August 30, 2011

Fighting to Stay on Their Land: The Maya Q’Eqchi of Guatemala

One Mayan community in Guatemala is fighting for its right to stay on its own land, and they are looking for support from other Indigenous Peoples also.

The Mayan Q’eqchi’ indigenous community of Agua Caliente filed a petition on August 19 against the government of Guatemala in order to seek protection of their land and human rights, in response to the latest conflicts involving the Guatemala Nickel Company (CGN) and the federal governments responses to a variety of legal decisions.  The Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) of Washington, D.C. is representing the community in the international court as it has for several years.

Agua Caliente, a Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous community of 385 people living in El Estor, in the country’s Izabal province, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concerning the violation of their rights to property, self-government, due process of law and judicial protection by the state of Guatemala.

Community residents and others allege that the company has continued to try to force Maya Q’ecqchi’ citizens to leave their lands and the petition seeks redress for those violations. The Commission is an independent organ of the Organization of American States, created by countries to promote and protect human rights in the Americas.

The complaint centers on a 40-year dispute over the community’s traditional ownership rights to land rich with nickel deposits. The Guatemala government gave CGN, a former subsidiary of HudBay Minerals from Canada, rights to extract nickel from lands held by sixteen Maya Q’eqchi’ communities, including Agua Caliente. The permission was granted without regard for the ownership and self-government rights of the communities. Additionally, Guatemala failed to properly notify and consult with community members. In February 2011, Guatemala’s highest court ruled in favor of Agua Caliente, recognizing their collective property rights and questioning the legality of the mining permits and activities on their traditional lands.

In the February ruling the Court ordered Guatemala’s executive branch to take all corrective actions necessary to properly title Agua Caliente’s lands. This includes replacing pages that were removed from the official land registry book, pages that show land ownership belongs to the Agua Caliente community, but which have gone missing according to the ILRC. The Court also stated that the executive branch’s failure to properly register and title indigenous lands violates Agua Caliente’s land rights and rights to equality before the law, as well as the legal principle of self-determination.

This recent legal action comes after the community has suffered from numerous threats, violent assaults and forced displacements according to Rodrigo Tot, President of the Agua Caliente pro-development committee, which is also responsible for management of land, natural resources, and protection of human rights. Tot also represents the community in dealings with local, regional and federal government officials.

“It is the threat of being displaced from our lands that we seek this petition,” Tot explained in a recent interview. “Because we have the most nickel deposits in our territory, and the mining company has used various tactics to divide our community also.”

“We used to be 64 families in our community,” Tot continued, “but because of company threats—at least two families left for fear of being attacked—we are now approximately 370 people, men, women and children.”

“One of their recent tactics is they use helicopters to fly very low over the community to scare people,” he asserted. “Many women and children were frightened by this.”

Tot noted that the mining company is operating right beside a lake, and that “…we along with some environmental groups are worried that Lake Izabal will become very polluted.”

“I also ask for support, for indigenous leaders to stand with us, and I encourage them to talk to the U.S. leaders to find out about the indigenous people of Guatemala,” Tot said.  “My community and I are motivated by the help of the ILRC, to help keep us going and not give up.”

“I invite journalists to come to Agua Caliente, to see for themselves the reality that lies in our community,” he said.

According to ILRC Attorney Leonardo Crippa, the legal proceedings involved in the case could take up to two to three years.

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September 5, 2011

Indigenous Peoples Discuss Human Rights with European Parliament

Click here to view the embedded video.

Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala and Colombia met with members of the European Parliament in June where they shared their concerns on human rights violations, labor rights and the impacts of certain projects on the survival and welfare of indigenous communities.

In this video uploaded by Telebraille.tv, Helmut Scholz and Bernd Lange, members of Parliament and Sebastian Jansasoy of the Inga Tribe in Colombia share their opinions on the agreement between the parties involved. The video follows the move of Parliament to send a letter to Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the European Commission about the meetings.

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January 19, 2012

CNN Special ‘Narco Wars’ Focuses on Central America as the Murder Capital of the World

Mexico may be known for it’s drug trafficking and cartels, but in Central America there are countries known for their murder rates. Welcome to the most violent region on earth according to an October article at CNN.com.

Specifically, Honduras which is the current murder capital of the world according to a graph by The Washington Post.

