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Special Report: Violence Up Against Indian Bilingual Intercultural Education Teachers

  •                                                 Written by                                                  Wendy Griffin

I am excited that Honduran Minister of Education Marlon Escoto is going to go to Trujillo for a Conference on the Challenges of Bilingual Intercultural Education being organized by the Departmental Office of Education there, together with the Pech and the Garifunas there. But it is very disheartening and worrisome  that one of the current challenges of bilingual intercultural education is the trend to target Honduran Indian bilingual intercultural teachers as targets for threats and assassination, with the most recent case being two Maya Chorti cousins José and Ismael Interiano who were shot at in November 2013 as they returned home by motorcycle from teaching in the PROHECO schools where they began teaching this year to Carrizalon, Copán Ruinas, killing one of them. Their motorcycles had parts taken.

Although the deceased had over Lps 2,000 (US$100) on him as he had been recently paid for being a teacher, the money was not taken, supporting the idea that the murder was designed to frighten and intimidate the Maya Chortis, and was not just another simple robbery.  “Asombro”, a feeling of frightened surprise is how the mood of the Chorti in Copán Ruinas is described after the murder news was known. The story of this murder of the Maya Chorti teacher has not been covered by the Honduran Spanish speaking newspapers, even though they were sent articles in Spanish about it with photos.


This problem that violence in the general society was also affecting directly schools in Mexico and their personnel, was also a topic at the First Pedagogical Exchange in San Pedro Sula in July 2013. My last articles for Honduras This Week  on Honduran maras. or gangs, began that when you think of the risks of taking a job as a primary school teacher, you do not think that seeing one of your students murdered in front of the school would be one of them, as happened to my UPN students in San Pedro Sula. Accepting to be a school teacher, especially for elementary grades or for the Ministry of Education in Tegucigalpa, has not traditionally been thought of as a high risk job but it has become so in Honduras.


The mother of one of the young Maya Chorti teachers, both only around 20 years old, had been the First Consejera Mayor (lead Council Person, the highest position in CONIMCHH, the Chortis’ ethnic federation) of CONIMCHH (National Council of the Maya Chorti Indians of Honduras), which has its main office in Copán Ruinas.


An employee of CONIMCHH confirmed the murder of one of the Chorti teachers, and said the organization of CONIMCHH denounces this kind of activity against its teachers and against the Chortis. An earlier report had erroneously said both the teachers were killed. As in the case of the Pech, the younger people involved as bilingual intercultural education teachers, are often family members of Honduran Indians who practice a wide variety of traditional skills, because these are the families most likely to speak the language and to value the traditions enough to teach them to their children, and also because they are often local leaders, and being a leader in the community, first means being a leader and an example within your home.


The mother and aunt of the Chortis who were attacked  is a craft person in the Chorti pottery cooperative project in Carrizalon, while the grandfather of both of the teachers attacked is a well known healer and one of the few makers of the traditional maguey fiber crafts among the Chorti and who still grew maguey, currently a very scarce plant among the Chortis. An example of Maya Chorti Carrizalon pottery and maguey crafts, as well as examples of crafts important in healing ceremonies, are now in the Burke Anthropology Museum at the University of Washington and in the office of CONIMCHH in Copán Ruinas. The San Pedro Museum has plants to include Maya Chorti crafts in its upcoming Honduran Indian craft exhibit, but has not yet found the funds to be able to fund the purchase of them, nor the display cases to put them in.


Other examples of Honduran Indians being killed who worked in the bilingual intercultural education project include Maya Chorti Candido Amador, and the Pech teacher from El Carbon, Blas Lopez. Candido Amador who was the Chorti with the highest grade of education at that time, was a 9th grade graduate and had been working as a tour guide at the Copán Ruinas Archqueological Park when CONIMCHH request that he accept the position of Chorti Bilingual Intercultural Education Coordinator at the National level. He was an official Ministry of Education employee paid with international funding from the World Bank in the bilingual intercultural education program at the time of his death.


Candido Amador was murdered outside of Copán Ruinas on his way home, where he was found with machete wounds and at least nine bullet wounds, and his long hair was cut off by a machete. He had been in a nearby village helping the almost illiterate Maya Chorti women of the village fill out a grant proposal for sewing machines for a sewing cooperative. His death galvanized the Chortis who fought even harder after that, and his picture hangs in their office and his photo and his story is on their website www.conimchh.org. As the Chorti currently have no sewing cooperative with sewing machines, I assume that not even to honor his death, were the funders encouraged to approve the sewing machine project grant which he was working on.


