According to the 2007 census there are 13,319 indigenous people living in El Salvador, comprising approximately 0.2 per cent of the nation’s population of 6.2 million people. Of the indigenous population, 15 per cent identified as Lenca; 31 per cent as Kakawira; 27 per cent as Pipil; and 27 per cent as ‘other’. However, there is widespread criticism that these numbers are significantly lower than the actual population and misrepresent the total breakdown. Indigenous organizations rejected the findings of the census and pointed to separate estimates by the Economy Ministry that as many as 17 per cent of the population may be indigenous.
Indigenous peoples have been persecuted throughout much of Salvadoran history. This has resulted in not only a greatly reduced indigenous population but also a national environment that discourages self-identification as a member of an indigenous community.
Updated September 2017
Due to the history of violence and discrimination against indigenous peoples in El Salvador, there has been a loss of many of the key aspects of their identity and culture. At the First Indigenous National Congress in 2010, President Mauricio Funes apologized on behalf of the state for the persecution and extermination that indigenous peoples have faced.
In June 2014, El Salvador ratified amendments to Article 63 of the Constitution to include the recognition of indigenous peoples and the adoption of policies to support the maintenance and development of their ethnic and cultural identities. Despite the passage of these amendments, no official public policies or laws have been implemented in order to progress implementation.
In 2015, the Legislative Assembly had reportedly been reviewing ratification of the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples for over a year. Despite pressure from the National Coordinating Council of Salvadoran Indigenous Peoples (CCNIS) there has been no progress on ratification.
The Ministry of Health has started to develop policies that incorporate the beliefs and traditional practices of indigenous peoples. However, concern with the health of indigenous peoples continues to be a low priority for the government and a systematic survey of the population has not been completed since 2003. At the time, only 3.2 per cent of El Salvador’s indigenous populations had health insurance.
Indigenous peoples, concentrated disproportionately in the country’s underdeveloped rural areas, continue to be disproportionately represented among El Salvador’s poorest communities. Previous estimates from 2000 found that of the entire indigenous population, 61.1 per cent lived below the poverty line and 38 per cent in extreme poverty. The majority of indigenous people in El Salvador live off of subsistence agriculture and have little access to essential water and sanitation services. Land rights remain a pressing issue for much of the indigenous population who, living on communal land or renting, have been vulnerable to displacement. According to one estimate, only 5 per cent of indigenous citizens have secure land tenure.
Breaking the cycle of exclusion and discrimination is challenging as inequality and lack of opportunities are passed down to the next generation. Many indigenous children do not have adequate access to education: non-attendance among school-age children remains markedly high in provinces with large indigenous populations, and even in areas with large indigenous communities children are unable to receive instruction in their native language or learn about their own cultural traditions.
Minorities & indigenous peoples
The Constitution of El Salvador states that all people are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on nationality, race, sex, or religion. However, independent studies have highlighted the persistently high levels of poverty and exclusion among indigenous communities, particularly in rural areas. The municipalities with the highest presence of indigenous peoples are among the poorest in the country. They lack even most of the basic services with a consequent impact on family and environmental health, education and mortality.
Land ownership plays a big role in the equation, with the majority of indigenous residents lacking secure land tenure. Furthermore with the shrinkage of the low wage agricultural sector the traditional source of income that was formally derived from harvesting coffee and sugar cane has been diminishing. This has particularly affected men and youth of working age prompting many to consider risking everything to try informal undocumented migration to the USA.
Despite the milestone amendment of the Constitution in 2014 to recognize indigenous peoples, their situation remains precarious. Besides their economic marginalization, indigenous communities still struggle with the attrition of their cultural knowledge and the loss of their native languages. Of the 200 indigenous languages once spoken the majority are extinct: The Salvadoran strand of Náhuatl, once the most prevalent language, is now spoken by only around 200 people.
A 2004 study sponsored by the World Bank found that although half of the Salvadoran population living in rural areas is poor, Salvadoran indigenous groups constitute the poorest segments. The municipalities with the highest presence of indigenous people are among the poorest in the country. They lack most of the basic services with a consequent impact on family and environmental health, education and mortality. According to the World Bank’s 2016 Latin America survey on indigenous peoples (citing the country’s 2007 census), 34 per cent of El Salvador’s indigenous people have access to basic sewerage compared with 43 per cent of the non-indigenous population. The figures for piped water were 61 per cent versus 76 per cent; and for electricity, 62 per cent versus 88 per cent.
Land ownership continues to play a big role in the equation. While 95 per cent of non-indigenous people in El Salvador live on their own land and 5 per cent are renters, only 5 per cent of indigenous people own land. 60 per cent of indigenous people live on communal lands and 35 per cent are renters.
