From craggy mountain-tops to humid jungles, Guatemala’s indigenous majority lives in a country of breathtaking physical and cultural diversity that is struggling to free itself from an apartheid-like legacy.

Maŕia Pascual, a small and timid Q’anjob’al woman from the northern Guatemalan village of Yulmacap, tells me through an interpreter that she has seven children. Seven living children, that is. She has lost five others to malnutrition, sickness and war.

Maŕia’s story is far from unique. In Guatemala poverty is a way of life for 80 percent of the country’s 11 million people. Indigenous people like Maŕia have been among the most excluded from development throughout the Americas, and have been the target of discrimination for over 500 years.

The exploitation and slaughter of Guatemala’s indigenous people, the majority of whom are Maya, did not end with the colonial period. In fact a long 36-year civil war only formally ended in December 1996, with the signing of a “firm and lasting peace.”

The war was the result of many complicated factors, but its roots lay in the fret that a small minority flourished at the expense of the development of the vast majority. In rural areas there is little infrastructure; roads, schools and medical care are only slowly now starting to penetrate isolated mountains.

Even now, in departments with over 75 percent indigenous people, illiteracy rates are over 50 percent, over 40 percent of houses don’t have running water, nearly nine in 10 don’t have sewage drainage and over two-thirds don’t have electricity.

Compounding a lack of access to services is the fact that since their “discovery” by Europeans, indigenous populations have been pushed off the best and most productive lands. Today, three percent of the population owns two-thirds of the most fertile lands -concentrated in large export plantations. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the population works one-sixth of the land.

The concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy has led to the creation of a large pool of landless or nearly landless peasants who are forced by economic necessity’ to seasonally migrate to large plantations to harvest coffee, cotton, bananas and sugar cane.

On these plantations, companies like Del Monte continue to violently threaten union leaders who demand fair wages and decent working conditions. This January, the government announced it will increase wages. It has already committed to improving basic infrastructure, and since the end of the war many national and international development agencies have been trying to provoke change in the most marginalized areas.

But change is slow, the basic causes for the war remain and no politicians are willing to look at real redistribution of land. The balance of power is still held by a small but powerful minority.


What has always fascinated me about Guatemala is that despite historical neocolonialism, slaughter and assimilation, 65 percent of the population is still indigenous.

Guatemala is a small country, about the size of Ohio, tucked between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, and bathed by both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Despite its size, Guatemala’s cultural, linguistic, and physical diversity are breath-taking.

While indigenous peoples make up a clear majority, they are comprised of 21 distinct Maya linguistic communities and an unrelated group of Xincas. The Garifuna, descendants of Africans, make up another visible minority group.

The last major group of people in Guatemala, who have made up the ruling class since the arrival of the Spaniards, are the Ladinos or Mestizos. They are descendants of European, mostly Spanish, immigrants, or are a mixture of indigenous and non-indigenous people who no longer identify as Maya or Xinca.

Even though pockets of indigenous people are found across the country, Maya people are really concentrated in the Western highlands, a mountainous area where many sought refuge from colonialism and war and where they continue to etch a meager living out of quickly eroding soils.

While craggy mountaintops cover much of Guatemala, it encompasses several different bio-climatic zones, ranging from hot, humid jungles in the Peten and the south coast to the colder pine-covered highlands, and also boasts rich volcanic soils, fertile lowland plains and abundant natural resources.

Guatemala is a rich land, both culturally and in terms of resources, but its people have been made poor by history, war and politics.

Not many people had heard about the injustices facing indigenous people in Guatemala until a young K’iche’ woman named Rigoberta Menchú published a testimony that won her the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992.

In the book I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, she spoke of the poverty and lack of access to land that her family and her people faced. She described how one of her brothers died of malnutrition when her family was working on a big plantation, and how another died of pesticide poisoning on a coffee plantation. She also detailed how both her parents and another brother were killed during the war, branded as guerrillas and communists, and how she, like many Guatemalans, fled to Mexico to avoid death.

Menchú had long been active in the Peace Process, which has seen the return of many Guatemalan refugees from Mexico and the resetdement of many of those displaced within the country.

The foundations of the Peace Process were shaken in May 1999. A referendum was held to gain official recognition of Guatemala as a pluricultural, multiethnic and multilingual country, to increase indigenous rights, to create a new police force and curb military power. Over 80 percent of Guatemalans did not vote. And while Maya areas supported the proposed changes, their numbers did not exceed the Ladino vote in the capital and south-eastern departments. As a result, the referendum failed, highlighting the racism that still exists in Guatemala.

The “no” vote was an unexpected setback for Maya leaders, especially because it happened after the release of the report of the United Nations-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (in Spanish, Comision para el Esclaredmiento Historico, or CEH). The CEH report, fittingly titled Memory of Silence, was based on an inquiry into the civil war that claimed 200,000 Guatemalan lives, mostly civilians. Four in five of the dead were Maya.

