Indigenous Climate Justice in Rural Guatemala

blockadia_Bigelow-Sanchez-Swinehart_indigenousprotest_-JoeBrusky-2.jpgBy Isaac Rigby, Health Sciences/Ivey


Aiming for climate justice and sustainability is a complex issue. Climate change affects us all, yet there is no doubt the burdens are disproportionately distributed. Importantly, when climate action is reduced to overly simplistic views—for example, only cutting carbon emissions—the everyday realities felt most by vulnerable populations are neglected. Addressing the complexity and interconnectedness of climate change and action merits special attention and a duty to do more for those disproportionately affected.

The devastating impacts of unjust social systems, amplified by climate change, were made real to me during a recent cultural exchange to rural Guatemala. While the experience was designed to explore the local coffee industry, it is the stories and injustices faced by Maria, my host, that continue to resonate with me[1].

Maria, a welcoming 65-year-old woman, short in stature with sun-worn skin, lives in a small community called Santa Anita. The village forms two coffee cooperatives among 34 families.


Upon arrival, Santa Anita appears to be a typical rural coffee farming development, with a stunningly beautiful landscape; there are carefully divided plots of lands with solid infrastructure and flourishing gardens.  What is not immediately evident is the persecution of the past, how community members struggled in a 36-year civil war, and the 22 years of work and sacrifice that went into developing this site. Living with Maria enlightened me on how life experiences translate into vulnerability in the face of climate change.

Under the colonial influence, indigenous Mayans like Maria have faced cultural persecution and discrimination for years[2]. Growing up in a small rural community, Maria completed only her primary education before she left to help support her family. She worked under abusive conditions in the fields for the equivalent of seven US dollars per month.  After years of unjust treatment, Maria and her husband enlisted as guerilla fighters in the civil war to battle for equality.  After relocating to the rebellion base her husband disappeared—she never learned why.  During her five years of front-line fighting, Maria became involved with Thomas.  When the situation became dire, they fled to Mexico where Maria worked on a banana ranch.

Following the Guatemala peace accords, the couple returned home to join a group of ex-guerrilla fighters in the development of a coffee farming community, which would become Santa Anita.  Initially, they lived in tents until they had useable houses; it was only 10 years ago that running water infrastructure was installed.  Maria’s relationship with Thomas has struggled and they never had children.  Although she is financially dependent on him and they continue to officially live together, Thomas spends most of his time with a new woman.

Today, Maria’s situation may be more stable than in the past, but climate change is posing new threats to the community’s survival. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are facing lower yields, and fighting new coffee plant pests and diseases, among other things[3].  With coffee production as their collective source of livelihood, this is no small issue. Further, this threat is compounded by other inequities Maria faces in Guatemalan society.

Guatemala’s corrupt medical system makes matters worse.  From stories recounted by Maria, it is evident that despite signed peace accords declaring equality for the Mayans in 1996 (Sanchez, 1999), prejudice still dominates. Salaried doctors and nurses often view unpaid home labourers, like Maria, as second-class citizens.  This is worsened by institutionalized ageist assumptions, stemming from internalized stereotypes of her Mayan background, resulting in beliefs that form attitudes and result in this prejudicial behaviour. In 2018, when Maria had severe abdominal pain, she reluctantly travelled two hours on a cramped ‘chicken bus’ (see photo) to the nearest hospital.

However, upon arrival, she was informed the doctor was out until the afternoon.  In agony, she waited; however, Maria noticed younger patients being treated during this time.  Hours later she was finally examined, and a hernia was diagnosed.  Unfortunately, Maria could not afford pain medicine or the operation, so she returned to Santa Anita without resolution to her pain.  Maria was not surprised by this outcome.  After years of similar experiences, Maria no longer bothers to seek medical care.  Instead, she lives her life coping with pain and illness.


Another deterrent faced by Maria is the lack of governmental support.  Working in the home, Maria has no direct income.  Her name is not associated with any tax payments, which means she does not qualify for COCODE, Guatemala’s governmental support program. This prevents any price relief on health care, among other things, making medical intervention unaffordable. These unjust social systems prevent Maria from addressing her hernia, or the other chronic problems accrued over her physically demanding life.

These systemic barriers lead Maria to find support in her community. Santa Anita has a strong community culture; all the families were actively involved in the civil war and put their lives at stake to fight for a better quality of life. As a collective, they understand there is still much to be done.  The fact that they endured the past together unites them to think positively and focus on continuing to drive for change.  Their goals reach beyond their work as coffee farmers to their identity as Guatemalans.  However, these barriers they continue to fight against are made much more difficult by climate change.

Despite these tough life circumstances, Maria’s resilience was clear.  The challenges she has endured over her life have been daunting, yet she never gave up. In fact, the problems she faces were not even apparent until we asked. The strength to share her story was inspiring.  And while her situation is dire, the impact of a strong community on supporting wellness is evident

As climate change continues to threaten the world, we cannot forget about people like Maria and communities like Santa Anita. The links between environment, social factors, and health are inseparable, making many communities—often hidden from the public eye--especially vulnerable. Maria’s lived experiences shine a light on the complex interplay of social and environmental factors with health, well-being, and equity. These corrupt systems continue to exist; solutions to global issues like climate change must not overlook the impact on those who often have little say in the action taken.




[1] Maria’s story is shared with her permission. My interpretation is not meant to replace her voice, but rather to help amplify her story and shed light on some of her everyday realities and the complex interplay of social and environmental factors on health and well-being.

[2] Livingstone Films (2015, May 7). Voice of a Mountain [Video]. YouTube.



 Photo by Joe Brusky