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MEXICO: Indigenous People “As Poor as Ever”

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 4 2006 (IPS) - Some 13 million indigenous people in Mexico, most of whom are poor, illiterate and work for little to no pay, saw the New Year arrive while listening to yet more government promises that things would improve and watching the start of a unique Zapatista guerrilla campaign in favour of their rights.

‘Subcomandante Marcos’, the most prominent leader of the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), left the guerrillas’ stronghold in the southern state of Chiapas, along the border with Guatemala, by motorcycle Sunday along with his fellow insurgent leaders, to undertake a six-month nationwide tour in search of alliances with the “genuine” left.

For his part, conservative President Vicente Fox, whose invitations to negotiate have been consistently turned down by Marcos, visited a Huichol indigenous shaman to undergo a spiritual cleansing ritual and begin a one-week trip Monday to remote rural areas to offer assistance to “my indigenous sisters and brothers.”

Poverty levels among the country’s indigenous people – who make up roughly 10 percent of the population – have remained fairly steady since the Zapatistas first burst on the scene in January 1994.

Nor has any change been brought about since Fox took office in December 2000 as the first president from a party other than the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in seven decades.

However, the question of indigenous rights has become a central issue in the political debate, which observers and the Fox administration itself attribute to the presence of the EZLN, which from the start has demanded justice and respect for indigenous people.

After several rounds of peace talks with the administration of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), the Zapatistas and the government signed the San Andrés accords on indigenous rights and culture in 1996.

In 2001, after the EZLN leaders staged a high-profile trip to the capital, Congress passed constitutional reforms based on the accords.

But the Zapatistas did not believe the reforms were far-reaching enough, because they granted only limited autonomy to indigenous communities. For its part, the government acknowledged that the reforms were limited, but said it was unable to push through more profound changes.

“I haven’t seen any changes (in the conditions faced by indigenous people). Here I am, as you see me, poor as ever,” Estela Marín, a 45-year-old indigenous woman, told IPS. She survives by panhandling every day in a residential area of the capital with two of her young children.

Tens of thousands of indigenous people migrate to Mexico’s cities, where they tend to work as domestics, sell trinkets on street corners, beg for small change or join the sex trade.

In the countryside, millions of indigenous people are trapped in the most dire poverty, which is only slightly alleviated when a president visits them, like Fox is doing this week, to inaugurate infrastructure projects or initiatives in health and education.

In the state of Chiapas, where the EZLN engaged in skirmishes with the army in the first two weeks of 1994 until then president Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) declared a unilateral ceasefire, poverty levels remain high despite government social programmes and the efforts of non-governmental organisations.

Between 1990 and 2004, poverty as measured by the proportion of people with incomes of less than 250 dollars a month rose in Chiapas from 20.5 to 27.8 percent of the population, according to a study by the Chamber of Deputies research centre.

“Chiapas remains the state with the highest level of marginalisation and the lowest human development index in the country,” states the report.

The barely-armed EZLN demands justice for indigenous people and respect for their culture, lifestyles and organisational structures. The group’s leaders, unarmed and with authorisation from the government, set out Jan. 1 on a tour of the nation in search of civil society allies with whom to draw up “a new blueprint” for Mexico.

The rebels say they are not interested in the current campaign for the July 2006 presidential elections.

“Although the EZLN does not represent all of the country’s indigenous communities, its proposals reflect their aspirations, and we hope it will be successful in its new initiative,” Antonio Meléndez, coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Economic and Social Development of Indigenous Mexicans (DESMI), told IPS.

DESMI has been working with indigenous people in Chiapas since 1969.

The National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, a government agency, estimates that there are around 13 million indigenous people in Mexico, out of a total population of 106.9 million.

Mexico’s native people are the heirs of the advanced Aztec and Mayan cultures, which were laid waste by Spanish colonialism, starting in the 16th century.

Today, documents from the National Commission indicate that of every 100 indigenous people who work in Mexico, 25 receive no pay whatsoever and 56 earn less than 250 dollars a month.

Of indigenous people aged 15 or older, 25 percent are illiterate, a proportion that rises to 32 percent among women.

In addition, 39 percent of indigenous people – and 42 percent of indigenous girls and women – between the ages of five and 24 do not attend school.

Nearly half of the country’s indigenous people have earth floors in their homes, and nine out of 10 have no separate kitchen areas, while 40 percent of indigenous households have no clean water.

The Fox administration estimates that during its six-year term, which ends in December, it will have spent around one billion dollars on infrastructure in indigenous areas, including piped water, roads, housing and electrification.

At the start of his trip this week, the president declared that no government in the history of Mexico has ever provided so much support for indigenous people.

But according to Meléndez, “This president has not done anything extraordinary for indigenous people. His support and promises are similar to those made in the past by other governments.”

A World Bank study released in May, “Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America: 1994-2004”, noted that the poverty rate among Mexico’s indigenous people hardly budged – from 90 to 89.7 percent – between 1992 and 2002.

The report stated that in 2002, a person from a predominantly indigenous municipality in Mexico had, on average, an income equivalent to a mere 26 percent of that of someone from a non-indigenous district.

In the country’s indigenous areas, life expectancy stands at 64 years and infant mortality at 41 of every 1,000 live births. In non-indigenous areas, by contrast, life expectancy is 68 years and infant mortality 24 of every 1,000 live births.

“I don’t know much about that,” said Marín, when asked about the respective tours by the EZLN and Fox. “But I do know that here we are as poor as ever, and that no one is helping us,” added the indigenous mother, who survives on the spare change that she collects on the streets.

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