I met Prof. Blas Lopez in 1987 when he was one of the sixth grade graduates, along with Hernan Martinez the husband of the Pech chief of Moradel Doña Juana, who were hired to be bilingual intercultural education teachers among the Pech of Olancho. These Pech teachers had generally studied two years in a formal primary school with a teacher, but then they had primarily finished sixth grade through adult education programs by radio, such as Alfalit of the Evangelical churches during the Contra war period, or such as Escuelas Radiofonicas (Radio Schools), who had studied in groups led by volunteers, usually themselves Pech Indians who did not have 6 years of formal school education. It is actually very brave to decide you will take up teaching first graders to learn to read and write when you yourself have such a low level of education.


If US teachers with Master’s degrees in reading have problems teaching reading in US schools, how much more difficult to teach reading and worse Math in rural Honduran schools. I observed a few of the classes they gave over the years, and sometimes it seemed very difficult to deal with the orders that came from Tegucigalpa. If it says on Monday, at 10 am you must listen to the radio class on math, they did this.


There is terrible reception of the radio in the Olancho mountains, so if it was not raining, it was still not clear what the radio instructor said. But if it was raining, as was often the case in this edge of the rainforest area in Olancho, it was totally impossible to hear a thing on the radio. But the instructions said on 10 am, you must teach Math by radio, and so for an hour the Pech students and the Pech teachers listened to static or the rain, or both.


The use of the official textbooks was also difficult in Pech villages. The textbooks and curriculum said you teach about cows in the section of “Domestic animals” (animales mansos — tamed animals). The Pech children grow up in Olancho where Ladino cattle ranchers let their cattle which they do not visit for months at a time, roam wild in the forest. The Pech children grow up afraid a running steer will run over them, or gore them, or knock the clay off of their clay house.


So if the Pech teacher asks, “Are cattle “manso” (tamed), or “bravo” (wild, angry, dangerous)?” the Pech children all answer “Bravo” (wild, angry, dangerous). This is the wrong answer according to the curriculum. In the world of the textbook writer, cattle are tame, domesticated, while in the world of the Pech the cattle are semiferal/wild  and extremely dangerous. I have been in a Pech village in Olancho when the Ladino cattle owners finally came on horse to round up their cattle for sale and dozens of cattle are hurrying down a path only wide enough for one person towards the highway, when I was walking the other way. I ran. I know Olancho cattle are “bravo” and a lot bigger than I am.


Some Pech teachers dropped out of the project almost immediately, like don Hernan of Moradel, but Blas Lopez kept getting more training and teaching. First he spent six years studying on the weekends in a professionalization program to get a high school degree as an elementary school teacher. He went on studying several more years on the weekends to get a college degree, so that he could qualify to teach and eventually become the director/principal of the Centro Basico  (a combined elementary school and nineth grade junior high school) in El Carbon, which did not exist until he helped fight for it. On several occasions Blas Lopez lived in Tegucigalpa, helping the Ministry of Education project to write Pech textbooks or the Pech grammar book that was published last year, or a proposed Pech dictionary that was never published.


If you are a rainforest Indian, living in Tegucigalpa is often not a pleasant experience. The Tawahkas have come to my house in Tegucicalpa, amd I asked what they liked to eat, and they said, “sopa de tepescuintle” (tepescuintle soup). Tepescuintles, a rainforest animal that eats only fruits is delicious according to everyone that has eaten it, but it is not available in Tegucigalpa supermarkets, and in fact due to its overhunting and loss of habitat, especially the wild fruit trees, is rarely available anywhere in Honduras now.


The lack of water in Tegucigalpa where there is often only one hour a day of water if any, the crime, the high cost of food and not food they like, lack of firewood, etc. is part of what makes one Pech woman who used to live in Tegucigalpa’s twin city Comayaguela say of a Pech village in Olancho with no electricity or running water, but which had farmland, forest, creeks, “Estamos en la Gloria aqui” (We are in glory or paradise here in Pech villages in Olancho).


When the bilingual intercultural education program started in the Pech villages, there were Ladino teachers there. These teachers called the Pech children “payitas”. Paya means “bruto”, stupid, like a dumb animal, according to the Pech, and “payitas” is the diminutive, so it means little dumb things if they called their students “payitas”. Sometimes the dimunitive in Spanish, shows affection, but it also often shows a lack of respect.  To call the Pech Chief Carlos Duarte, an older well known healer and a hereditary chief for more than 40 years and he had formerly been Mayor of the county of Culmi, “payita”  is just as insulting of calling sixty year old Black men in the Southern US “boy”.


