Mexican Church appeals for 'forgotten' indigenous people

 Politicians in Mexico have forgotten the country's indigenous people, several church and community leaders said this week. With just a week to go before the country's presidential elections, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquival of San Cristobal de las Casas, said election candidates were "totally ignoring" the indigenous people in Chiapas state and seemed only interested in the economy. Just before Christmas 1997, 45 men, women and children were massacred by paramilitary forces in Acteal, a tiny village in the southern Mexican highlands. Dozens of civilians have been convicted for participating in the slaughter, and some low-ranking government officials have been jailed for failing to prevent it. But locals say little else has changed in their lives, regardless of government promises to bring peace and development to one of Mexico's poorest areas. And the government's neglect for the ongoing conflict in Chiapas could keep indigenous people away from the polls, some have said. "There aren't many advantages in voting," said Augustin Vasquez Ruiz, president of the civic organisation, Las Abejas or "The Bees." "We've never received any benefits from the government," he said. Disillusionment with the Mexican government, combined with the economic and physical difficulties of getting to polling stations in the rainy season, is likely to produce low voter turnout among the Chiapas indigenous population, said Miguel Angel Garcia, general coordinator of Maderas del Pueblo, a Chiapas-based organisation that works with indigenous communities. Garcia predicted a voter turnout as low as 30 percent. In 2000, Mexican President Vicente Fox said he could resolve "in 15 minutes" the conflicts in Chiapas, which were brought to the world's attention in 994 when the Zapatista rebel group seized a highland town for several days. The rebels demand the constitutional recognition of indigenous people's right to self-governance and control over their natural resources. Peace negotiations in 1996 resulted in a set of government and rebel commitments known as the San Andres accords. But as Fox comes to the end of his term, observers in Chiapas say progress has been minimal. "Development has come in droplets but the people's level of poverty is the same," said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, who heads a parish near Acteal. The Mexican government's own statistics show little progress on expanding basic services to indigenous people in Chiapas. Less than 34 percent of indigenous households in Chiapas have running water, according to a 2005 report from the Mexican government's National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities. This is only a slight improvement from 2000, when 30 percent had running water, according to the report. Some observers say the Zapatista rebels are equally responsible for the isolation of Chiapas indigenous communities. After legislators refused to pass a Zapatista-backed indigenous rights law in 2001, the rebels cut off all ties with the government and retreated from the public until last year. When the election campaign began, the rebels launched their "Other Campaign," which seeks to convince millions of poor Mexicans to boycott the elections and form a more grassroots model of politics and government. Bishop Arizmendi said there is still a long way to go toward real peace and development for the area's indigenous people, and added that new threats to indigenous culture have emerged, like increased migration to urban areas or to the United States. "Mexico could lose a lot if it doesn't pay more attention to the indigenous issue," said the bishop. Source: USCCB

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