Neglect Indigenous people at own peril, Mexican Bishop told Govt

As Mexico prepares to elect a new president next month, a Mexican Bishop in the poor Chiapas state has criticised candidates for failing to keep previous campaign promises and for ignoring the plight of indigenous people.

"The Indigenous issue has been diluted in the other fundamental issue, the economy," said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquival of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Catholic Online reports that 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, acoording to Miguel Angel Garcia, coordinator of a Chiapas-based organisation that works with Indigenous communities. Garcia predicted a voter turnout as low as 30 percent.

On the campaign trail 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 1994 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 Fr 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 per cent 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.

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," Bishop Esquival warned.

Catholic Church leaders: Mexican indigenous are forgotten (Catholic Online 20/6/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Mons Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel (Mexican Episcopal Conference)

Pope urges respect for indigenous in Mexico (CathNews 22/5/01)
Indigenous priests petition government (CathNews 8/6/99)

22 Jun 2006