• 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 2024: Guatemala

Guatemala’s projected population was 17.6 million for 2023,[1] of which 43.75% belong to the Mayan (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), Garifuna, Xinka and Creole or Afrodescendant peoples.

Indigenous people continue to lag behind Guatemalan society as a whole in terms of health, education, employment and income, a situation that is even worse for Indigenous women. This is because structural racism lies at the root of their inequality and social exclusion, as well as the violations of their fundamental rights.

Although the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala recognizes the existence of Indigenous Peoples and assumes it to be a multicultural society, and despite the fact that the country has ratified international agreements on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, in practice there is a widespread socioeconomic and political gap between Indigenous Peoples and the non-indigenous population. For example, the State spends USD 0.4 per day on each Indigenous person and USD 0.9 per day on each non-Indigenous person,[2] poverty affects 75% of Indigenous people and 36% of non-Indigenous people,[3] chronic malnutrition affects 58% of Indigenous people compared to 38% of non-Indigenous people.[4] In terms of political participation, Indigenous people represent no more than 15% of members of parliament and high-ranking public officials.

Guatemala has ratified ILO Convention 169, which has had constitutional status since 2010, and this requires it to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The country has also signed up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s policy on Indigenous and tribal peoples. In practice, exclusion, discrimination and structural racism prevail.

In August 2023, with broad popular support, the country elected Bernardo Arévalo and Karen Herrera as President and Vice-President of the Republic, respectively. The ensuing five months nonetheless descended into the worst political crisis of the last three decades, as the so-called “Pact of the Corrupt” attempted to block their inauguration, which took place in January 2024.

2023 electoral process: Indigenous Peoples as protagonists in the defence of democracy

The most significant issue for Indigenous Peoples throughout 2023 was their position regarding the presidential, legislative and municipal elections.[5] The process began with the annulment of the Indigenous candidate, Thelma Cabrera, who had managed to come fourth in the 2019 election and whom the business sector labelled as a radical leftist. Her elimination was not directed specifically against her, however, but rather against her running mate, Jordán Rodas, former Human Rights Ombudsman, for failing to obtain a discharge statement from the Comptroller General's Office attesting that he had no outstanding accounts with the State. Rodas claimed that, at the time of his registration, he did in fact have this document.[6]

The event that turned these elections into something extraordinary was the victory of Bernardo Arévalo and Karen Herrera from the Movimiento Semilla [Seed Movement] political party, resulting in the greatest political upheaval in the country for the last three decades. The Public Prosecutor's Office scaled up its attacks on the winning party and the electoral authorities, including the thousands of citizen volunteers who had made up the electoral boards and staffed the polling stations, all in a clear attempt to get the result overturned. In an unprecedented action, the Public Prosecutor’s Office went as far as to seize the electoral records and ballots and order legal action against the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, declaring the elections null and void.[7]

In response to this situation – described by the Organization of American States (OAS) as an attempted coup d’état[8] – broad sectors of the population took to the streets in mass mobilizations which, at their peak, brought the country to a halt. The main demand was for the resignation of the Attorney General and Head of the Public Prosecutor's Office, the head of the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity and one of the judges who had endorsed the actions overturning the electoral process.

The Indigenous organizations were at the forefront of these social mobilizations to defend democracy and the electoral process, calling for and leading the protests from 4 October 2023 outside the offices of the Public Prosecutor,[9] and it is thanks to their struggle that the inauguration of the elected authorities was able to go ahead on 14 January 2024.[10] The ancestral authorities of the Indigenous Peoples proposed that the new government establish permanent dialogue and co-government, with an agenda based on the full and effective recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.[11]

Territorial rights: landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favour of communities of the Maya Q'eqchi' people

