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Social And Environmental Issues In Guatemala

Income Inequality and Poverty

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, a sad reality for the most populous Central American country. According to the CIA World Fact Book, more than half the population lives below the poverty line, and the country's unemployment rate is around 3.2 percent. Around 40 percent of Guatemalans survive on less than US$1 per day, while ten percent of the richest Guatemalans eat up half the country's income.

The gap between rich and poor is evident throughout the country. In rural areas, over 70 percent of the population is classified as living in “extreme poverty.” The middle class is growing in urban areas, but income disparities are still clear cut in Guatemala City, where those who have almost nothing beg for change from expensive cars stopped at intersections.


A 36-year-long civil war in Guatemala forced many people to restart their lives elsewhere. The majority of Guatemalan refugees fled to the United States, but many others moved to Mexico, Belize, and Canada. Remittances sent home from these refugees now constitute the largest single source of foreign income for Guatemala, around $3.5 billion per year. The influx of money is quickly hurtling traditional, sometimes indigenous, villages into the modern world. It is hard to discern, but some believe more people in Guatemala own cell phones and televisions than toilets.

2009 Food Crisis

Drought, global warming, and the global financial crisis have each been huge hindrances to Guatemala's ability to grow and import food. The food shortage situation became so grim that Guatemalan President Álvaro Colum declared a national emergency in September 2009, asking the international community to contribute emergency food supplies.

The most recent update from the United Nations, released April 2010, said Guatemala has received less than 10 percent of the $34 million the country requested. The UN also estimated the number of children under the age of five suffering from chronic malnutrition is as high as 43 percent—the highest rate in the world. The “dry corridor” in the east and center of the country has been hit particularly hard, and children in indigenous families have a much higher chance of suffering from malnutrition: 70 percent.


A curtain of smog hangs over Guatemala City, where air pollution is severe. Pollution is mainly due to industrial causes such as vehicle exhaust, factory emissions, and garbage burning, but sporadic eruptions from nearby Volcán Pacaya also contribute to the city's pollution.

Other areas of the country may not exceed the World Health Organization safety standards for air pollution (as is the case in Guatemala City), but even the countryside has its own set of pollution problems. Around 50 percent of Guatemalans living in the countryside lack access to safe drinking water, and nearly 2 million Guatemalans live within direct contact with pesticides.

Lake Atitlán, “the most beautiful lake in the world,” is also being threatened by pollution. The lake, the largest in South America, developed a film of green scum in October 2009 that was so dense it could be seen from space. The culprit was cyanobacteria, single-celled organisms that multiply rapidly when elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen are abundant in still water. Volcanoes and Mayan Settlements encircle Lake Atitlán, which acts like a bowl that collects runoff from sewage, agriculture, and deforestation. Although the amount of cyanobacteria has receded because of cooler weather, experts expect another outbreak next October.


Although nearly 30 percent of Guatemala is set aside as protected land, it is not all sunshine and roses. The UN reported between 1990 and 2000, deforestation in Guatemala averaged 1.7 percent annually. The situation is particularly grim in the Petén tropical forest, where logging companies and slash-and-burn farming techniques threaten the area. Conservationists are working hard to preserve Petén, which is also threatened by oil companies interested in the resources of the area.

Oil Exploitation

Although the largest oil deposits of Central America are found in Guatemala, in the early 1990's the country was only producing around one-third the amount of oil it consumed every day. During the Persian Gulf War, Guatemala's import bill for oil nearly doubled, so the country opened up the Petén rainforest for oil exploitation. Oil production spiked from 4,000 barrels per day in 1990 to 20,140 barrels per day in 2006. In January 2010, President Álvaro Colum said the country expects oil production to reach as high as 60,000 barrels per day by the same time next year.

Indigenous Movement

As in many other Latin American countries, the indigenous population faces discrimination in schools, at restaurants, in the workplace, and in the political arena. Guatemala, however, has faced many obstacles unique to the country's indigenous population.

First of all, the community is fragmented by the diversity of Guatemala's Mayan population. There are 22 distinct linguistic groups throughout the country, and Mayans have a history of differentiation between these groups.

Furthermore, the Guatemalan government also has a history of brutal violence directed at the indigenous population. Throughout the Guatemalan Civil War, the government led a brutal insurgency campaign directed at the Guatemalan guerrilla movement. Entire Mayan villages were massacred, and nearly 200,000 people were killed.

Today, many indigenous people are coming together to actively participate in the peace process. The goal of these groups is usually increase awareness on indigenous issues such as poverty, land claims, and discrimination.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Guatemala: Guatemala Facts, Guatemala Facts and Indigenous Languages In Guatemala.

10 Jun 2010

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