On January 22, CNN will be airing a special report titled “Narco Wars,” that was filmed on the streets of Honduras and Guatemala, two countries that have a higher per-capita murder rate than Mexico in 2010, along with El Salvador, Belize and Panama – All Central America countries.

The special report focuses on these two countries because they have become the cocaine corridor for the United States where the majority of murders are connected to drugs and go unsolved.

The special will be premiering at 8 p.m. on CNN Presents.

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March 24, 2012

Intellectualizing the Pow Wow: Academic Tome Tells All

Indigenous Dance and Dancing Indian: Contested Representation in the Global Era (University Press of Colorado, 2012), by Matthew Krystal, is an über-academic tome that only a scholar or hard-core fan will be able to get through. But it accomplishes something that few other books have done previously: It examines the parallels among the different dances of Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

Certainly, at $70 retail, it is more a reference tome than a book that you curl up with in your favorite chair. This scholarly overview of indigenous dance completely intellectualizes every aspect of its subject. Still, it may yet provide insight into what is understood by many dancers intuitively—namely, the perspectives that an outsider can bring to an analysis of the subject. Significantly, no Native affiliation is listed on the book jacket for its author, an assistant professor of anthropology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

The book surveys K’iche’ Maya traditional dance, folkloric dance, and the role of dance in sports, myth and identification with iconic figures. Chapter Five offers an exhaustive study of pow wow origins, including its evolution as a way to preserve ancient aboriginal dances during the era of colonization.

The fifth chapter also gives an overview that, although dense, sheds light on how and why pow wows and dances are as they are. It not only compares and contrasts pow wows from different regions of the U.S. but also draws parallels between U.S. and international dances, demonstrating the commonalities of seemingly disparate peoples.

“With its intense socializing, food and calendric (often annual) scheduling, pow wow is a bit like the Guatemalan indigenous feria, but with dancing more central,” Krystal writes. “Also like feria, pow wow has cultural, economic and political dimensions. Dancers in both events face the challenges that come with being indigenous in a society dominated by nonindigenous Others. Histories of genocide and ethnocide must continue to be overcome, and the twin pillars of indigenous survival—common culture and experience and the social solidarity born from them—are constructed at pow wow and feria.”

A mouthful indeed, and one that gives a sense of how this information-packed book reads.

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April 2, 2012

Guatemala’s Mayans Take Their Demands to New Government

Lucas Garcia Pop, a 30-year-old Q’eqchi Mayan farmer, lost everything last year when he and his neighbors were evicted from Finca San Pablo Pomoxón, a sugar plantation in the Polochic Valley, in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz.

“The soldiers burned our houses and our crops. Now we don’t have anywhere to plant corn,” Garcia Pop said.

He explained that he and his family now live in a shack that he pays for with his labor, but he has a hard time finding enough paid work to buy food. “Sometimes we eat, and sometimes we don’t,” he said.

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Indigenous marchers in front of Presidential Palace.

Garcia Pop was one of approximately 2,000 Mayan and Ladino farmers who began a nine-day march on March 19 from the highland city of Coban, in Alta Verapaz, to the Guatemalan capital. Organized by the small farmers’ organization Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC), the march commemorated the first anniversary of the eviction of 600 families from several large farms in the Polochic Valley. Mayans from across Guatemala participated in the march, which ended the week off March 26 with a rally in front of the country’s presidential palace, and meetings with members of the country’s congress and new president.

It was the first major protest since the January 14 inauguration of President Otto Perez, a retired general who campaigned promising to crack down on Guatemala’s epidemic crime. Perez is the first former military official to be elected president of that Central American nation since it emerged from decades of repressive military rule in 1986.

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Indigenous marchers on presidential palace steps.

Nearly half of Guatemala’s nearly 14 million inhabitants are Mayan, yet they constitute the vast majority of the country’s poor. They also suffered disproportionately during Guatemala’s brutal, 36-year civil war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives before the government and guerrilla signed peace accords on December 29, 1996.

As part of his plan to combat crime, Perez has given the military a great role in law enforcement across Guatemala, which Mayan leaders and human rights activists have objected to.

Edgar Gutierrez, Director of the Institute for the Analysis of National Problems, at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos, noted that Perez lost in most rural areas, where Mayans are the majority, but he won the presidency with the urban vote.