I know that now that I am over 50, I think people should not call me a “gringuita” (a little gringa) and I am still angry about development agency people or Ministry of Education employees in Tegucigalpa who used to use “vos” with me. “Vos” (you) is only used with either people you are very intimate with like your childhood friends, or towards people inferior to you, and if I have to call the other person, Licensiada (a person who has a college degree), I do not want them to use “vos” with me.


Just that fact alone, of being called “little brutes” was one that made the Pech Indian children want to drop out of school often before finishing third grade. At that time none of the Pech schools had a sixth grade, not because of government policy as in the case of the Chorti, but because none of the Pech children still wanted to be in school by the time sixth grade came. Honduran children not liking school and not finding it useful, and not wanting to go, is what makes the majority of Honduran parents say, Ok, don’t go. It’s not worth the money, and I have work you can do around the house or the farm”, according to official studies and my experience with the Pech.


When the Pech teachers were hired, they said immediately to me, to each other, to the Pech parents, to the Pech students, “It would be good if we the Pech had Pech nurses. It would be good, if we the Pech had Pech bus and truck mechanics. We are made out of meat and bones (carne y hueso), someday we will die. It would be good to have more Pech teachers.” Since the Pech teachers were hired, in spite of their original low level of schooling, Pech children school attendance has soared.


Almost all Pech finish sixth grade now. There are a lot of Pech who study high school, and I know of at least 2 Pech college graduates who teach at “Centros Basicos” in the Mosquitia, and at least 15 in-service Pech teachers are studying college on the weekends.  I think Blas would say, it was worth it to have spent those years in Tegucigalpa and more than 10 years of being away from his family on the weekends, so that we could have all these Pech professionals.


Many Pech bilingual intercultural teachers also take on roles of leaders in the Pech village councils or in villages that elect chiefs (some Pech villages elect chiefs, in some it was heriditary by families), to become chief, partly because you need to be able to read and write Spanish well to go to this infinite number of meetings and sessions, and you also need a cash income to pay to go to these meetings. This means the same bilingual intercultural education teachers are the ones fighting for land rights. And it was because of land rights struggles in Olancho that Prof. Blas Lopez, then the president of the Pech Federation was killed.


And it was probably because of land struggles that one Chorti Indian bilingual intercultural education teacher from Carrizalon, Copán Ruinas was killed and another one shot at over the last month.  The Chortis of Carrizalon are one of three Chorti villages threatened to be dislodged from lands the Honduran government promised to buy them and then did not. It is strange that Carrizalon should be in this position, because the Chorti residents say they have lived there since 1820, before the independence of Honduras, and more than a century before the location of the Honduran-Guatemala border was decided in the 1930’s, a decision brokered in Washington, DC because the border conflict was between the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) advancing towards the border from the Guatemalan side and the Cuyamel Fruit Company of Samuel Zemurray advancing towards the border on the Honduran side.


Carrizalon, located 1 km from the Guatemalan border, is in the sights of narcotrafficantes, the drug traffickers, who have bought all the mules available along the Salvadoran-Guatemala border, according to the mule sellers. A high ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel was captured in Guatemala in the Zacapa Department on the lower end of the Chortis’ area and armed Zetas, have also been seen having lunch on the Guatemalan side of the Chorti lands. The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are the two biggest Mexican gangs fighting for the control of the drug trafficking business in Mexico. The Cachiros, the Hondurans who had their bank accounts frozen and their lands seized in the Colón/Garifuna area were reportedly associated with the Sinaloa cartel. The name of the community of Copán comes from the Nahua and Honduran Spanish word  for bridge copante, because it was on the path from the Valley of Mexico to the Guatemala city area to the Honduran north Coast 1,000 years before the Spanish even thought of finding the New World or the route to the Spice Islands.


When the recent 32 year civil war was going in Guatemala, a time known as “las ruinas” (the ruins) among the Guatemalan Mayas because of the high number of murders of Indians, a number of his Mayan bilingual education teacher friends were also murdered, reported Dr. James Loucky, a Latin American anthropology professor at WWU. The start of this civil war was also associated with problems with United Fruit (Chiquita) and about land for Indians.


Now Hondurans is now gaining a reputation that it is competing with Guatemala of the civil war period for its horrendous treatment of Indians and of the people who worked in favor of them. English anthropologist Krystyna Duess’s book on her thirty year study on Mayan Shaman, Witches, and Priests in Highland Guatemala is dedicated to an American USAID bilingual education project worker who disappeared in Guatemala and showed up dead later in Mexico. That book is now available through the University of Oklahoma Press.


I purposely chose to come Honduras to work in 1985 instead of Guatemala which is much more famous for its Indians than Honduras, because although I thought Guatemala was beautiful, they were killing the people who worked with the poor there then during the civil war, and the situation in Honduras was much better then.


