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Guatemala's Mayan Indians Endure Poverty

Guatemala is home to a large and diverse indigenous population, with more than half of Guatemalans of Mayan descent. The Mayan Indians in Guatemala, who largely live in the western highlands, suffered horrific atrocities during the country's 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. Despite some progress since the war, the Mayan people continue to face discrimination and live in grinding poverty.

Isabel Rosario Lopez rises at dawn to prepare breakfast for a bustling household of six children. This day, she has a guest helping her prepare a meal. She spends her day in her mountain village tending to her home and weaving beautifully intricate textiles, a tradition passed down by Mayan women for centuries. Her husband toils in the surrounding cornfields or weaves baskets and sells firewood for income.

Children play and laugh in this village, which is located high up in the clouds and offers spectacular views of the surrounding lush countryside far below. But life is not easy. Sunny days give way to cold nights where families struggle to stay warm.

Girls fetch water and do laundry at the bottom of a steep hill. The village is wired for electricity, although the cost of the utility is far out of reach for these villagers. The United Nations Children's Fund says some 67 percent of indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Two years ago, the villagers were relocated atop the mountain after their homes were destroyed by Hurricane Stan, which caused flooding and mudslides that killed more than 15-hundred people. Isabel who, like the other villagers, speaks the Mayan language of Quiche, says she and her family are adjusting to life high on the mountain, but it's hard.

Slow Progress

The Mayans face discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the country's Ladinos, those of mixed Indian and European heritage. Guatemala's Vice President Eduardo Stein says strides are being made in addressing the inequalities and injustices, but he says it is a slow process. "We drafted and enacted a public policy against racism, which is now being implemented in a territorial base in different linguistic communities. We are very proud of this groundbreaking effort, but we are aware that we still have a long ways to go," says Stein. "So far, we can say that at the local level, indigenous participation for public office is well represented."

Stein points to a number of other positive steps the government has taken, including promoting rural development projects and ratifying the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "The latest data on the quality of life in a nationwide survey that is carried out every five years is quite auspicious because we have managed to reduce rural poverty by five percent in the country, and eight percent in the rural areas. We still have half of our population below the poverty line, but it was much worse a few years ago. So there is a lot to be done," says Stein.

Latin American expert Elizabeth Oglesby at the University of Arizona says providing access to land and productive employment are two key areas that need to be addressed. But she says Guatemala has taken some steps, however small, in acknowledging the injustices the Mayan people endured during the country's long civil war.

"There is a public recognition in Guatemala that the Mayan community suffered the worst of the atrocities and that there is a historical injustice that has been done against the Mayan community. I think that is a public recognition didn't exist a generation ago, so there is lots of discussions about that," says Oglesby. "Many Mayan leaders have risen to positions of some prominence, you have Mayans in Congress, you have Mayan leaders as government ministers. So there is progress in this sense, but it's been uneven and its been insufficient."

500 Years and Counting

Guatemala's ambassador to the United Nations, Jorge Skinner-Klee, acknowledges a daunting challenge exists in addressing human rights violations that date back five centuries to the Spanish conquest. "Certainly there are many grave instances of violations, but impunity is no longer the rule of law, it's the exception. It used to be a de facto regime only about twenty-something years ago and Guatemala has transversed in these last two decades, I would say it is light years in regards to the past," says Skinner-Klee. "There are many things we have to catch up on. Our backlog is tremendous, 500 years old actually, but I think we are coming to terms with not only integrating everybody in the political and the economic system, but also making sure the citizens have a voice and that their voices are heard."

A positive development Ambassador Skinner-Klee points to is the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, passed by the U.N. General Assembly in September. Guatemala was a key negotiator for the document. "We have high hopes that this declaration constitutes a minimum of guarantees for indigenous peoples, so they have a better and more equalitarian conditions in which to develop their own interests. And that means political participation as well as social and economic and, of course, cultural [participation]. Their way of life is being respected and now we have instruments in which to advance again and protect their own identity."

But the latest political developments in Guatemala are not on the mind of village resident Manuela, who is worrying, as she does every day, how she will manage to keep her family healthy and provide enough food for her eight children.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.