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GUATEMALA: Forgotten Promises Leave Indigenous Peoples Poorer and Hungrier

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 12 2010 (IPS) - Nearly three years into President Álvaro Colom’s four-year term, Guatemala’s indigenous people have seen little improvement in their lives — and they represent approximately half the country’s population.

“The situation of the native peoples may be even worse than before. Poverty has increased, the quality of education is very poor, and there is no intercultural perspective in health services,” Eduardo Sacayón, director of the Interethnic Studies Institute at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos, told IPS.

The social-democratic President Colom promised when he was sworn in, Jan. 14, 2008, that he would govern “with a Maya face,” in favour of the poor and excluded. “Today is the beginning of privileges for the poor, today is the beginning of privileges for those without opportunities,” he said at the time.

But Sacayón says the reality is quite different: “It is a structural and historic issue of always seeing what is indigenous as something that is not worth the effort, that has no value, or is a burden to the country.”

According to official statistics, 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous, and include Maya, Garífuna and Xinca peoples. Though they themselves claim that more than 60 percent of Guatemala’s 14 million inhabitants are indigenous.

“Since the arrival of the Spaniards (in the late 15th century), Guatemalan society has had the idea that what is indigenous has no merit, and only what is Western has value. That concept is nothing more than a racist and discriminatory viewpoint, but it is repeated through the governments, the political parties and even the media,” Sacayón said.

In 2000, eight out of 10 indigenous Guatemalans were poor, while among the non-indigenous the rate was four out of 10. Those numbers have seen little change since 2006, says the third report on progress towards meeting the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), presented by the government last week.

The UN established the MDGs in 2000, with 2015 as the deadline for achieving set targets, based on indicators from 1990. The goals include reducing poverty, guaranteeing universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing maternal and infant mortality, and fighting HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

According to the report that the government presented last week, extreme poverty — primarily affecting indigenous peoples, saw a decline in Guatemala of just a half percentage point between 2000 and 2006: 15.7 to 15.2 percent. Meanwhile, poverty in general fell from 56.2 to 51 percent.

The prevalence of chronic malnutrition among indigenous children ages five and under was 58.6 percent in 2008-2009, almost twice the rate of non- indigenous children (30.6 percent).

In 2002, 69.5 percent of indigenous children suffered chronic malnutrition, compared to 35.7 percent of non-indigenous children.

As for education, the numbers show the indigenous segment of the population at a clear disadvantage: Just 13.2 percent of the post-secondary student population in 2008 was indigenous, according to the National Human Development Report 2009-2010, of the UN Development Programme.

Despite these indicators of the indigenous reality, support for this segment of society is practically nonexistent, according to Sacayón.

“No policies have been developed for indigenous peoples, nor is there compliance with Convention 169 (of the International Labour Organisation on indigenous and tribal peoples),” because transnational and mining interests have prevailed in areas where those communities are affected, he said.

The country’s indigenous populations have largely opposed mining concessions when the plans have been brought up for public hearings, in accordance with Convention 169, which has been in force in Guatemala since 1997. Nevertheless, the projects continue.

“Indigenous peoples continue to be seen as second-class citizens,” in line with the predominant attitudes of discrimination and racism, Otilia Lux, an opposition lawmaker on the congressional Indigenous Affairs Committee, told IPS.

As for efforts in Congress, Lux explained that important laws have been presented for the benefit of the Maya people, such as the rural development law to improve access to land and housing, and the law to make the indigenous hearings binding for whether to allow transnational mining companies to operate in their lands.

But those laws don’t get passed, she said.

This being the case, according to Lux the native peoples must create political spaces for themselves, so they have the footing to demand recognition of their rights.

One such opportunity will come in September 2011, when the Guatemalans elect a new president for the next four years, as well as 153 deputies for the unicameral Congress, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament, and 333 mayors.

Domingo Hernández, of the Waqib’ Kej National Maya Convergence, an umbrella for several groups, told IPS that President Colom spoke of leading “with a Maya face,” but on the contrary, repression of indigenous peoples has increased, as has indigenous poverty and migration during his time in office.

Expanding access to education, health, work and land, in the context of meeting the requirements of the ILO’s Convention 169, should be essential for the government if it truly wants to attend to the needs of the Maya population, according to Hernández.

Juan José Hurtado, of the non-governmental organisation Pop No’j (“weaving ideas, knowledge and wisdom” – in the Maya language), said there are institutions in place, like the Fund for Guatemalan Indigenous Development, created in 1994, and the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, from 2002, among others, “but they lack the capacity for action or implementation.”

In his opinion, Guatemala should follow the examples of countries like Bolivia and Venezuela, which have more political spaces for indigenous participation in political decision-making.

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