The situation in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has deteriorated so much, that they are now called the “Northern Triangle” by The Atlantic  magazine which considers them collectively the most dangerous place in the world, and CCN has done articles, repeated on Honduran radio, comparing the safety of living in Honduras on par with the Congo. (11/17/13)



Note: Wendy Griffin is the co-author of the book “Los Garifunas de Honduras” (1995) and was previously a reporter for Honduras This Week about Honduran ethnic groups including the Garifunas and an anthropology professor for the UPN in La Ceiba. Since 1996, she has split her time between living in the US and volunteering and living in Trujillo… in or near the Garifuna neighborhoods there.

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El pueblo indígena pech impulsa una reserva antropológica como su último reducto de sobrevivencia

Escrito por en Mar, 09/17/2013 – 13:47

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El pueblo indígena pech impulsa una reserva antropológica como su último reducto de sobrevivencia
Tegucigalpa, Honduras (Conexihon).- El pasado jueves, 12 de septiembre, el pueblo pech concluyó con una asamblea nacional su proceso de autoconsulta sobre la propuesta del área protegida montaña El Carbón (Muäka Usku, en el idioma pech), en la comunidad indígena Pueblo Nuevo Subirana, Municipio de Dulce Nombre de Culmí, Olancho, a 300 kms. de la ciudad de Tegucigalpa.
Quiénes son el pueblo pech
El pueblo indígena pech (uno de los 6 pueblos originarios de Honduras), es uno de los pocos pueblos actuales de raíces nómadas recientes en Centro América. Según registros bibliográficos, la colonia española encontró a los pech desde las Islas de la Bahía, pasando por las cuencas de los ríos Aguan (Departamento de Colón) y Patuca (Departamento de Gracias a Dios), hasta el sur del actual Departamento de Francisco Morazán. La antropología reitera que este pueblo de espiritualidad nómada bebió del aporte de la civilización de la yuca (Chipcha del sur) y de las civilizaciones del maíz (mesoamericanas), por hallarse en una zona de frontera cultural.
En la actualidad se encuentra reducido en 11 comunidades territorialmente discontinuos (8 en el Departamento de Olancho, 2 en Gracias a Dios y 1 en Colón), saqueados y amenazados por codiciosos ganaderos, madereros y finqueros mestizos. Cuenta con una población aproximada de 5,200 personas. Muchas de ellas, con serias dificultades para satisfacer sus necesidades básicas porque ya no tienen ríos dónde pescar, ni bosques dónde cazar, extraer frutos silvestres o proveerse de medicina.
Cultivan yuca, maíz, frijol y plátanos para subsistir. La extracción del bálsamo de liquidámbar fue uno de sus principales fuentes de ingreso, hasta antes que los ladinos invadieran los bosques. Son nómadas forzados a sobrevivir en reducidas y sitiadas aldeas/caseríos, invadidos por el espejismo de la modernidad. Cuentan con una Federación de Tribus Pech de Honduras (FETRIPH) que los aglutina.
Acuden asiduamente a las iglesias, como antes lo hacían hacia sus lugares hierofánicos (lugares naturales donde se manifiesta la trascendencia). Pero, no son católicos, ni evangélicos. No sólo porque son libres de dogmatismos, sino porque no son capaces de explicarse de cómo un Dios Padre pudo haber permitido que les quitarán las montañas y les mataran sus ríos, todo en su nombre, y a cambio de la Biblia.
Un pueblo nómada que supo sobrevivir genética y culturalmente en el tiempo
El pueblo pech, siendo un pueblo nómada y pequeño demográficamente, aporta lecciones de libertad, dignidad y gallardía a la humanidad. Sobrevivió huyendo genética y culturalmente de la Colonia, la República y de la actual occidentalización del mundo. Conservan sus genes y rasgos fisiológicos diferenciados del resto de la población que los rodea. Conservan su idioma, sus comidas y bebidas (de viajeros), y parte de su medicina.
No conservan sus trajes porque nunca los tuvieron elaborados como los sedentarios. Al ser eternos caminantes, no edificaron, ni construyen edificaciones imponentes. No hicieron huertos, ni corrales porque plantas y animales los tenían a la mano en los ríos y montañas. Para comprender y aprehender de la espiritualidad pueblo pech, se los debe mirar con categorías mentales y espirituales nómadas. Desde el desarrollismo sedentario se los seguirá injustamente catalogando como “haraganes”, “mendigos” e indiferentes a la prosperidad.
Bálsamo de liquidámbar, un patrimonio pech
