” Direct translation from the original and notes by Adrián Recinos. Editorial Piedra Santa. Guatemala. 2006.

[5] Martinez, Francisco Mauricio. “Los pueblos coloniales de la costa sur de Guatemala.” [The colonial villages of Guatemala's south coast], Prensa Libre, 22 January 2017. https://www.prensalibre.com/revista-d/los-pueblos-coloniales-de-la-costa-sur/

[6]Guatemala afronta una pobreza multidimensional del 61%”. [Guatemala suffering 61% multidimensional poverty”] El Economista, 26 November 2019. https://www.eleconomista.net/actualidad/Guatemala-afronta-una-pobreza-multidimensional-del-61-20191126-0028.html

[7] Montepeque, Ferdy. “Pueblos indígenas, los más vulnerables ante el COVID-19.” [Indigenous Peoples most vulnerable to COVID-19]. El Periódico, 23 May 2020. https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacionales/2020/05/23/pueblos-indigenas-los-mas-vulnerables-ante-el-covid-19/

[8] Escobar, Erving. “Productores de verduras bloquean Los Encuentros a pesar del confinamiento por el coronavirus” [Vegetable producers block Los Encuentros in spite of coronavirus lockdown] Prensa Libre, 15 May 2020. https://www.prensalibre.com/ciudades/solola/giammattei-responde-a-campesinos-que-bloquearon-los-encuentros-a-pesar-del-confinamiento-por-el-coronavirus-breaking/

[9]Indígenas cierran caminos en Guatemala para exigir la renuncia del presidente.” [Indigenous peoples close roads in Guatemala to demand President's resignation] Infobae, 9 December 2020. https://www.infobae.com/america/agencias/2020/12/10/indigenas-cierran-caminos-en-guatemala-para-exigir-renuncia-del-presidente

[10] Vega, Juan Manuel. “Niegan el ingreso al alcalde de Carcha a reunión con el presidente Alejandro Giammattei.” [Carcha Mayor denied entry to meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei] Prensa Libre, 7 November 2020. https://www.prensalibre.com/ciudades/alta-verapaz/niegan-ingreso-a-alcalde-de-carcha-a-reunion-con-el-presidente-alejandro-giammattei/

[11]Bono familia: negocio para algunos, falsa expectativa para otros.” [Family voucher: business for some, false expectations for others] Perspectiva, 22 July 2020. https://www.perspectiva.gt/noticias/bono-familia-negocio-para-algunos-falsa-expectativa-para-otros/

[12]Reginaldo Chayax Huex.” The New York Times, 11 October 2020. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=reginaldo-chayax-huex&pid=196929391

[13]Un incendio premeditado y gases lacrimógenos esperaban a una manifestación pacífica.” [Arson and tear gas awaited peaceful demonstration] El Periódico, 22 November 2020. https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacionales/2020/11/22/un-incendio-premeditado-y-gases-lacrimogenos-esperaban-a-una-manifestacion-pacifica/

[14]Pueblos indígenas denuncian abuso de autoridad por parte del gobierno actual.” [Indigenous Peoples denounce government’s abuse of authority] El Periódico, 24 November 2020. https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacionales/2020/11/24/pueblos-indigenas-denuncian-abuso-de-autoridad-por-parte-del-gobierno-actual/

[15] Barrientos Castañeda, Miguel, “Tragedia en Quejá, San Cristobal Verapaz: suspenden búsqueda por ETA.” [Tragedy in Quejá, San Cristobal Verapaz: search suspended by Eta] Prensa Libre, 10 November 2020. https://www.prensalibre.com/ciudades/alta-verapaz/tragedia-en-queja-san-cristobal-verapaz-suspenden-busqueda-de-victimas-por-eta/

[16] Oliva, William. “Estamos viviendo entre escombros.” [We are living in the ruins] Guatevisión, 10 January 2021. https://www.guatevision.com/nacionales/departamentos/estamos-viviendo-entre-escombros-a-mas-de-dos-meses-de-la-inundacion-en-campur-gobierno-aun-analiza-que-acciones-tomar

[17] Elías, Silvel. “La violencia epistémica contra los pueblos indígenas.” [Epistemic violence against Indigenous Peoples] Debates Indígenas, 1 August 2020. https://debatesindigenas.org/ENG/ns/59-epistemic-violence.html

[18]La CIDH condena asesinatos y agresiones contra personas defensoras en Guatemala.” [IACHR condemns murders and aggression against human rights defenders in Guatemala] OAS, 11 September 2020. http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2020/215.asp

[19]El guatemalteco José Calí fue nombrado relator de ONU para Pueblos Indígenas.” [Guatemalan José Calí appointed UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples] El Periódico, 30 April 2020. https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacionales/2020/04/30/el-guatemalteco-jose-cali-fue-nombrado-relator-de-onu-para-pueblos-indigenas2/

[20] Herrera, Feliciana. “Nebaj: derechos de tierras ejidales es restituido al pueblo Ixil.” [Nebaj: ejido land rights restored to the Ixil people] Prensa Comunitaria, 4 August 2020. https://www.prensacomunitaria.org/2020/08/nebaj-derecho-de-tierras-ejidales-es-restituido-al-pueblo-ixil/

[21]Tres comunidades vencieron a las municipalidades que intentaban usurpara sus tierras.” [Three communities defeated municipalities trying to usurp their land] Nómada, 17 August 2020. https://nomada.gt/identidades/guatemala-rural/3-comunidades-vencieron-a-las-municipalidades-que-intentaban-usurpar-sus-tierras/

[22] Toro, David. “CC: la mina CNG no puede trabajar hasta que se realice consulta comunitaria y delimite el terreno de operaciones.” [CC: the CNG mine cannot operate until community consultation implemented and area of operations demarcated], Prensa Comunitaria, 19 June 2020. https://www.prensacomunitaria.org/2020/06/cc-la-mina-cgn-no-puede-trabajar-hasta-que-se-realice-consulta-comunitaria-y-delimite-terreno-de-operaciones/

[23] Comudinch. “Comunidades Xinkas de la Costa Pacífica y comunidades Maya Che` Orti` convocan a conferencia de prensa.” [Xinka communities of the Pacific Coast and Maya Che’Ortí communities call press conference] Facebook, 31 October 2019. https://www.facebook.com/comundichgt/photos/a.110418727061610/110417707061712/?type=3



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