In its ruling of 16 May 2023, issued on 15 December of the same year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the State of Guatemala for human rights violations against the Indigenous Maya Q'eqchi' community of Agua Caliente Lote 9, located in El Estor municipality, Izabal department. In particular, the Court took into account the lack of response to Indigenous requests made for more than 40 years asking for guarantees of the right to collective ownership of their ancestral lands.[12] In 2006, without prior consultation of the community, the State granted a mining licence for the extraction of nickel and other minerals to a company currently operating with Russian capital, and which was accused of corruption by the U.S. government.[13] The Court's ruling obliges the State of Guatemala to collectively title and demarcate the ancestral lands of this community, to consult with the Indigenous Peoples according to their own criteria and customs, to get independent bodies to prepare a new environmental and social impact study, to conduct a consultation process, to prevent State actors or third parties from affecting the existence, value, use or enjoyment of the Indigenous community's territory and to legislate to enforce the right to consultation with the country's Indigenous Peoples.[14]

Fighting for the restitution of ancestral land rights

During 2023, Indigenous Peoples, especially the Ixil, Q'eqchi, Ch'orti', Xinka, Mam and Kiche', continued to file legal claims through the country's courts for the restitution of land that has been taken from them. Some cases were not admitted for constitutional protection and were instead referred to the ordinary courts to be treated as civil cases, which could take many years to be resolved.

Evictions of Indigenous communities continued alongside this, largely in Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz departments where the vast area covered by extractive activities and agricultural monocultures continues to expand. Landowners ramped up their repression of the communities and carried out judicial or extrajudicial actions to expel Indigenous families. A report by Peace Brigades International noted the numerous evictions and lack of government action to prevent the use of force and illegitimate violence and, in general, the lack of legal and institutional recognition of the collective rights of Indigenous communities.[15] One important area of progress was the ruling issued by a court that requires the Attorney General's Office to pay dignified reparations to the Samococh community, Chisec municipality, Alta Verapaz department, which was the victim of a violent eviction in 2014 in which several community members were killed.[16]

At the same time, landowners increased their pressure for institutional support, for example, by having the Public Prosecutor's Office set up permanent offices at which to report land grabs within the Second Property Registry located in Quetzaltenango.[17]

Indigenous women's rights to lands and territories

A report produced by the Tz'ununija' Indigenous Women's Movement, as an input for the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review at the 42nd session of the Working Group of the Human Rights Council, highlighted the extent to which Indigenous women lag behind in their fundamental rights, such as the right to land and territory. It notes that women continue to be left out of rural development and land access programmes and are the people most affected by violent evictions and agrarian conflict.[18]

Consultation on mining projects in Indigenous territories

Following up on the order issued in 2017 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to consult the Xinka Indigenous people on the El Escobal mining project, operated by the Canadian-owned Pan American Silver Guatemala, the government reported that significant progress was made in the process in 2023. Eight plenary meetings, 18 intermediate meetings and nine field activities were held between the parliamentary authorities of the Xinka people and the government institutions involved in the consultation. However, following up on the plans established has been left to the incoming government.[19]

In the Xinka and mestizo territory of Asunción Mita municipality, in Jutiapa, adjacent to Lake Güija, which Guatemala shares with El Salvador, the Constitutional Court declared the local consultation held last year, in which people rejected the operations of the Cerro Blanco mine on their territory, to be invalid. In the ruling, the Court argued that Asunción Mita municipality had overstepped its powers since it was not within its remit to decide on “projects of social interest and collective benefit”, and the results of the consultation could therefore not be considered binding.[20]

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Observatorio de Industrias Extractivas [Extractive Industries Observatory / OIE] in the Maya Ch'orti Indigenous territory revealed that extractive activities have exacerbated the precarious socioeconomic conditions and vulnerability of the La Prensa, El Amatillo, El Carrizal, El Cerrón, La Cumbre and El Paternito communities in Olopa municipality, Chiquimula department, near the Cantera Los Manantiales mine. There has been a perceived increase in disease, social division, community violence, shortages of water, reduced agricultural production and further environmental degradation.[21]

Late compliance with the Inter-American Court's judgement on community radio stations

