Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Guatemala

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Guatemala, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Colonially derived social and economic relationships have remained particularly deeply entrenched in Guatemala. Despite attempts at reconciliation at the end of the civil war, in 2008 these historical patterns continued to affect access to education for indigenous and African descendant populations. The departments in Guatemala with the highest concentration of indigenous and African descendants have the highest poverty indicators and the lowest levels of educational achievement.

The almost 12.5 million Guatemalan population is particularly diverse. Indigenous Mayan and African descendant peoples together comprise over 40 per cent according to the 2001 census, although over half the population has some Mayan ancestry. The Mayan population is made up of at least 21 sub-ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language. African descendants consist of Atlantic Coast Garífuna and African Caribbean Creoles, and rural ethnically assimilated African mestizos.

Sixty-five per cent of the Guatemala population is rural and three-quarters of the indigenous population live in the rural departments. Basic service delivery is poor.

Income distribution in the country is particularly unequal: 20 per cent control two-thirds of the country's wealth, with the topmost 10 per cent dominating fully 50 per cent. This leaves 80 per cent of the population to get by on about 35 per cent of the national wealth. According to a 2006 study by the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 86 per cent of Guatemala's indigenous population lives below the poverty line.

Legal framework

The Guatemalan Constitution guarantees the right to free compulsory primary education to all without discrimination. The National Education Law also recognizes bilingual education as being important for strengthening indigenous Mayan communities.

Moreover, in the 1996 Peace Accords that followed the protracted civil war, the government agreed to improve indigenous education through scholarships, literacy projects and increased spending on indigenous-focused programmes, including rural bilingualism and the creation of a Mayan university.

However, one huge impediment to indigenous and minority access to quality better education is the country's low level of social investment. In 2007 Guatemala spent just 1.8 per cent of its GDP (US $611 million) on education – well below the Latin American and Caribbean average of 4.7 per cent, as well as the UNESCO-recommended 6 per cent of GDP.

This policy helps to preserve the highly unequal socio-economic structure and weighs most heavily on indigenous populations. It also guarantees the continuation of their historical socio-economic exclusion, including the denial of their educational rights.

Minimal social investment rates, coupled with Guatemala's largely rural demography and the historical marginalization of ethnically diverse populations, have helped to produce among the lowest literacy and education levels in all of the Americas – and these levels are lower among indigenous and African descendant populations.

In urban areas, 91 per cent of non-indigenous males are literate versus 75 per cent of the indigenous males; 86 per cent of urban non-indigenous females are literate, compared to just 55 per cent of urban indigenous women.

However the largest percentage of the indigenous population lives in the rural departments, where 42 per cent of indigenous males cannot read or write, compared to 30 per cent for the rest of the rural male population. Among women, 65 per cent of indigenous women in the rural areas lack literacy skills, compared to 38 per cent of non-indigenous women.

Low government expenditure means there are not enough schools to serve the country's student population. In 2006, Guatemala had 14,207 primary schools for 2,116,385 primary level students. Eighty-five per cent of schools have inadequate space, classrooms and services such as electricity, drinking water and sanitation. Classes are overcrowded, with high student/teacher ratios (31:1). Significantly more than half (7,832) of all schools are in departments with substantial indigenous populations.

Given the low income levels in rural indigenous communities, a lack of financial resources means that indigenous children are less likely to be enrolled in school and more likely to be over-age if they do enrol.

According to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education (MINED), the highest concentration (64 per cent) of school-aged children (7-12) who are not enrolled live in the rural mainly indigenous regions of Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango and Quiche.

Once in school, indigenous children are also more likely to repeat grades and drop out without attaining literacy or completing primary school. In 2005, 25 per cent of all enrolled students in Guatemala repeated first grade. This increases the chances of non-completion. Most drop-outs occur between the fifth and sixth grades. According to a 2008 World Bank study, over 45 per cent of children enrolled in grade 5 in 2005 did not return the next year.

Consequently, only 33 per cent of all students in Guatemala aged 13 to 15 were enrolled in lower secondary school (grades 7 through 9), and indigenous people as a whole end up with half the number of years of schooling of non-indigenous people.

There is also a problem with teacher quality: there is a chronic shortage of teachers and it is difficult to attract new staff. Guatemala's teachers are trained only up to secondary level (grades 10-12); those who teach indigenous children have even less experience and education.

Pay scales are linked to years of service so once teachers reach the highest pay grade they often retire to work as independent contractors or in the private sector.


The failure of the state to take account of the language barrier faced by many indigenous students is also a major factor. Twenty-seven per cent of indigenous Guatemalans speak no Spanish, and there are 23 distinct indigenous languages officially recognized by the state including those used by African descendant populations (Garífuna). Forty per cent of the population speaks one of the 20 Mayan languages and the majority (75 per cent) of these are rural dwellers.

The lack of adequate bilingual schools is another deterrent to enrolment. In 2005, of the 7,832 schools in departments with significant indigenous Maya populations only 1,869 provided bilingual education.

Furthermore the bilingual education that is provided does not necessarily translate into skills that enable graduates to progress socially and economically. About half of employed indigenous people work in agriculture, but the education programme is not adapted to the unique needs of the rural farming population.

A 2003 study undertaken by the Guatemalan General Directorate of Bilingual Intercultural Education reported that 58 per cent of bilingual education graduates still worked in the poorly paid agriculture sector. With little to gain through staying in school, indigenous people often choose to remain close to their traditional values.

In the year 2000, indigenous children were most commonly employed in household work or elsewhere (approximately 23 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively). In comparison, only 16 per cent of non-indigenous children work.

Traditional values are passed on orally; often they are at odds with the nationally endorsed Western value system. According to a UNESCO, five out of the eight Mayan communities studied perceived a conflict between formal education and traditional oral teaching.

With indigenous science and philosophical principles not being valued in the curriculum and remaining in school being of limited economic value, drop-outs and non-completion continue and the education rates among the indigenous population will almost certainly remain low in 2009.


During 2008 Guatemala experienced an intense rainy season. By December 180,000 people were affected and there were government appeals to donors for assistance.

Torrential rains destroyed 67,000 hectares of land; underground water sources were contaminated; and serious damage was inflicted on infrastructure. The weather seriously affected the mainly indigenous rural departments of Alta Verapaz, El Peten, Izabal and Quiche, causing some 27 municipalities in these departments to come under a state of emergency.

The affected area is the principal producer of the country's staples: corn, rice and beans. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, more than 65 per cent of the crop was damaged by flooding in May 2008 and Tropical Depression No. 16, destroyed more than 80 per cent of the second crop. The affected indigenous populations are likely to experience a food shortfall, hunger and rising prices in 2009, further jeopardizing education activity.

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