The report blamed the government for 93 percent of the human-rights abuses during the civil war.

To be indigenous was enough to be branded a guerrilla or at least a “communist” sympathizer. This blanket comparison allowed the army to target anyone who spoke out against the state or who threatened the local elite and foreign interests.

Some 450 communities were erased from the map, and state forces stand accused of 626 massacres and acts of genocide against the Maya people between 1981 and 1983 alone.

Newly released U.S. government documents show that the CIA helped the Guatemalan government organize death squads to target the civilian population.

Gruesomely dismembered remains are still being uncovered across the countryside, but it is many of these same rural areas where Rios Montt and the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front triumphed in the most recent national elections.

I am not the only one who is confused by the recent elections in Guatemala. The newly elected president, Alfonso Portillo, admits that he killed two people when lived in exile in Mexico -in self-defence, he insists – but he has never been tried for his actions.

And the new president of Congress, Rios Montt, was the Head of State during the darkest and most atrocious period of the country’s history. Menchú is currently trying to start a legal battle against him and other heads of state who were responsible for genocide over the course of the war. Those in power in Guatemala have never been representative of, or responsible to, the indigenous and rural majority. At least on a municipal level, these elections saw indigenous politicians elected to just over a third of the mayoral positions, a sign that the government is becoming a little more representative and hopefully will be a bit more responsible to its people.

On the other hand, only one mayor in the whole country is female and only 16 percent of the deputies in the nation’s Congress are indigenous. Even with slowly increasing indigenous representation, it is doubtful that the ruling party – which holds an overwhelming majority of seats in Congress — will see much successful opposition.

Development by education

With all the contradictions that face Guatemalans,

I am left wondering how they will be able to rise above such a flawed system and be able to develop themselves socially, culturally and economically. The situation is bleak, but there is hope.

That hope glints in the dark eyes of Victor Hugo López López, an 18-year-old Awakateko boy studying to be a bilingual teacher. Like most Guatemalans, Victor dreams of rising out of poverty and providing a better life for his family. In a few minutes Victor is able to explain to me an important relationship that has not been given enough importance by many foreign-aid and local organizations and government programs. Education is the basis for development.

Victor tells me, “I am studying so I can help my parents. They are sacrificing themselves so I can study, but when I have a job I will repay them. My father never studied, he is a farmer. Through my studies I will be able to help improve production because I can read and write and I understand Spanish. People will not be able to take advantage of me.”

Victor says it is important to teach children Spanish and Awakateko so they can “defend themselves against people who speak Spanish but also value who they are.” He is lucky enough to attend Instituto Mayance in the town of Aguacatan, in the northern department of Huehuetenango.

It is one of 60 non-governmental bilingual schools in 12 different linguistic areas that are supported by the autonomous National Council of Maya Education (CNEM) or one of its 27 member Maya organizations.

These schools are not as crowded or as understaffed as official bilingual schools. They do not embody the discrimination and desire to turn indigenous children into Ladinos, and they are beginning to use a Maya curriculum, developed by CNEM and its members, that is based on the reality of indigenous communities, rather than Ladino models.

One of the courses offered at Instituto Mayance is community development. Emiliano Rodŕiguez, an Awakateko bilingual teacher, enthusiastically says, “Awakatekos are starting to work in institutions and on development projects in Aguacatan.

Things are changing.”

César Teny, a bilingual Q’eqchi’ teacher and leader of CNEM, tells me, “When I studied there was a lot of discrimination. It was totally prohibited to speak our own language, and teachers went to the extremes of hitting and punishing us when we did. This was my past, but it doesn’t have to be the same for kids today.”

César believes that Maya culture and languages need to be taught to indigenous children. On the other hand, he has seen how many of his students’ parents who don’t speak Spanish have been manipulated and oppressed by local and foreign interests.

César is hesitant and speaks in hushed tones about his involvement as an indigenous activist in his hometown. In 1995, 16 Q’eqchi’ Maya, including César, were arrested in El Estor and charged with sedition after peacefully protesting the arrest of 21 other farmers.

According to the Toronto-based Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, these farmers had been arrested at the request of EXMIBAL, a mining company 70-percent-owned by Canadian-based Inco Ltd. and 30-percent-owned by the Guatemalan government.

EXMIBAL ran a nickel-processing plant in El Estor in the 1970s. EXMIBAL officials recently blamed local farmers for the “deforestation” of company land. Guatemelan authorities arrested the farmers in September for their alleged involvement in an organized commercial logging operation on EXMIBAL’s concession.

