Mexico's southernmost State of Chiapas is beautiful and well endowed with natural resources. It has all the elements for success. And, yet, it is the poorest region in the country. The reasons for this are many including a large indigenous population, high rates of illiteracy and lack of infrastructure. The state government wants to turn this around. It has signed an ambitious agreement with the United Nations - the first of its kind in Mexico - to work together to reduce poverty. Its aim is to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015.
One of the many delights of Tuxtla Gutierras, the capital of Chiapas is the Marimba Park. Every evening between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. people of all ages go there to listen and dance to the music. But, what is most striking is the number of elderly, care worn men and women who stop in the park after a long day's work. Their clothes and deeply wrinkled faces betray a life of poverty and hardship. But, when they dance, their faces light up and their cares just slip away.
"We are in a straight fight against poverty, against extreme poverty. So, we have subscribed an agreement with the UN system so that they can guide us in that economic, political and social exercise," says Blanca Esponda, chief strategy planner for the government of Chiapas.
Esponda says the agreement with the UN is unusual in that it bypasses the federal government. She says local problems are best dealt with on a local level where the struggles of local people are best understood.
"And, therefore, we decided that we needed sort of a map road on how to reach the goal that we want, which is to diminish poverty in Chiapas. We know we cannot eradicate poverty, not in a short term anyway. But, while this government is in office, we certainly want to bring up the level of the extreme poverty that we suffer in 28 particular municipalities," she said.
The 28 districts are ranked on the bottom of the UN Development Program's Human Development Index for Mexico. They are rural farming communities, largely populated by indigenous people, who cling to their traditions and reject integration into Western society. Many do not speak Spanish and are illiterate.
Esponda tells VOA the government decided to ask the United Nations for help after it realized that many of the indigenous communities lacked access to basic education.
"We discovered as we entered into the government that many children, small children were not attending school. And, we were very concerned about that. So, we looked for UNICEF, and then we decided to establish a program to call all the children to school and with their guidance we were very successful," she said.
When opportunity knocks, you should grab it. That, at least, is what the governor's wife, Maria Isabella Sabenas believes. She is president of DIF, the Department for the Infancy and Families of Chiapas. Under her direction, aid workers go into small communities and literally knock on every door to ferret out the children who do not go to school. UNICEF has honored her for her achievements.
"Last year, we got 32,000 children in school. This year, we are targeting 10 to 15,000 more. So that means 57,000 more children will be helped. People continue to knock on the doors looking for all the children. We also are trying to get schools to make more room for them," she said.
Sabenas says the program provides the children with backpacks and uniforms. It even gives bicycles to those who live very long distances away from a school. Her institute also dispenses a million breakfasts for poor children.
"We will struggle to achieve many of the development goals. And, in particular, the region has a lot of challenges, particularly I would say in maternal death and infant death and HIV," she said.
Marianna Diaz Amador is Deputy Director of the UN Development Program's Office in Chiapas. She says the UN agreement with Chiapas is ambitious. It encompasses 20 initiatives, which cover a range of needs.
She says the mandate of her agency is to eradicate poverty and help the government achieve their development objectives.
"We are working not only with indigenous people," she explained. "There are 28 municipalities, with the lowest Human Development Index. So they are in a very, very bad condition with marginalization, poverty in general…We are aiming at promoting gender equality. That is one of our mainstreaming initiatives and also environmental sustainability, which is also another of our mainstreaming initiatives."
The challenges are enormous. Chiapas suffers from the highest rate of malnutrition in Mexico. Maternal mortality is high. So is infant mortality. HIV/AIDS is widespread because of the large number of migrants crossing the border from other countries in Central America.
But, the government is composed of young, enthusiastic ministers committed to making things better. It is not clear whether they will win their fight against poverty. But, they are determined to try. And, if all else fails, there's always the Marimba to lift their spirits.