Guatemala Geography and Population

Guatemala – geography

Guatemala has a varied landscape that to the south consists of a densely populated mountain area and to the north of a sparsely populated lowlands. The southern area alternates between mountain ranges and long chains with altitudes of 2000 m east rising to 3500 m west. The highest peaks are conical volcanoes up to 4220 m; most are active and the area has frequent earthquakes. The central plateaus have fertile volcanic soils and a pleasant tropical climate with summer rains. The lowlands are part of the Yucatán Peninsula and consist of a low limestone plateau covered by tropical rainforest. The coastlines are sparsely populated and contain large cattle farms and plantations.

The population

Guatemala. Native American everyday clothes characterize the street scene.

The population consists of 60% Indians, 30-35% mestizos (of European-Indian descent), 4-5% white descendants of the Spaniards and 2% blacks and Asians. Most Indians speak their native language and follow traditional lifestyles; only a few speak Spanish. There are 20 different Mayan tribes with as many languages ​​and over 100 dialects.

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The Indians live mainly in the central highlands, where in many places they make up over 90% of the population. They live off agriculture and mainly grow maize for their own consumption; many supplement the cultivation with seasonal work in the plantations. Landino is the common name for the non-Indian population and the Indians who have left their own culture and language. They live mainly in the eastern part of the country and in the big cities. Many work as cattle keepers and day laborers on the large farms. Population growth is large, 3.1% per year, and 45% are under 15 years (1992). The influx to the cities and especially to the capital has been great as a result of the political violence in the early 1980’s; in the same period left approximately 1/2mio. landed and sought asylum in Mexico and the United States, while 1 million. became internal refugees. Many hide in the slums of the cities and feed themselves as, for example, street sweepers and shoemakers; unemployment is high and it is not uncommon for children to be breadwinners. approximately 50,000 are still living in exile in Mexico, according to Rigoberta Menchú, who in 1992 received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to achieve better economic and political conditions for the Native American people.


A very large part of the population is attached to agriculture, and half of the labor force is directly employed here. However, many are underemployed as day laborers and seasonal workers. The land distribution is extremely skewed: 3% of the landowners own 70% of the agricultural land.

This property structure dates back to colonial times, when the Spaniards ‘ideas of private property collided with the Indians’ traditional collective use of land, and even now Indians are deprived of land. In addition to the white upper class, the large landowners are international agro-business companies such as United Brands. On the large farms, export crops such as coffee and cotton are grown and on the Pacific coast sugar cane, while the banana plantations are concentrated around Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean Sea.

On the small family farms, maize and beans are grown in particular. 90% of the farms are too small to support a family and productivity is low. Food production has not kept pace with population growth and food imports are rising.

Much of northern Guatemala is covered by rainforest. The demand for tropical woods has increased deforestation and the rainforest is threatened. Landless farmers who move or flee to the rainforest clear land for cultivation and also contribute to the erosion and pollution problems.


Industrialization began in the 1930’s, and industry contributes 20% of GDP and employs 18% of the working population. The country is thus among the most industrialized in Central America. Food (including canned meat and fish and instant coffee), textiles, medicines, consumables and cement are processed. Much industry is owned by foreign corporations, which are attracted by cheap labor and the absence of unions. Since 1996, Guatemala has seen growth in both tourism and exports of industrial goods from the so-called maquiladoras.(free zones). At the same time, economic reforms have meant that large parts of the public sector have been privatized through sales to foreign companies (railway operations, telecommunications, electricity supply). For the majority of the population, however, economic growth has not had a contagious effect, and opposition to the rich upper class has intensified further.

Among other things. in the rainforest, a few small oil fields have been found, but so far the production is insignificant.

Guatemala – language

The official language of Guatemala is Spanish. In addition, about 20 Mayan languages ​​are spoken by approximately 4.5 million, which is about as many who have Spanish as their mother tongue. Additional languages ​​are garifuna, black carib, spoken by approximately 15,000, as well as the xinca languages, which ceased to be used actively around the end of the 20th century. For culture and traditions of Guatemala, please check calculatorinc.

Efforts are underway in Guatemala to make the Mayan languages ​​official languages ​​alongside Spanish, partly derived from the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín, where North American linguists from approximately 1970’s have trained Mayans in linguistics so that they now compile grammars and dictionaries of their languages ​​themselves. See also Maya (language).

Guatemala – religion

The majority of the population is Catholic. The traditional Native American religions, however, live on to a large extent in the local communities.