César shakes his head, saying the accusation was false: ’You don’t deforest with a machete. The authorities never charged the large-scale farmers who were removing wood by the truck-load, but poor farmers scavenging for firewood on unused land were thrown in jail and fined.”

While the local farmers ended up being charged with fines well over a month’s wages, EXMIBAL’s operations continued to have negative impacts on Lake Izabal and the surrounding area. César says the politics of mining operations and other megaprojects are complex, but rarely seem to benefit local people.

The Christian Task Force on Central America claims that several Guatemalans opposing EXMIBAL’s operations have been threatened and forced into exile, and one was even killed when EXMIBAL was just starting up in the area. According to an Inco spokesman, the company does its best to help create an infrastructure for people in poor areas of the world where it has mining operations. He said Inco has helped build roads, schools and sewers. But the company still has to make a profit; the shareholders “still want to make a dollar,” he said.

César believes, for his part, that as local people become educated, they are less easily taken advantage of and more aware of their legal rights. With a shy grin, César changes the subject, telling me that Demetrio Cotji, a respected Maya intellectual who last year authored a progressive educational reform, has been appointed as a Vice-Minister of Education.

“This will facilitate Maya education in official bilingual schools and shows good will on the part of the government,” he smiles.

Baudilio Diaz, the Director of Education in Huehuetenango who is also a Mam bilingual teacher, echoed this remark himself.

He speaks of a time when “to be a bilingual teacher was seen as being with the guerrilla organizations, so we were afraid and had no support.” There have been improvements since then. Baudilio believes the success of bilingual education rests on the teachers. “If they are committed we will succeed,” agrees Blanca Estela Alvarado, a K’iche’ Maya who co-ordinates a United Nations-sponsored Maya education team that has assisted CNEM.

Blanca thinks bilingual teachers graduating from CNEM-sponsored-schools will affect change, but her optimism is not shared by everyone.

At La Estancia School, a small elementary school just outside of Aguacatan, four teachers attend to 238 pre-primary and primary students. The school is sponsored by DIGEBI, the Headquarters of Intercultural Bilingual Education, which is the only governmental member of CNEM. DIGEBI can only provide salaries for three of the teachers.

The director, Pablo Raymundo Mendoza, tells me that the Grade One teacher, an Awakateka graduate from the Instituto Mayance, is a volunteer. The Grade Two and Grade Four teacher is a Ladina who, after 15 years of service, still does not speak Awakateko.

“It has been difficult for me,” the Ladina teacher tells me. “Often the children don’t understand. They still don’t speak much Spanish.”

When I ask the staff if they think committed teachers are the key to successful bilingual education, Pablo sighs. “The authorities demand quality education from us. This is logical, but we are seeing we can’t give more than what is humanly possible. For instance, I teach 62 pre-primary children and 12 sixth-graders. Sincerely we are doing what we can, but the numbers are overwhelming.”

I am not surprised when the older children tell me that their classes are, for the most part, in Spanish. Nazario Simon, the Grade Three and Five teacher, tells me that while he speaks Awakateko, he does not write it very well. So he does his best with the children.

“I was traumatized as a child when I studied,” says Nazario. “We were taught that our cultures and languages weren’t worthwhile. We don’t do that here. Anabela [the Ladina teacher] may not speak Awakateko, but she respects the children and we do our best to teach them not only their language but their culture.”

Instituto Mayance is less chaotic than La Estancia, but enrolment is climbing quickly. “Many Maya schools have suffered serious economic pressures,” Blanca, the Maya educator, told me. “But since the signing of peace, international organizations have been a lot more supportive of Maya education.”

Instituto Mayance, which offers the equivalent of junior high school and a bilingual teacher-training course, is a good example of this phenomenon.

Sub-director Ruben Raymundo told me that “Instituto Mayance really has a history of struggle.” The institute was started by teachers who donated their time, and it still depends on several committed volunteers to make up the 20 teachers that attend to just over 250 students. While they have received financial support from the government of Norway and a CNEM member group in recent years, these sources are never secure. Mariano Rodŕiguez, the director, shakes his head telling me, “We have had to raise fees, and we are still nowhere near sustainable. We must always be looking for funding.”

But here, even amid the economic troubles, one feels the possibilities that real bilingual education can bring. Confident teenagers, most of the young women in traje or traditional dress, mill around on their first day of school speaking in Awakateko. Here there is no fear of hearing a once-common reprimand, “Don’t be an Indian!” The sub-director speaks excitedly about the implementation of their Maya curriculum, about their Awakateko and K’iche’ teachers, and about increasing female enrolment.

Dora Patricia Raymundo Escalante, a 19-year old student, hopes to work with her father, Pablo, at La Estancia School when she graduates from Instituto Mayance. Dora tells me that when she graduates she will be sure to encourage her female students. “In the home the woman is the first educator, but she is the one who receives the least formal education,” Dora says. “It is in the interests of our children that we become educated, so that we can help in their formation.”

