U.N. report gives benchmark of status of region’s natives

Latin America has gone through an unprecedented mobilization of native peoples in the past 20 years, but their political participation, particularly among women, is still low, according to a new study released Wednesday by the U.N. Development Programme.

The report “Intercultural Citizenship—Contributions from the political participation of indigenous peoples in Latin America” examines the region’s six countries with highest percentage of indigenous peoples and greatest progress in political participation: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

According to the new study, some key factors have helped boost native peoples political participation in the region, especially an increased number of  movements, which also benefited from communications technology, including mobile phones, the Internet and social media. Other reasons are the expansion of their rights after countries signed and recognized crucial international conventions and an increased number of government agencies advocating for native issues.

The study highlights that native women’s political inclusion has been a major challenge, since they face triple discrimination being female, native and poor, said the report. Beyond women’s usual difficulties in breaking the political glass ceiling, especially in developing countries, customary tribal law further hinders women’s political participation in the region, it said. Even though women have the right to vote and several countries in the region have put in place quotas for women participation in political parties and public offices, native women’s political participation — along with their sexual and reproductive health — are crucial issues that still lag behind, the report stresses, the report said.

The report outlines native participation in parliament and shows that:

• Among Mexico’s 500 lower house representatives,14 are native and four of them are women.

* In Guatemala there are 158 seats in parliament, 19 are taken by native peoples, three of them are women.

• In Nicaragua of the total 92 deputies in the National Assembly during 2006-2009, three were native peoples and two of them were women.

* Among Ecuador’s 124 lawmakers, seven are native peoples, two of them are women.

* In Perú, there are 130 parliamentarians and only nine are native peoples, and two of them are women.

* In Bolivia, where native peoples are the majority of the population, of the 130 legislators 41 are indigenous, but only nine of them are women.

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 50 million native peoples, about 10 percent of the population. However, in two countries, Perú and Guatemala, native peoples encompass almost half of the population, and in Bolivia, they are over 60 percent. Even though in Mexico native peoples cover only 10 percent of the total population, Mexico and Perú contain the largest population in the region: about 11 million.

“Beyond cultural barriers, indigenous peoples own little, often unproductive land, and live below the poverty line, which hinder their political inclusion,” said Heraldo Muñoz, U.N. assistant secretary-general and director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Poverty levels among indigenous peoples have hardly changed, despite Latin America’s immense achievements in poverty reduction in recent decades, the report says. “The white-mestizo population has benefited, but not the indigenous peoples, as if they lived in a world secluded from the most positive aspects of development,” stressed the report, written mainly by native leaders and experts.

“In recent decades, we have been protagonists of important legal, political and cultural changes which have only started to invert the historic exclusion which our people have been exposed to,” states Mirna Cunningham, of the Miskita peoples of Nicaragua, who was ex-president and a current expert with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “But the challenges we continue to face demand continuous commitment and political will.”

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