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Indigenous Peoples Particularly Vulnerable to Disasters
Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY,  (Tierramérica) - In the areas of Guatemala recently devastated by Hurricane Stan, which claimed the lives of more than 655 people, indigenous children last year played Kumatzin, a board game in the Maya language and with Mayan illustrations, used as an educational tool on how to prepare for and survive natural disasters.

If that game and other preparedness initiatives had been more widespread, perhaps today the situation in Stan's wake would be different, say its promoters.

In early October, Stan smashed into several impoverished areas of Guatemala and southern Mexico, part of the "Mesoamerican" region. And the area is now concerned about Hurricane Wilma, which strengthened into a category 5 storm Wednesday.

Indigenous people in the region are included in official plans for disaster prevention, evacuation and aid, but without taking into account their unique cultural references and knowledge.

The howl of the coyotes, the way certain birds fly, the "sound" of the Earth and the position and shine of the moon are some of the manifestations of nature that can predict natural disasters, according to the indigenous "wise ones" and elders.

But none of that has a place in the official plans, which often also ignore the languages and the organisational modes of native communities when it comes to confronting shared problems.

"The tragedy wouldn't have been as serious if plans existed that took into consideration the particularities of the indigenous communities and their cultures," Ramiro Batzin, spokesman for the Sotz'il, a Guatemalan indigenous organisation, told Tierramérica.

Together with the Red Cross, Sotz'il is working to create a Maya Network for Disaster Prevention.

The governments recognise that the recent torrential rains associated with Stan worsened the marginalisation of the descendents of the ancient Maya Indians, who developed one of the most advanced civilisations in what is now Latin America. In Guatemala and Mexico, the vast majority of these indigenous peoples today live in poverty.

"We weren't listened to. The governments must realise that we live in more vulnerable areas and that we have a different relationship with the Earth; and that must be considered," Nicaraguan Jorge Fredrick said in a Tierramérica interview. Until July he served as the chief councillor of the Central American Indigenous Council.

The game Kumatzin last year was updated after input from children of the San Juan de Comalapa community in the Guatemalan department of Chimaltenango. The game has not been more broadly disseminated due to lack of funding.

Meanwhile, the idea remains on paper to create a network of indigenous communities to evaluate and define natural threats and take appropriate action.

Similar difficulties plague a project to integrate and organise prevention actions with indigenous residents, an issue proposed under the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), a regional development initiative extending from Mexico through Central America.

"What happened (with Stan) reaches levels of catastrophe" and serves as a lesson for the PPP, which now "should transcend the world of discourse and treaties" and move "towards action," said David Smith, in Guatemala, director of the Coordination Centre for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America, CEPREDENAC.

PPP is an inter-governmental development programme for Mesoamerica, a one-million-square-kilometre area extending across nine southern Mexican states and Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

The Kumatzin game is just one step towards a disaster prevention programme involving the region's indigenous peoples, but "we hope it will ultimately reach all of the communities," said Batzin.

"Kojetza'n tqetamaj nqato'qi chuwäch k'ayewal" (learn to protect ourselves from disaster) is the motto of Kumatzin, "the plumed serpent", inspired by "Riskland", a children's game created by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Translated to one of the Maya languages, Kaqchikel, and adapted to the indigenous context through images that highlight their culture and traditional writings, the game is intended to teach children how to prepare for and prevent the worst impacts of natural disasters -- and to transmit that knowledge to adults.

On the game board, players move along a winding route that crosses rivers, populated areas, bridges and deforested zones. Along the way they encounter a smoking volcano, people cutting down trees, but they also see indigenous homes and smiling children.

Just a few kilometres from where the game was first played, the rains and flooding brought by Hurricane Stan killed dozens of people and caused vast material damages.

A similar thing occurred in the area around San Pedro Yepocapa, a community where the Sotz'il organisation put together a compilation in 2004 of ancient indigenous beliefs about the warning signs from animals, the stars and even dreams about impending disaster.

Stan brought to light "the precarious situation in which the indigenous peoples live and the lack of attention paid by the state," Gilberto Atz, head of Guatemala's National Coordinator of Peasant Organisations, told Tierramérica.

According to Batzin, "it's clear that in cases like the recent disaster, the authorities always attend first to the communities where there are no indigenous peoples," as part of the "institutionalised discrimination that exists."

Diego Esquina, mayor of the Guatemalan town Santiago Atitlán, complained to the national government for concentrating its first response to Stan on the people in the south, where sugarcane production is concentrated, and for ignoring the west, which is inhabited mostly by native peoples.

In Mexico, many members of the indigenous communities were the last to receive aid after Stan roared through because they live in the least accessible areas.

Southern Mexico, bordering Guatemala, is home to three-quarters of all Mexicans over age five who speak an indigenous language.

"These disasters underscore the injustices and structural marginalisation in which the indigenous peoples live," said Blanca Martínez, director f the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre, based in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

"There is no institutionalised programme here for protection or civil defence for indigenous peoples, only a general program, and that has proved insufficient," she said.

(* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Jorge A. Grochembake in Guatemala. Originally published Oct. 15 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)



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