Skip to main content

Fighting for indigenous rights in Guatemala

09 August 2021

Alba Verónica Yacabalquiej is a member of the Maya-K'iche' indigenous peoples in Guatemala. The K´iche´ is one of the 22 Mayan peoples, and make up around 27 percent of the Guatemalan population. Indigenous peoples face structural racial discrimination and inequality, and their territories are threatened by the exploitation of natural resources.

At the age of 20, recognising the significant neglect of indigenous issues in her country, Yacabalquiej became involved in community advocacy work. Today, she is a young human rights defender, speaking out on behalf of the Maya-K'iche' people and youth.

Yacabalquiej recently spoke on a panel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council Youth Forum. She is widely recognised in her community for her work to keep ancestral indigenous knowledge as a means to overcome climate change and gain food sovereignty. This is how she is promoting and defending youth indigenous rights.

She is also a member of the Young Human Rights Defenders Network in Guatemala initiated and supported by UN Human Rights.

Read her story.

“I became a human rights defender because of the needs I saw within my community. I saw a pervasive conservative ideology, and I saw that indigenous women did not have enough space to participate in decision-making.

Yet women play such an important role in the community, and I strongly believe that we should act to defend the rights of indigenous women whose voices are not heard.

Being a part of the Young Human Rights Defenders Network in Guatemala helps me know more about our rights and to stand up for them. There are very few spaces like this for young indigenous women in my country. But with this network, we’re able to discuss and address issues from different parts of the country, particularly from rural areas where people’s voices are rarely heard and where the reality of life is often ignored.

COVID-19 really highlighted the inequalities we have in this country.
It has very much affected the lives of indigenous youth. Many young people lost their jobs, and online education didn’t take into account children and young people who did not have access to technology and internet.

The pandemic also didn’t stop the ongoing persecution of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, nor the criminalisation of various human rights defenders.

In the post-pandemic world, it’s important that we address these inequalities and that everyone is treated the same.

But the pandemic also showed that indigenous peoples have a diversity of resources and ancestral wisdom. They were resilient even amidst such a big crisis. They have a wealth of knowledge and came together to support the communities. They made use of medicinal plants, and indigenous midwives played an important role in education within communities about prevention of the virus. Several families were left without any source of income, so the recovery of older practices such as bartering of goods and services helped them survive.

It’s important as a young indigenous person to be involved in human rights work.
We need to fight against the lack of recognition of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, as well as to protect and conserve our natural resources, which are so important to our way of life.

In the past years, indigenous youth have been focusing on recovering the ancestral wisdom of their grandparents. They’ve been engaging in agro-ecological practices such as permaculture, which uses a combination of resources to enhance production while at the same time protecting the land. They have also been using ancestral medicine for the treatment of some diseases, important because it encourages the use of natural resources within communities.

We need to know about our rights, and about how to defend them.
Laws and information on human rights are frequently not accessible in indigenous languages, so we need to carry the messages and the information to our communities.

Without knowledge of human rights, power structures can take advantage of us. We need knowledge of when our rights are being violated.

It is up to young people to make sure the reality of indigenous peoples’ lives are known, that our needs are met, and that our rights are respected.”

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

9 August 2021