"Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation work based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in her native Guatemala. She is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize."
- Nobel Women's Initiative
Read this quote above and wonder about the fact that this is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Rigoberta Menchú Tum fought to protect not just a handful of small communities, but millions of people, given that indigenous groups make up 60% of the population in Guatemala. Yet, there are two main reasons why tourists are drawn to Central American countries. One is wildlife, the other is ancient history and archeology. Costa Rica has been the leader in this regard, with Mexico coming in second, thanks to it being the birthplace of the ecotourism movement in the 1980's. However, cultural heritage and, in particular, the indigenous populations, often don't feature on tourism itineraries, or they are given a tokenistic nod here and there, without any time for tourists to get their heads around some of the issues raised by tourism within indigenous communities. Communities that are not only vast, but of vast importance, historically, environmentally and culturally. These communities are the real treasures of Central America.
In Mexico, there are 60 different indigenous groups alone, the most prolific being Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and MIxtec. For most, nature, earth and landscape are the pillars of their belief systems, and being stewards of the earth is a responsibility they take seriously, something from which we can learn a wealth of knowledge. The white tailed deer, for example, is for the Huichol Indians, who live in Mexico's Sierra Madre, sacred. In 1988 they were awarded the National Ecology Prize of Mexico for their work towards repopulating the Sierra Madre with their beloved creature. Repopulating habitats, and protecting vital landscapes for food, is crucial to the survival of the Huihcol Indians. What we now need to do as tourists, is save the Sierra Madre region for the people who have protected it for as long as history can remember. Meanwhile, where the mountains meet the sea, on the Punta Mita coast, luxury resorts spring up quicker than the white tailed deer can run. Some open their eyes and engage with Huichol culture and others turn a blind eye. Read more at The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and the Traditional Arts
for more details.
In Guatemala, indigenous people make up more than half the population. And in Costa Rica, there are 60,000 indigenous people living in largely traditional communities in isolated, rural areas. They depend on the forests and rivers for their survival – gathering fruit, fishing and using forest materials for traditional medicines or the construction of their homes. And yet they were only given the right to vote in 1994, which has meant that until recently, they have had virtually no voice when it came to protecting their lands, close to 40 percent of which were handed over to mining or petroleum companies, farmers or ranchers. Places where indigenous people are now offered employment, but often of a low paid nature.
There are so many stories to tell, some of survival and strife, others of creativity and environmentalism. But what we need to remember as tourists is that, not only are these communities of great interest and inspiring to be around but, by recognising and respecting them, educating ourselves about their history and culture, we are playing our part in upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A declaration given in 2007 after more than two decades of negotiations between governments and indigenous peoples' representatives.
What you can do
Read up about the local communities and cultures of the country you are visiting before you travel. Minority Rights
is an excellent starting point. Planeta
also has a lot of information on indigenous groups in Mexico. Some indigenous groups don't seek to become involved in tourism particularly, but others do, through cultural centres or craft outlets. And there is a rapidly growing proliferation of community led tourism organisations. In Costa Rica, for example, you can check out ACTUAR
(the Costa Rica Association of Community-based Rural Tourism) and ATEC
(the Talamanca Association of Ecotorism and Conservation). So keep your eyes open and always talk to your tour operator about opportunities to support them. And if you do get to visit, please remember to respect cultural protocols. Don't just grab your camera and invade the place with selfies/selfish behaviour.