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Guatemala – a country trapped between richness and inequality

Land of volcanoes, mountains, rainforests and ancient Mayan sitea – Guatemala is located in Central America and represents one of the most populated countries within the region. The country is specially known for its diverse cultural richness, which reflects strong Mayan and Spanish influences as seen in art, music, textiles, cuisine, religion and literature. However, this richness is accompanied by many threats.

Dead Rainforest

Rainforest biodiversity threatened

Guatemala represents the core of the ancient Mayan civilisation extending across Mesoamerica. In fact, the name Guatemala comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, an Aztec language which derives from the Mayan Kʼicheʼ language and translates to place of many trees. This translation probably describes the country in its best as a megadiverse landscape due to its richness in habitats and ecosystems, home to uncountable numbers of animal species and vegetation.

After the Amazon, Mesoamerica’s 35 million-acre Mayan Forest is the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas. However, pressures on the Maya Forest are greater than ever before. Traditional small-scale production is giving way to extensive deforestation, posing a threat for this vast and unique resource. 

Cultural richness impoverished

With around 15 million people, Guatemala is home to 24 principal ethnic groups with the indigenous population accounting to almost half of the countries population. This ethnic and cultural diversity resulted in a rich cultural heritage that is unique in the region. In fact, the Mayan of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic.This diverse cultural origins can still be found looking at the richness of spoken languages: 55 dialects are estimated for Guatemala, many of them Mayan languages distributed over different regions, villages and communities.

Although the government of Guatemala has adopted the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people, these groups face the highest rates in structural racism and social exclusion leading to disadvantages in terms of health, education, employment and income. This is specially true for indigenous women. 

Man selling in the streets of Guatemala

Wealth unequally distributed

Next to its natural and cultural richness, Guatemala also experienced continued economic stability over the last three decades, represented in the highest GDP amongst other countries in Central America. Nevertheless, this economic stability did not translate in growth acceleration but resulted in higher inequality within the population instead.

“In Guatemala, the gap between rich and poor must be eliminated, or we will continue to be the example of conflict in America.“

– Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a K’iche’ Guatemalan human rights activist, feminist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Wealth is unequally distributed along the Guatemalan society, with indigenous people particularly disadvantaged. This inequality results in extreme poverty with more than 75 % of the Guatemalan population living below the poverty line and around 50 % of all children suffering from chronic childhood malnutrition. These high numbers account for one of the highest rates of malnutrition worldwide.


Political climate corrupted

The corruption within the Guatemalan government and justice system is so far-reaching, that crimes are often not prosecuted and in cases corruption does not do the job, judges and prosecutors are often intimidated resulting in impunity for many cases. The government is mostly unable or unwilling to control criminal organisations, making gang-related violence one of the most important factors prohibiting societal progress and prompting people to leave the country.

This is especially true for rural areas highly affected by drug trafficking. An estimated amount of roughly 80 % of cocaine on its way from Columbia to the United States passes Central America. According to the International Crisis Group, the most violent regions in Central America, particularly along the Guatemala–Honduras border, are highly correlated with an abundance of drug trafficking activity which leads to one of the highest murder rate in the world.

Therefore, organised crime is an omnipresent part of life in many of Guatemalas remote regions. Giving the opportunity of making quick money, disadvantaged people often get roped into criminal organisations leading to violence and extortion by powerful individuals. Furthermore, organised crime is responsible for threats and attacks against journalists, social leaders and human rights defenders often ending up in murder. 

 Protest in Guatemala

Human rights overlooked

According to Human Rights Watch, Guatemalas government is unable in protecting the rights of its vulnerable groups. Challenges are faced in protecting the rights of asylum seekers, human rights defenders, women and girls, people with disabilities, and people from the LGBTQ+ community.

Since Guatemala has no comprehensive civil legislation protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, these people see extremely high rates in discrimination during day-to-day situations. Due to the fact, that employers, landlords, health care facilities, schools, and other public and private institutions face no penalty for discriminating members of the LGBTQ+ community, life in Guatemala is extremely challenging for these people. Within this minority, transgender people are facing the highest rate in discrimination and are probably the most vulnerable. For example, no law allows transgender people to change their name or gender marker on official documents. This disadvantage results in radical discrimination and inconceivably challenging situations in every interaction with official representatives.   


The extreme danger and resistance people are facing trying to change Guatemalans society for the good, are probably amongst the major reasons things are only changing slowly. Nevertheless, numerous active groups, organisations and individuals brave enough to face these obstacles and risks deserve our respect and appreciation and will contribute to a fair distribution of opportunities within Guatemalas society in the future.

Images (in order of appearance):
© Sarah Hansen
© Javier Nuñez

© Arturo Rivera
© Shalom de León