The State of Guatemala was two years late in complying with its obligation to publish, in the Spanish and Mayan languages and in the newspaper with the widest circulation, the 2021 Inter-American Court decision in the case of Maya Kaqchikel de Sumpango Indigenous Peoples et al vs Guatemala. Guatemala was shown to have violated the rights of freedom of expression, equality before the law and participation in the cultural life of communities of four of the country's Indigenous Peoples. Finally, the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights published it in Spanish on 24 November, with publication in Mayan languages pending. In relation to this case, the Public Prosecutor's Office stated that it could not stop the legal proceedings against Indigenous communicators until a reform of the Penal Code had taken place.[22]

Migrant tragedy affects Indigenous people disproportionately

Among those migrants who have lost their lives in their attempts to reach the United States are many hundreds of Indigenous people, who are forced to undertake the journey, despite the great risk, because of a lack of opportunities for a better life in Guatemala. The departments with majority Indigenous populations are those with the greatest outflow of migrants: Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Totonicapán, and Quiché, among others. On 27 March 2023, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, 17 young Indigenous Guatemalans from Comitancillo municipality, San Marcos department, lost their lives in a fire.[23] The U.S. Agency for International Development is supporting programmes focused on Indigenous Peoples, women and youth in Guatemala aimed at addressing the lack of economic opportunities, insecurity and inadequate access to basic services and enabling them to achieve prosperous, safe and dignified lives.[24] And yet the migration policy published this year makes no reference and does not include and specific actions to address the migration situation of the Indigenous population.[25]



Silvel Elías is an Indigenous Mayan K'iche, professor and coordinator of the Rural and Territorial Studies Programme (PERT) at the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of San Carlos de Guatemala.

This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] “Estimaciones y proyecciones de la población total según sexo y edad. Revisión 2019.” https://view.officeapps.live.com/op/view.aspx?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ine.gob.gt%2Fine%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2020%2F08%2FEstimaciones_y_proyecciones_de_poblacion-1950-2050.xlsx&wdOrigin=BROWSELINK

[2] Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. “Inversión en pueblos indígenas, según el presupuesto ejecutado en 2015.” Guatemala, July 2017. https://www.icefi.org/sites/default/files/inversion_en_pueblos_indigenas_0.pdf

[3] IACHR. “Situación de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala.” 31 December 2015. http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/multimedia/2016/guatemala/guatemala.html

[4] Ministry of Food and Nutrition Security of the Presidency of the Republic. “Análisis de situación nutricional de Guatemala.” http://www.sesan.gob.gt/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Situacion-SAN-Guatemala-dia-1.pdf

[5] Del Aguila, L., Speck. M. “Guatemala: Líderes Indígenas Encabezan Campaña por la Democracia a Nivel Nacional.” United States Institute of Peace (usip.org), 2023. https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/10/guatemala-lideres-indigenas-encabezan-campana-por-la-democracia-nivel-nacional

[6] “Guatemala: Dejan fuera de elecciones a partido de izquierda.” VOA, 2 May 2023. https://www.vozdeamerica.com/a/guatemala-dejan-fuera-de-elecciones-a-partido-de-izquierda/7075947.html

[7] “El MP dice que las elecciones generales 2023 son nulas por actas 4.” La Hora, 8 December 2023. https://lahora.gt/nacionales/la-hora/2023/12/08/el-mp-dice-que-las-elecciones-generales-2023-son-nulas-por-actas-4/

[8] Rivera, D. “OEA condena intento de golpe de estado en Guatemala.” Soy 502, 8 December 2023. https://www.soy502.com/articulo/oea-condena-intento-golpe-estado-guatemala-101567

[9] Escobar, G. “Pueblos indígenas en asamblea permanente luego de la conferencia del MP.” La Hora, 8 December 2023. https://lahora.gt/nacionales/jescobar/2023/12/08/pueblos-indigenas-en-asamblea-permanente-luego-de-la-conferencia-del-mp/

[10] “Indígenas de Guatemala cumplen tres meses de protesta contra la fiscal general.” SwissIngo, 2 January 2024. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/guatemala-elecciones_ind%C3%ADgenas-de-guatemala-cumplen-tres-meses-de-protesta-contra-la-fiscal-general/49097108

