The struggle of the Maya: lawyer, scholar and activist Juan Castro talks about the plight of the Maya people at Amherst College

Maya make up just about 40 percent of the Guatemalan population


(Lucía García González/Flickr)

By Kyle Lai, Collegian Correspondent

Juan Castro, an indigenous Maya activist and one of Guatemala’s most prominent lawyers, gave a lecture at Amherst College on Thursday about the various injustices facing the Maya people in Guatemala.

The Maya make up nearly 40 percent of the Guatemalan population and largely live in the rural areas in the western highlands of the country, most notably Alta Verapaz, Sololá, Totonicapán and Quiché. Although Castro’s talk mostly dealt with contemporary struggles facing the Maya, he noted that the Maya have constituted an oppressed underclass since Guatemala’s colonization in the 16th century.

Large-scale seizures of Maya land in modern times began to occur during the Liberal Reformation, a military revolution in 1871 that overthrew the old government. Maya land was quickly seized by the military and parceled out to the soldiers and government officials who supported the revolution. The Maya owners “were not even informed that [their land] had been transferred to the military,” Castro said, and large swathes of what had been Mayan communal lands were now privatized. The Maya who did not evacuate their lands during the war were massacred by the military.

The injustices did not end with the Reformation; rather, they continued through the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries. Guatemala was engulfed by a civil war from the 1960s to the 1990s, during which, the Maya were targeted for genocide. Tens of thousands were murdered by the western-backed government.

Castro is part of an indigenous rights movement involving the descendants of the groups that were driven out. Today, the Maya seek justice under the Guatemalan constitution, but they still face the lingering effects of colonialism, along with new challenges.

Castro stated that the Maya’s struggles are not limited to land theft. Among other things, indigenous communities face polluted rivers, irrigation that is optimized for monoculture—when only a single type of crop is raised for commercial purposes—chemical contamination and both water shortages and flooding since the river water is often redirected.

“During the summer, the river course is [redirected] to the banana and sugar plantations, and during the winter, they change the course again, and they flood indigenous crops,” Castro said. “There’s no law to protect indigenous communities from being dispossessed of their rivers. The most important wars for humanity in the 21st century are the wars for water.”

The Maya seek to use legal means to fight for their rights, but many of their leaders and activists have been imprisoned by the Guatemalan government for long periods of time without trial. According to Castro, attempts to garner support for their cause are made even more difficult because the Maya are not a singular ethnic group. Rather, “Maya” is an umbrella term for the many indigenous groups that have lived in Guatemala since before Spanish colonization, and all of these groups have their own languages.

“The penitentiary system [does] not take it to the courts,” said Castro, noting that court hearings are regularly suspended and postponed for as long as 14 months.

The scale of greed in the Guatemalan government is such that although it has ruled indigenous peoples cannot live on protected land in Guatemala’s forest areas, the government regularly allows oil companies and mining companies into those same areas to extract resources—building large scale oil drills, mines and other extractive infrastructure. Citizens who oppose this exploitation are jailed, Castro noted.

“The state does not talk to indigenous people, does not engage in dialogue with us…We are not against the companies per se, but the state must talk with all the actors; now, the companies have found a way to talk to the state using corruption,” Castro said.

However, Castro and his fellow activists have not given up their drive for reform. Analysis of the environmental impact of exploitive industries in Guatemala is often stifled or guided by those in power, but Castro and his team investigate these analyses to sort out false information.

“We read the analysis with experts,” he said. “We work with a team that is not just lawyers, but geographers, historiographers, anthropologists, archaeologists and engineers.”

Together, this team has uncovered many analyses that are duplicated reports of a different region. Today, despite their struggles, the Maya continue to fight in the form of political protests, cooperation with NGO, using extensive social networking. Many Maya hope for a multi-pluralistic political state that can help them preserve their homes, their culture and their livelihood.

Harry Barrick, an Amherst College staff member at the lecture was asked whether he thought a political solution for the Maya was realistic at all.

“I think that there are many obstacles towards that, given what Juan [Castro] said about the state shutting out [the Maya], since it was built with the indigenous people in mind. So, it’s going to be much more difficult to incorporate indigenous opinions later on. What he said, talking about a multi-pluralistic political state, I think that’s much more realistic than trying to reform the state that already exists,” Barrick said.

Manuela Picq, a professor of political science at Amherst College, was asked whether she thought having the Maya integrate with the ladinos—descendants of the Spanish colonizers who intermixed with natives—would provide them a path to success.

“So, indigenous peoples in general refuse assimilation, what we are calling integration, because they don’t want to be part of the state. They want to have their own forms of government recognized, their own languages recognized—they want multiplicity of knowledge in politics; they do not want assimilation,” Picq said. “In assimilation, they lose their way of life, they lose their territories because their territories become municipalities, they start being categorized by the terms of the state, they lose their languages.

Picq added that indigenous people in Guatemala “want recognition of difference.”

“Their whole narrative is, ‘We want democracy with difference. We don’t want a democracy that is homogenizing, where we all look the same and have the same national history…We want our own histories, languages and way of life recognized,’” she said.

Kyle Lai can be reached at [email protected]