With the shrinkage of the low wage agricultural sector, the traditional source of income that was formerly derived from harvesting coffee and sugar cane has been diminishing. This has particularly affected men and youth of working age; prompting many to consider risking everything to try informal undocumented migration to the USA.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Latin America. It borders Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north and east, and Nicaragua to the east. The country is made up of 262 municipalities which are divided into 14 departments.
Before the Spanish colonial period, El Salvador was inhabited by a sizeable indigenous population. These groups included Lenca, Maya Chorti, Maya Pocomam, Cacopera/Kakawira and Nahua Pipil. Some, like the Lenca, occupied a large territory that also encompassed present day Honduras.
The Spanish conquest of El Salvador began in the 16th century. Having gained control of the territory, the Spanish destroyed indigenous villages, expropriated land and developed cash crop plantations using indigenous and imported African forced labour. This pattern eventually led to the concentration of El Salvador land in the hands of a small, Spanish-descended landowning elite.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries land ownership lay at the core of a series of unsuccessful uprisings by indigenous peoples. Efforts to redress the social and economic imbalances were usually met with severe repression
In 1932, 35 ladinos (persons of Spanish descent) were killed during an anti-government uprising by rural campesinos (subsistence farmers) and indigenous people. In response, the government systematically killed between 35,000 and 50,000 people in a massacre called ‘La Matanza.’ Anyone who looked indigenous was especially at risk. Consequently many indigenous peoples were deterred from using their traditional clothing or practicing their customs and culture for fear of losing their lives. Many adopted the mainstream language and Catholic religion restricting traditional practices to the privacy of their homes.
This process accelerated during the 1980-1992 civil war, when death squads killed thousands. That further affected indigenous peoples who, as part of the marginalized rural poor, were sometimes associated with targeted grassroots organizations.
Despite the participation of indigenous organizations in the peace process in El Salvador, none of the peace accords raised questions of indigenous peoples’ rights or issues of self-determination. Equally, since 1994 elections, none of the electoral programmes have included proposals for solving indigenous peoples’ demands.
Though the Salvadoran government officially recognizes the existence of the indigenous population in the form of specially constituted state institutions, discrimination against them persists and remains entrenched in unofficial practice. Prior to 2007, the government did not include a category for indigenous peoples in the census.
The main government agency dealing with indigenous issues is la Dirección Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas y Diversidad Cultural (the National Directorate of Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Diversity). The main purposes of the Directorate are to develop and implement policy that guarantees the collective rights of indigenous peoples, protects their traditional knowledge, and achieves the development of their identity. In 2011 it established the Mesa Multisectorial de Pueblos Indígenas, created with the aim of providing indigenous representatives and government officials with a shared platform to discuss indigenous issues. Civil society organizations such as the Consejo Coordinador Nacional Indígena Salvadoreño (CCNIS) also engage with government authorities.
El Salvador had a series of authoritarian military governments from 1931 to 1979. Rising violence between members of the authoritarian regime and guerrillas during the 1970s culminated in a violent civil war that lasted from 1980 to 1992. It is estimated that over 75,000 people were killed during the war.
On 16 January 1992 the guerrilla fighters, under the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and the government, under the Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA), signed the Peace Accords. ARENA remained in charge of the government until 2009, when the FMLN were first elected into the Presidency. The current President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-wing FMLN party, ends his term in June 2019.
In June 2014, El Salvador ratified amendments to Article 63 of the Constitution to include the recognition of indigenous peoples and the need to maintain and develop their ethnic and cultural identities. Despite the passage of these amendments, no official public policies or laws have been enacted in order to progress implementation.
El Salvador has yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169. Minorities and indigenous peoples continue to be underrepresented in high-level government positions. Of those elected to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in 2015, none identified as members of ethnic minorities or indigenous groups.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asociación de Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida (Las Dignas)
Fondo Ambiental de El Salvador
IMU (Instituto de Investigación, Capacitación y Desarrollo de la Mujer)
Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas para la Paz (ORMUSA)
[Indigenous Gender Rights]
PNUD (UNDP) Programa El Salvador
[United Nations Development Programme]
Popular Education Collective (CIAZO)
Consejo Coordinador Nacional Indígena Del Salvador (CCNIS)
Asociación Coordinadora de Comunidades Indígenas de El Salvador (ACCIES)
Asociación Nacional Indígena Tierra Sagrada (ANITSA)
Movimiento Autóctono Indígena Salvadoreño (MAIS)
[Indigenous Culture & Development]
Museo de la Palabra y La Imagen
[Exhibition: ‘Memoria de los Izalcos’]
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in