The area known today as Guatemala, was the main range of the ancient Maya, a highly developed culture flowering around the 8th century. Today 23 Maya groups live in Guatemala, each one with its own language and tradition. Of the Guatemalan population, 60% belong to indigenous people, and 40% are Ladinos, with Spanish and indigenous ancestry, as well as Garifunas and Xincas. The department of Alta Verapaz is mainly populated by Q’eqchi’ people.
Approximately 120 Q’eqchi’ families live adjacent to the Chelemhá reserve in traditional settlements. The simple huts are made of local materials. Corner posts are made of tree fern trunks. They are especially rot resistant, because of a natural fungicide. The people use boards or split trunks for the walls, which are connected with a resistant vine. The roof is covered with large sedge (Carex sp.), which is common in secondary growth. The smoke of the open fire in the hut serves as impregantion of the roof and preserves it for up to 10 years.
Slash-and-burn is the traditional agricultural method used to grow corn and beans. The quantity of the harvest is limited due to the cold climate and it is hardly enough to provide one family with food for the whole year. Many of the fathers and older sons leave Chelemhá for several weeks each year in order to earn money to provide their families with basic needs. They work in agricultural mass productions like coffee, cardamom, bananas and others.
Current conservation activities provide local jobs, saving the people from having to seek far-away jobs and long-time absences from their families.