The world’s Indigenous peoples are constantly struggling for recognition of their rights and trying to take control of their future. In Guatemala, the Indigenous peoples realize that this means taking advantage of the natural resources available to them. One of the ways to sustain and develop is through eco-tourism. There are a number of Indigenous businesses which hope that through these ventures, they will create a better life for their families, their towns and their people.

Guatemala is home to over six million Indigenous peoples, and they make up a solid 60 per cent of all inhabitants. Despite these numbers, the natives are at a constant political and economic disadvantage compared to their fellow Guatemalans. The illiteracy rate in some villages is an astonishing 90 per cent as successive white-controlled governments restricted access to basic needs for the Indigenous population.

A Brief history of Guatemala

The main thing that would strike someone visiting Guatemala is how beautifully simplistic it is. People seem to enjoy the way they live, without pretense. Capitalism is thriving in Guatemala, but in a different way than we know it.

In Canada, people measure what you are worth by how much you have and how good you look. Guatemalans don’t think about those things as much, or at least aren’t as overtly fanatical about them.

Riches come from who you are, not the articles you possess.

Venturing into the mountains (highlands) where most Indigenous peoples live, I was able to witness a people that are even less fortunate than mainstream society, yet are fiercely proud of who they are. Their resolve serves as an inspiration to everyone.

In present day Guatemala, ethnic mixing is prevalent, and more widely accepted than it is in Canada. Most of the people that I met had native blood in them and they weren’t talking about their “great, great grandmother being a Mayan princess.”

There are no Native reservations in Guatemala and as such there is no protection for the land of the Indigenous peoples. Non-natives from Guatemala City have already started to purchase prime waterfront land for next to nothing in places like San Lucas Tolimán, and Panajachel, located around Lake Atitlan.

There are 23 Indigenous groups located mostly in the highlands, or altiplano, of Guatemala. These “groups” were once considered nations, sovereign and free. These days, the 23 distinct nations are grouped together by the government, as if they didn’t have their own identities, language and culture.

To fully appreciate present day Guatemala, one must weigh the affects that racism has had on the population over the years.

Guatemala has a very violent history; the people still haven’t fully recovered from the long and bloody civil war which pitted revolutionary ‘rebels’ against the oppressive government. The rebels consisted mainly of Indigenous peoples, and were largely supported by the Indigenous villages. The civil war, which was essentially initiated by a dictatorship lashing out at anyone who disagreed with them, lasted 36 years until a peace accord was signed in 1996, and fighting ceased.

The United States had a hand in helping the Guatemalan government crush the “uprising” by supplying weapons and state of the art military helicopters used to attack the highlands.

According to Human Rights Watch, about 200,000, mainly indigenous people, lost their lives. The remains of 440 Maya villages were wiped completely from the map.

People still search for their loved ones to this day.

Present day Guatemala

When visiting Guatemala today, one could hardly guess that as recently as seven years ago, this country was in utter chaos.

The economy is stronger than it’s ever been and foreign conglomerates have become more inclined to invest in the country’s businesses.

At first glance, one would think that the city was owned by commercial enterprises, and that Pepsi was the principal shareholder. Everywhere you look, you can see something that reminds you of home, from billboards to advertising, to brand names. At times, it almost felt like I was in a third world Time’s Square.

The lack of emission standards for vehicles is something the capital city needs to work on. Black smoke billows from the mufflers of most cars and buses, and no one seemed to notice or care. Also, a large number of the buildings would not pass the standards set by most Canadian cities’ building codes and should be torn down. The cost of living is considerably less than in Canada. This is due in large part to the fact that wages are so low. Much like the situation in Quebec, doctors are leaving Guatemala in droves to work in other countries, including Canada. Indigenous representation in the political arena is increasing. The mayor of Quetzaltenango is Mayan, while one of the candidates running for president is also indigenous.

Indigenous economy

At times, the economic prospects of the indigenous peoples in most countries are very limited. This is especially true for the Native population of Guatemala. Eco-tourism is in its infancy here, but things are beginning to look brighter.

The Indigenous struggle for recognition is very similar in Guatemala as it is to native peoples struggles in Canada. In some endeavors like eco-tourism and sustainable development, Guatemala’s native people are further ahead than our own. In other endeavors like casinos, online gaming, and money raising projects, they are light years behind. The following are some projects that are struggling to succeed in a globalized economy.

Indigenous art gallery – Tecpan

Benjamin Gonzalez is the manager of an indigenous art gallery in Tecpan. The gallery is run out of his home, and he represents I I artists who are struggling for exposure at the national and international levels. He has worked with artists for over 25 years.

One of the problems incurred by the gallery was dealing with knock-offs. The gallery would release postcards with a sample of what their paintings looked like, and then the rip-off artists would proceed to copy them onto a canvas, and release them as original paintings.

The gallery has since changed their approach towards knock-offs. Since there is essentially nothing they can do about it, they’ve chosen to look on the bright side and feel that these fakes are actually creating broader exposure for their work. They encourage people to contact them if they want to get their hands on the original. Along with the painting comes a certification stating that the painting is indeed an original.

