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Indigenous Guatemalans Face Poverty, Discrimination

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Three years into President Álvaro Colom’s reign, Guatemala's indigenous people still suffer from malnourishment and poverty -- problems the country's natives commonly blame on government neglect and discrimination, reported Inter Press Service.

"The situation of the native peoples may be even worse than before. Poverty has increased, the quality of education is very poor, and there is no intercultural perspective in health services," Eduardo Sacayón, director of the Interethnic Studies Institute at Guatemala's University of San Carlos, told IPS.

Indigenous people account for 40 percent of the Guatemalan population, according to official statistics, although the natives -- including Maya, Garífuna and Xinca peoples -- claim more than 60 percent of Guatemala's 14 million inhabitants are indigenous, reported IPS.

In 2000, eight out of 10 indigenous Guatemalans were poor, while the non-indigenous rate was four out of 10. The dire situation incited the United Nations to establish eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 with a 2015 deadline for achieving the targets of "reducing poverty, guaranteeing universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing maternal and infant mortality, and fighting HIV/AIDS and other diseases," the IPS stated.

According to the third progress report, presented in Dec. 2010, "extreme poverty saw a decline in Guatemala of just a half percentage point between 2000 and 2006: 15.7 to 15.2 percent. Meanwhile, poverty in general fell from 56.2 to 51 percent," BBC reported.

"The prevalence of chronic malnutrition among indigenous children ages five and under was 58.6 percent in 2008-2009, almost twice the rate of non-indigenous children (30.6 percent)," according to BBC. The statistics showed moderate improvement from the 2002 rates of 69.5 percent of indigenous children and 35.7 percent of non-indigenous children suffering chronic malnutrition.

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Education rates fare even worse. In 2008, indigenous children receiving post-secondary education accounted for a mere 13.2 percent of total post-secondary students, according to the National Human Development Report 2009-2010, of the UN Development Program.

The devastating statics are a direct reflection of indigenous discrimination by the Guatemalan government. "Indigenous peoples continue to be seen as second-class citizens," Otilia Lux, an opposition lawmaker on the congressional Indigenous Affairs Committee, told IPS.

Most recently, poor conditions have lead many indigenous Guatemalans to join forces with Los Zetas, the Mexican drug cartel that seized control of northern Guatemala in December. The Guatemalan government declared an official "state of siege" on Dec. 19, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Because of the poverty, they [drug traffickers] can easily recruit youth in rural communities," Cesar Bol, a leading activist with the National Indigenous and Campiseno Coordination Organisation (CONIC), told Aljazeera.

While Guatemala professes to fight drug trafficking, some citizens consider the country's actions a scheme -- another excuse for governmental repression.

“The state of siege is a strategy of the government to attack social movements,” Carlos Morales, who works for farmers' rights with the Union of Campiseno Organisations of Verapaz, told Aljazeera.