[11] Véliz, C. “Líderes indígenas proponen a Arévalo instancia de diálogo permanente.” La Hora, 4 January 2024. https://lahora.gt/nacionales/cveliz/2024/01/04/lideres-indigenas-proponen-a-arevalo-instancia-de-dialogo-permanente/

[12] Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Maya Q'eqchi' Agua Caliente Indigenous community vs Guatemala.” 16 May 2023. https://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_488_esp.pdf

[13] “Guatemala: Otras dos minas rusas cierran por sanción de EEUU.” VOA, 1 March 2023. https://www.vozdeamerica.com/a/guatemala-otras-dos-minas-rusas-cierran-por-sancion-de-eeuu/6986203.html

[14] “La CorteIDH ordena a Guatemala titular tierras y consultar a indígenas sobre un proyecto minero.” EFE, 15 December 2023. https://efe.com/mundo/2023-12-15/la-corteidh-ordena-a-guatemala-titular-tierras-y-consultar-a-indigenas-sobre-un-proyecto-minero/

[15] PBI Guatemala. “Siguen los desalojos y la violación de derechos de las comunidades indígenas.” https://pbi-guatemala.org/es/sobre-pbi-guatemala/contexto-de-los-derechos-humanos-en-guatemala/acceso-la-tierra-y-defensa-del#:~:text=En%20el%20primer%20semestre%20de,parte%20del%20derecho%20a%20un

[16] “Tribunal ordena al Estado resarcir a las familias de las víctimas en caso Samococh.” Prensa Comunitaria, 6 July 2023. https://prensacomunitaria.org/2023/07/tribunal-ordena-al-estado-resarcir-a-las-familias-de-las-victimas-en-caso-samococh/

[17] Ministerio Público inaugura fiscalía contra la usurpación. https://www.mp.gob.gt/noticia/ministerio-publico-inaugura-oficina-de-atencion-permanente-de-la-fiscalia-contra-el-delito-de-usurpacion/

[18] TZ’UNUNIJA Indigenous Women’s Movement. “Informe sobre la Situación de las mujeres indígenas en Guatemala para ser presentado como insumo para el cuarto ciclo del Examen Periódico Universal (EPU) de Guatemala.” https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/country-document/2023-03/JS27_UPR42_GTM_S_Main.pdf

[19] “La Corte IDH ordena a Guatemala titular tierras y consultar a indígenas sobre un proyecto minero.” EFE, 15 December 2023. https://efe.com/mundo/2023-12-15/la-corteidh-ordena-a-guatemala-titular-tierras-y-consultar-a-indigenas-sobre-un-proyecto-minero/

[20] “CC favorece a empresa minera que busca operar en Asunción Mita, Jutiapa.” Prensa Comunitaria, 24 October 2023. https://prensacomunitaria.org/2023/10/cc-favorece-a-empresa-minera-que-busca-operar-en-asuncion-mita-jutiapa/

[21] Extractive Industries Observatory. “Sindemia en Territorio Ch’orti’: percepciones de las comunidades Ch’orti’ de riesgos ambientales y afectaciones a la salud pública por el proyecto Cantera Los Manantiales.” August 2023. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SAWqqRXaEJM4q4sHwl8gGiMPJAzVO2jP/view

[22] “Comunicado del Movimiento de Radios Comunitarias de Guatemala En el marco del Día Mundial de la Radio 2023.” Cultural Survival, 15 February 2023. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/es/news/comunicado-del-movimiento-de-radios-comunitarias-de-guatemala-en-el-marco-del-dia-mundial-de

[23] “La migración guatemalteca en tres capítulos: tragedias, remesas y deportaciones.” Prensa Comunitaria, 13 April 2023. https://prensacomunitaria.org/2023/04/la-migracion-guatemalteca-en-tres-capitulos-tragedias-remesas-y-deportaciones/

[24] USAID Guatemala. https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/2023-03/USAID-Guatemala-Migracion%20Irregular.pdf

[25] National Migration Authority. “Política Migratoria.” Guatemala, 2023. https://igm.gob.gt/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/FINAL-Politica-Migratoria-interiores-1_compressed.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Women, Business and Human Rights , Human rights



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