Women have not only been excluded from education, but also from development projects. Isabel Alcon, a Chalchiteca of the Women’s Forum, says, “It is difficult for women to participate. I think it is a slow process because women have always been abandoned and forgotten. But the Peace Accords have opened up spaces for women and we will eventually find our own solutions.”

For me, Juana Pedro, a 22-year old Q’anjob’al woman, and the group she works with, embody the struggle as well as the optimism of women working to improve development in their communities.

Juana is the president of the Committee of Ixmucané Women, a group of 12 women who have received credit and training from CECI-AID (a joint venture between the Centre Canadien d’Etudes et de Cooperation Intemacionale and USAID), which began to work in Barillas, Huehuetenango, after the signing of the Peace Accords.

CECI-AID, seeing the exclusion of women from development, began to give credit at 12 percent annually to 16 groups of women with small project proposals.

Juana’s group solicited just under $2,000, so her group could buy and run a gasoline-powered com grinder. Tortillas, a flat com bread, are the staple food in Guatemala, but require much preparation, especially in areas like Yulmacap, Huehuetenango, where there is no electricity.

Women spend several hours a day grinding the com by hand, so an electric corn-grinder saves many women a lot of time. Juana’s group hoped the revenues would improve their standard of living. As it turns out, these women have found the business’s income does not always cover its costs as well as pay off the credit. This means that rather than make money from the project, they must invest some of their own scarce resources to keep up with payments.

This type of detail does not appear in CECI-AID reports that focus on the fact that most of the women’s groups are not defaulting on their loans. One Canadian CECI volunteer complained that, “Development organizations often support the projects THEY want and what looks good. They don’t necessarily support what the people need.” He says most development organizations are self-serving and calls them the “new missionaries of neo-colonialism.”

Lourdes Ortiz, a Kaqchikel who co-ordinates the women’s projects at CECI-AID, admits, “These grinder projects will never be very lucrative.” However, she adds, “These projects give the women a chance to get involved and to realize they can make decisions and run projects.”

The women I met were certainly eager to continue with the project despite shortcomings.

Teresa Morales, a Q’anjob’al CECI-AID promoter who trained as a bilingual teacher, says one obstacle is a lack of education. “We are opening up spaces for the women to be able to work. But if they could read and write they would have so much more capacity’ to develop their communities, to propose new projects and be more independent.” CECI-AID promoters are now encouraging women in their groups to start an adult-literacy program.

Juana’s mother Josefina, who is also a member of the corn-grinder business in Yulmacap, tells me proudly in Q’anjob’al, “Even though I am very old I am going to learn to read and write, that way I can help more.”

Juana is the only literate woman in her group, and she is one of few who speaks Spanish, making the group very dependent on her. “I can’t leave the project,” she says. “If I leave, all the women will leave too, and they will be disillusioned because I have told them we have to continue in spite of problems. If we don’t continue we will lose this opportunity. I have said to the women we will be successful and we will demonstrate to the community that not only men can do things.”

Like most of the members, Juana has considered withdrawing from the group. Only her desire to “move ahead and work with her neighbours” has kept her from resigning. As a community organizer and a single mother – the child is the result of a rape that she is trying to denounce legally -Juana breaks many of the unwritten rules regarding women in Yulmacap, and has encountered much resistance from men and even some women in the community.

Men have physically and verbally threatened Juana and other women in the group.

Many women return from group meetings to abusive husbands who oppose their participation and some of these husbands have told Juana they want the project to end.

Dilma Tello, a Ladina social worker and CECI-AID promoter who has learned Q’anqob’al with these women, says the structures of the projects have ignored the emotional needs of the women and the cultural obstacles they face.

Within rigid structures, however, the closeness I saw between Dilma and the women in Yulmacap leads me to believe good people can still make a difference. So-called development is complex and has traditionally only really served to benefit those in power, be they national or international.

But if, as Lourdes Ortiz says, 12 women in Yulmacap are left “with new abilities and new possibilities,” and if dedicated people continue to work within the system, things will change. Normand Roy, an openly critical Canadian cooperant at CECI, makes a good point when I say the situation seems depressing.

“It is not depressing,” he says. “I think human development is one of the most difficult tasks. We are not simply building a plane or something. It won’t happen overnight.”

Perhaps when Juana’s little girl grows up, women in Yulmacap won’t be afraid to organize meetings and perhaps there will be a CNEM-sponsored school nearby. As Juana tearfully talks about the “the sorrows she has lived,” she sighs, “God-willing, life will be easier for my daughter.”

In Guatemala, change is slow and life is hard, but hopefully the seeds of development planted by people like Juana Pedro and César Teny will make things easier for the next generation.

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