The population of the Central American state of Guatemala is estimated at 14 million. According to official statistics, 40 per cent of Guatemala's inhabitants are indigenous, and include Garífuna, Maya and Xinca peoples. During 2010, indigenous spokespeople continued to challenge these figures, claiming that in fact more than 60 per cent of Guatemalans are indigenous.
According to Eduardo Sacayón, director of the Interethnic Studies Institute at Guatemala's University of San Carlos, the situation of Guatemala's indigenous communities continues to deteriorate. Poverty has increased, the quality of education remains very poor, and there continues to be no intercultural perspective in the provision of health services. This latter particularly affects indigenous women in the areas of reproductive and maternal health.
Indigenous women predominantly inhabit rural areas, and may have to walk several hours to get to a health centre. Once there, there is no guarantee they will get the attention they need. A joint USAID/ Guatemala Ministry of Health report revealed that the racist attitudes of health workers toward the Mayan population pose a significant problem. Doctors often doubt the ability of indigenous women to understand instructions, and only 65 per cent of health centres have bilingual staff.
The 2009-10 Human Development Report for Guatemala, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), indicates that in the area of education, indigenous peoples continue to be at a distinct disadvantage, constituting just 13.2 per cent of the post-secondary student population.
According to the third report presented by the government in December 2010 on progress towards meeting the MDGs, 80 per cent of indigenous Guatemalans are living in poverty, compared to 40 per cent of the non-indigenous population. Also, according to the government report, while nationwide poverty in Guatemala over the past six years fell nearly 5.2 per cent, extreme poverty, which primarily affects indigenous peoples, declined just half a percentage point (15.7 to 15.2 per cent). During 2010, the prevalence of chronic malnutrition among indigenous children aged five and under continued to be twice that of non-indigenous children (30.6 per cent), which translates into some 69.5 per cent of indigenous children who suffer chronic malnutrition.
These conditions were not aided during 2010 by the recurrence of extreme weather patterns, including droughts and Tropical Storm Agatha, which damaged road communications, infrastructure and threatened indigenous peoples' food security. A World Food Programme (WFP) study indicated that 235,000 people – most of whom are indigenous people – will need emergency food aid, and a further 95,000 who are engaged in subsistence agriculture will require supplementary food up to early 2011, just to be able to survive in areas that have been swept by torrential rains, floods, deadly landslides and a volcanic eruption.
Critics point out that, despite earlier political promises, no government policies have been developed for indigenous peoples, nor is there compliance with ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
Transnational and mining interests continued to prevail in areas where indigenous communities are located. With mining royalties increasing by as much as 10 per cent a year, the Ministry of Energy and Mining (MEM) proposed the creation of a Collective Mining Fund specifically devoted to overseeing the use of mining royalties for rural development. The MEM proposes splitting the profits from activities like gold sales between the company and the state, with 75 per cent of the government's revenue going to the Collective Mining Fund, to be passed on to communities in the form of development projects. This was partly to offset widespread rejection of mines by nearby indigenous communities.
There are valid reasons for their rejection. A research team from the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) that tested local water supplies in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacan found toxic levels of arsenic as high as 0.70 mg/L or 70 ppb (parts per billion) in a river downstream from one mine. Engineer Fausto Valiente from COPAE pointed out that, in comparison, the maximum standard limit established by the World Bank, is 0.1 mg/L (10 ppb), while the US Environmental Protection Agency sets an even lower limit level of 0.01 mg/L. The country's indigenous populations have continued to oppose mining concessions at public hearings held in accordance with Convention No. 169. They cite the environmental degradation and health risks. Nevertheless, the projects continue.
At an International Parliamentary Conference in Chiapas, Mexico in October-November 2010, Otilia Lux, an indigenous Mayan Guatemalan lawmaker on the congressional Indigenous Affairs Committee explained that although important bills benefiting indigenous peoples have been presented to Congress, these have still not been passed. They include a proposed rural development law to improve access to land and housing, and a law to make indigenous hearings binding with respect to transnational mining company operations. Moreover, the Fund for Guatemalan Indigenous Development, created in 1994, and the 2002 Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism continue to lack the necessary capacity for effective action.
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