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Marchers reach the presidential palace.

Gutierrez said the recent march was important because, “It put the historic demands of the country’s indigenous people on the agenda of a government that has thus far ignored them.”

Gutierrez said that the march’s first concrete result was a commitment by congressional leaders to open debate on a rural development law that has been languishing in the Guatemalan congress for years, as well as legislation to legalize community radio stations and protect communal lands and sacred sites.

Gutierrez explained that the rural development law would provide credit and technical assistance for Mayan farmers, many of who are reduced to farming marginal land, because most of the best land is owned by a small group of families and corporations. According to a World Bank report, more than 60 percent of Guatemala’s agricultural land is held by less than three percent of its farmers.

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Upon reaching the presidential palace, the farmers listened to speeches in central park from various leaders. Meetings were also held with members of Guatemala’s congress and President Otto Perez.

After meeting for several hours with 11 members of congress last Wednesday, the march’s leaders spent more than eight hours negotiating with President Perez and several ministers. Their demands included that the government halt evictions from various large farms, forgive $39 million of debt that small farmers owe a government agrarian reform fund, much of which was for marginally productive land. They also demanded that Perez declare a moratorium on mining and hydroelectric projects, and withdraw the military from areas that suffered human rights abuses during the civil war.

The president rejected the demands for mining and hydroelectric moratoriums, but he signed an agreement to study options for resolving the land conflicts, forgiving agricultural debts, and limiting the military presence.

According to the Guatemalan daily El Periodico, Perez said, “We aren’t going to offer things that we can’t comply with. We need to consult the law and respect the jurisdiction of other organisms.”

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Indigenous marchers listen to speeches outside the presidential palace in Guatemala's capitol.

Gutierrez predicted that proponents of moratoriums on mining and hydroelectric projects face an up-hill battle, but he observed that the president’s willingness to meet with the march’s leaders and address their demands is grounds for measured optimism.

Cleotilde Cu, who heads the Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena, a government institution that defends the rights of indigenous women, observed that land issues were central to the protest. She said the fact that many Mayan farmers lack enough good land to produce the food for their families causes a host of problems. Poverty forces many Mayan children to drop out of school at young ages, whereas many parents send their teenaged daughters to cities to work as live-in maids, and other families spend months of each year as migrant farm workers.

“Mayan communities, which are the majority in rural areas, lack good education, health care and opportunities. That’s why many people move to the capital, but because they lack education, they end up working as servants,” Cu said.

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Indigenous marchers outside the cathedral in Guatemala's capitol.

Mariano Hernandez, of San Juan Atitan, Huehuetenango, said he and his neighbors joined the march to demand a moratorium on mining. He noted that various large companies have solicited concessions in his area in recent years.

“We are farmers, and they want to take the land that god gave us,” he said. “We don’t want them to destroy our nature, our rivers, our land, because that is what we live from.”

Hernandez said that he was also protesting against the increased military presence in the countryside, explaining that troops committed massacres in Huehuetenango during the civil war.

“We are afraid of the military because they don’t respect human rights,” Hernandez said. “Just as we respect the current government, we want them to respect us. We say no to violence and no to destruction.”

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August 24, 2012

Multiple Causes Cited for Mayan Demise Including Climate Change

Two recently published studies delve into what caused the collapse of the Mayan empire, a question many archaeologists have tried answering.

One of the studies, published August 20 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters points to drought hastened by deforestation as the lead cause of the decline of the Mayan empire.

“We’re not saying deforestation explains the entire drought, but it does explain a substantial portion of the overall drying that is thought to have occurred,” said the study’s lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate modeler at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a statement.

Researchers conducted computer simulations to figure out how the climate would have been affected by lands dominated by crops. They discovered that rainfall in the Yucatan peninsula—a heavily logged area—would have declined by as much as 15 percent. In other Maya lands, it could have declined by 5 percent.

The main culprit was corn. As it replaced the dense forest, more sunlight bounced back into space, Cook said. The ground was absorbing less energy from the sun, so less water was evaporating from the surface and this caused less moisture to be released into the air to form rain-making clouds. “You basically slow things down—the ability to form clouds and precipitation,” Cook said.