In the past, the artists have showcased their work in places like Houston, Miami, Mexico and Costa Rica. The funding for these exhibits is raised through private support; with the balance coming from the artist’s own pockets.

Together, these artists produce 300 paintings per year, with sales ranging from $30 to $1,000 US. The price depends on the type of paint used (oil, water), as well as the size of the painting.

Even though all of the revenue generated from sales goes directly to the artist, they usually don’t sell enough to support the artist’s family. Therefore, they often have to do other things to make ends meet, like running a small store or making handicrafts.

At the time of my visit, construction had begun to enlarge the gallery and make it more appealing to tourists. It should be completed before next summer.

Aj Quen training centre -Chimaltenango

One of the more solid projects associated with native development in Guatemala was AJ Quen. It serves as a training centre for over 800 individuals in 27 different communities who are involved in the export of indigenous handicrafts. These groups represent four different nations (K’iche, Kaqchiquel, Achi, Qeqchi).

Everyone involved is of native origin, from administration to the workers themselves. Presently, 88 per cent of the employees are women. Up until two years ago, there had only been women elected to the director’s position.

The organization has been around for 15 years, and has exported such handicrafts as handbags, wallets, pottery and blankets to a number of countries around the world, including Belgium, Italy, Finland, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada.

The problem that has arisen in recent years is how to make the products more appealing to different export markets. This has proven to be very difficult. A large percentage of the new types of crafts being produced are not accepted. The countries reject the crafts because of the colours, or the style, or sometimes the item itself. These setbacks cost time and money and have been a major sticking point.

Representatives from some of the aforementioned countries are planning to visit Guatemala to help with quality control and design selection. Aj Quen hopes that by this time next year, the operation will be running a lot smoother.

Foreign investment from these countries helps to sustain the business. Without it, Aj Quen would not be able to pay its employees, or lend them money when they need to buy supplies. Holland and Germany have combined to donate almost $100,000 US this year alone.

Other countries have been more cautious with their donations, preferring to wait and see what kind of new designs Aj Quen comes up with, and if their markets will accept them.

One of the realities that Aj Quen has to deal with is local competition. Currently, there are 25 other native organizations producing and exporting similar products abroad.

They would like to have some kind of association with the other organizations. That would mean a sharing of knowledge, as well as sharing different contacts. Essentially, Aj Quen sees the competition as healthy and it helps to contribute to their overall goal, which is promotion of their indigenous cultures, and bettering the lives of Guatemala’s original peoples.

Aside from exportation, they also have a few stores spread across the country. One of the more prominent ones, Semaco, is based in Guatemala City. Aj Quen feels that stores like these are just as important as exporting to other countries, even if it means selling their products for less.

In order to be accepted as a working group associated with Aj Quen and be part of their export circle, certain guidelines have to be followed. It’s expected that the group consist of at least eight members and then they must agree to participate in any training courses given by Aj Quen.

Once the group has been accepted, they start producing selected handicrafts as soon as the orders come in. The financial breakdown is set as follows: 65 per cent of the profits go to the manufacturers, Aj Quen receives the remaining 35 per cent (of which up to 10 per cent goes into a security fund).

The security fund is used to lend to groups starting out, or to groups who receive large orders and don’t have the funds necessary to purchase supplies in bulk.

Presently, the organization accounts for one per cent of the world market for this type of export business. They are hoping to drastically increase that market share, although there is no set target.

Quirky Guatemala Facts

-Rodrigo Asturias, a former Guerilla who fought against the government, is running for president on November 9th.

-Guatemala was the deciding vote in 1945 at meetings held in an international forum to recognize Israel as a country.

-There are 28 volcanoes in Guatemala, some of which are still active.

-Lawyers make around $800 US a month in Guatemala, and Doctors make between $12-1400 US a month.

-Police officers start off with 100 bullets, after that they have to pay for their own.

-In San Juan La Laguna, when there is a municipal meeting scheduled, the representatives who take part in the meeting must put their walking sticks on the mayors desk in order for him to know who’s present, so the meeting can proceed.

-Rigoberta Menchu, accepted the Nobel peace prize in 1992 on behalf of all Indigenous peoples. She is Maya Quiche, and was the first and only Native person to be recognized on an International scale through the Nobel Prize.

-In a place called cocos (coconuts) we stopped on the side of the road and tasted fresh coconut juice straight from the coconut. Once we finished, the guy chopped it up for us and we ate it. It was delicious.

-If you see a branch in the middle of the road, it’s probably not by accident. In the highlands, that is what they use instead of cones to warn people of a traffic accident.

Steve Bonspiel recently traveled to Guatemala to study indigenous economic initiatives, eco-tourism projects in particular.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Be sure to pick up a copy of the next Nation in two weeks time, where we’ll conclude our look at Guatemala’s indigenous eco tourism ventures.

Beesum Communications and The Nation Magazine would like to acknowledge that this story was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Without them, this story would not have been possible.