In Guatemala, there are 21 different indigenous groups which comprise approximately 51% of the country’s population. As in many Central American countries, indigenous Guatemalans experience discrimination and marginalization throughout their lives. Despite Mayas comprising over half the population, indigenous communities still struggle for the same rights as non-indigenous, known as ladino, citizens. Language, culture and geographical barriers separate indigenous communities from the rest of the country, making it difficult to secure rights and resources.
The indigenous populations in Guatemala are descendants of the Maya civilizations that ruled most of central America prior to Spanish colonization. The ancient Maya civilization was an agriculture based society with far reaching trade networks. During the Spanish colonial period, large areas of land traditionally farmed by the Maya peoples were propagated by the invading Spaniards, while the indigenous population were forced to be laborers. Maya leadership in Guatemala considers this period the first of three ‘holocausts’ against the indigenous population. The second being the land dispossession during the Liberal revolution in the nineteenth century and the the third the massacres of the 1980’s and 90’s that took place during the Guatemalan Civil War.
During the Guatemalan Civil War, from 1960 - 1996, Maya communities suffered from targeted attacks and unjust treatment at the hands of the government and military. Throughout the 1960’s, there was a rise in Maya communities joining social movements to demand land and fair wages. The government brutally repressed these movements. On January 31, 1980 the brutal tactics encouraged by the government led to the burning down the Spanish embassy with a group of 39 Maya leaders who were seeking refuge inside. During the conflict the government and insurgency groups both forcibly recruited indigenous men to fight, often times these men were unaware of exactly who or what they were fighting for. The government used this as an excuse for ‘counter insurgency’ efforts, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 indigenous people, creating an estimated 200,000 indigenous Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, and approximately 1 million internally displaced people within the country.
Today, many war crimes have yet to be tried and others, like Sepur Zarco, are only now beginning to see due process. The lasting effects of the internal conflict can still be seen today in Maya communities who lost large portions of their populations, especially of men, and whose ongoing struggles go unrecognized by the larger Guatemalan community. In addition to the setbacks resulting from civil war, government apathy and social isolation still perpetuate marginalization and underrepresentation.
Although Guatemala voted in favor of the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and ratified ILO Convention 169 in 1996, the benefits outlined have yet to be seen across the vast majority of Maya communities. The Guatemalan government has continually excluded Mayas by turning a blind eye to their lack of resource and representation. Trials and judicial procedures are most often conducted in Spanish, which many Mayas do not speak. In the past, indigenous representation makes up less than 10% of parliament, with indigenous women making up not even 2% of the deputies. Illiterate indigenous men are often forced into the military unknowingly, however still comprise only 14% of the police force in largely indigenous areas of the country. As of 2015, no new laws protecting indigenous rights were approved by congress, despite 10 proposals in recent years.
This lack of enforced civil and political rights has broad impacts on the social and economic well-being of Maya communities in Guatemala. It is estimated that the indigenous population is 2.8 times poorer and has a life expectancy 13 years lower than ladinos. Only 5 percent of university students are indigenous as access to education and other public services is extremely limited. Inadequate access to education, employment and infrastructure has left indigenous communities, women in particular, at an increased health risk. The government has consistently ignored these issues and perpetuated the disparities between the indigenous and ladino communities due to poor governance and corruption.
Although many Latin American countries have seen an increased indigenous population in activity, Guatemala’s Maya people have been unable to form a relevant political presence and will continue to be unable to do so unless the government takes more firm action in their favor.
Guatemala has signed the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and countless NGO’s are working to improve indigenous populations’ quality of life. Despite all of this, the indigenous population in Guatemala is still experiencing discrimination, illegal land seizures, political ostracization and economic marginalization. There are activists out there taking on these issues, however little leeway has been made and living conditions do not seem to be improving. What is it going to take for the government to follow through and create policies that will benefit the indigenous population? How can indigenous people get more involved in the politics affecting their livelihoods? What pressure can we as consumers and the international community put on to governments to protect the rights of indigenous populations?
Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guatemala : Maya, July 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49749d163c.html [accessed 29 April 2016]
International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, The Indigenous World, 2015: Guatemala, April 2015, available at: http://www.iwgia.org/images/stories/sections/regions/latin-america/documents/IW2015/Guatemala_IW2015_web.pdf [access April 29, 2016]
Lawton, Alexander M. Health and Human Rights Journal, The Right to Health in Indigenous Guatemala: Prevailing Historical Structures in the Context of Health Care, August 2015, Available at: [http://www.hhrjournal.org/2015/08/the-right-to-health-in-indigenous-guatemala-prevailing-historical-structures-in-the-context-of-health-care/}
Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guatemala : Maya, July 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49749d163c.html