The idea that deforestation hastened climate change and caused the Mayas’ demise isn’t completely new. In 2010 climate modeler Robert Oglesby published a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research showing that rainfall could have declined 15 to 30 percent if the Maya lands had been cleared of trees.

But deforestation and drought aren’t the only reasons researchers have found for the demise of the Maya civilization. Another study published August 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes a more complete approach to explaining what happened to the 19 million people of the Maya empire.

“The ninth century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatán peninsular region were the result of complex human–environment interactions,” writes the team, led by B.L. Turner, a social scientist at Arizona State University. Turner and colleagues agree that deforestation contributed to the drought, but sees that as just one in a number of contributing factors that led to the downfall of the Maya.

The team detailed how the sapodilla tree, once favored as construction beams, was no longer used at the Tikal and Calakmul sites beginning in A.D. 741. Other resources showed signs of decline as well, such as the white-tailed deer.

“This environmental stress was complemented by a shift in commercial trade from across the peninsula to around it, which reduced the economy of the ruling elite to keep up the livelihood infrastructure to prevent the tipping point,” Turner said in an Arizona State University press release. The decision was made to vacate the central lowlands rather than maintain the investment. This theory is not only consistent with the data on collapse but on the failure of the central lowlands to be reoccupied subsequently.”

It’s hard to imagine the millions of people who once thrived in the Mayan cities between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900, especially when the buildings they once occupied are seen today overgrown with jungle. Ogelsby said that areas occupied by the Maya are still vulnerable.

“There’s a tremendous amount of change going on in Guatemala,” he said in the statement. “They may be that much more vulnerable to a severe drought.”

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November 4, 2012

Tomb of Influential Early Mayan Ruler Discovered in Guatemala

Archaeologists in Guatemala have discovered the tomb of an influential early Mayan ruler. The tomb of King K’utz Chman was found by researchers in June but not announced until October 25 because it took them that long to verify the grave belonged to him.

K’utz Chman, a priest, is said to have ruled around 700 B.C. in Retalhuleu in southwestern Guatemala. In his tomb archaeologists found ceramic pots and dolls and jade jewels including one jade necklace carved in the shape of a vulture’s head, which is a symbol that represented power and wealth in the Mayan culture. It was given to respected elder men.

“The richness of the artifacts tells us he was an important and powerful religious leader,” archaeologist Christa Schieber, coordinator of the project at the Tak’alik Ab’aj dig site, told Reuters. “He was very likely the person who began to make the changes in the system and transition into the Mayan world.”

Archaeologist Miguel Orrego of the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropologia e Historia told Reuters that Chman was “the ruler who bridged the gap between Olmec and Maya cultures and initiated the slow transition to Maya rule.”

The Maya empire began to thrive around 400 B.C. when the Olmec empire was declining.

Some of the cultural changes Chman was responsible for included switching the building style from square structures to pyramids and commissioning the carving of royal family sculptures, things that came to define Mayan culture.

Though archaeologists did not find any human remains in the tomb, carbon dating of artifacts and other organic materials conclude that it was built between 770 B.C. and 510 B.C., reported the Los Angeles Times.

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November 7, 2012

Guatemala 7.4-Magnitude Earthquake Kills One, Jolts All the Way to Mexico City

A 7.4-magnitude earthquake that struck near the Guatemala-Mexico border early Wednesday killed at least one person and jolted people all the way north to Mexico City, hundreds of miles away.

The temblor struck just off Guatemala’s Pacific coast at 10:35 a.m. Eastern Time, about 14 miles south of Champerico, with an epicenter 25 miles below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did not issue a regional tsunami warning, though said there was the slight risk of a local tsunami, according to Reuters.

Reuters also reported that eight people were injured in a building collapse in San Marcos, 101 miles west-southwest of Guatemala City, where the quake was also felt. The Associated Press reported at least one fatality, quoting the Guatemalan government’s Twitter feed.

Also in San Marcos, according to the AP, houses had collapsed onto residents, and smashed appliances were scattered in the streets. Tremors also reached San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

Fox News reported that several highways in western Guatemala had been cut off by landslides, quoting a radio station, and said President Otto Perez Molina had placed the country on high disaster alert and mandated evacuations from tall buildings, the latter as a precautionary measure.

Reuters and other news sources originally reported the quake as a 7.3 magnitude, which the USGS then changed to 7.5, then to 7.4 magnitude.

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