Los pueblos nómadas no tuvieron necesidad de domesticar plantas, ni animales. Pero, sí descubrieron las propiedades medicinales o alimenticias de las plantas y animales silvestres.
El liquidámbar (…), es un árbol que crece en las montañas de Centro América (entre 700 a 1,400 msnm), pero no existen registros bibliográficos que indiquen que otros pueblos de la región, fuera del pech, hayan utilizado las propiedades de dicho árbol.
Cronistas de la Colonia, hasta antropólogos del pasado siglo sostienen que los pech extraían el aromático bálsamo del liquidámbar para fines ceremoniales y medicinales, y los intercambiaban con civilizaciones de Mesoamérica.
En el idioma pech, ejtamá significa árbol de liquidámbar, y ejtamatastá (persona que extrae el bálsamo del liquidámbar). Hasta donde se conoce, en ningún otro idioma nativo de la región existe denominación lingüística propia para este preciado árbol, mucho menos su utilización, sea comercial o ritual.
Con el transcurso del tiempo, la civilización occidental conoció este aromático aporte del pueblo pech, desde entonces parte de la industria de perfumería depende de la fragancia del ejtamá.
Aunque los principales extractores y comercializadores del ejtamá son ladinos que utilizan las tecnologías y conocimientos ancestrales pech para extraer dicho bálsamo del árbol silvestre.
Proceso de autoconsulta y la Reserva Antropológica y Forestal Pech Montaña El Carbón
Este pueblo de raíces nómadas, quien jamás fue consultado ni por el Estado, ni por las empresas privadas, ni por las iglesias, para los diferentes proyectos de “desarrollo” y de “civilización”, al verse acorralado en las faldas de la montaña El Carbón, en los últimos meses emprendió un proceso de autoconsulta sobre la categoría de área protegida de dicha montaña, porque ya una empresa consultora lo había propuesto como Parque Nacional.
La montaña El Carbón, cuya superficie casi alcanza los 34 mil has., desde épocas precolombinas fue recorrida (habitada) por el pueblo indígena pech por ambos lados. Así lo indican los lugares sagrados y caminos antiguos identificados en el lugar.
Muäka Usku comprende más de 17 cuencas hídricas, centenares de especies de plantas y animales, bosques de liquidámbar, varios lugares sagrados pech y restos arqueológicos. Está ubicada dentro de la jurisdicción de los municipios de San Esteban y Dulce Nombre de Culmí (Olancho). Actualmente, en ambos lados habitan comunidades pech, y específicamente hacen colindancia territorial la comunidad de Santa María del Carbón, por el lado de San Esteban, y Pueblo Nuevo Subirana, por el lado de Culmí.
Ante la propuesta de declaratoria de Parque Nacional de la Montaña El Carbón, presentada al Congreso Nacional, por parte de una empresa de consultores, el pueblo pech, con el apoyo de la cooperación alemana, y en coordinación con el Instituto Nacional de Conservación y Desarrollo Forestal, Áreas Protegidas y Vida Silvestre (ICF), emprendió un proceso de autoconsulta previa, libre e informada (como establece el derecho internacional), para expresar su voluntad sobre la declaratoria de dicha montaña.
Un proceso de consulta de abajo hacia arriba
El proceso de consulta fue amplia y participativa, “de abajo hacia arriba” (como sintetizó el dirigente Rosalío Duarte). Se autoconvocaron en diversas asambleas locales deliberativas y establecieron el procedimiento y el calendario para la autoconsulta. Con el apoyo técnico subsidiario, se informaron y debatieron las diferentes categorías de áreas protegidas según la Ley Forestal del país.
En diversas jornadas asamblearias analizaron los beneficios y las responsabilidades que implican a una comunidad indígena una Reserva Antropológica Forestal. En dicho proceso se involucraron estudiantes y profesores de todos los centros educativos pech, centros de salud, organizaciones socioeconómicas internas, iglesias, estructuras organizativas de las comunidades. Niños/as, jóvenes, adultos y ancianos participaron y se involucraron en la consulta.
Realizaron dos asambleas locales informativas y deliberativas (en julio y agosto), con centenares de personas, en ambos lados de la montaña, y en presencia de autoridades de gobiernos locales, representantes regionales del gobierno nacional, representantes de la Iglesia Católica y la cooperación internacional, decidieron en acta y por unanimidad pedir al Congreso Nacional que declare la montaña El Carbón como una Reserva Antropológica y Forestal Pech, con la finalidad de seguir cuidando a la Madre Montaña y revitalizando la identidad y la cultura pech.
En estos y otros espacios no faltaron ceremonias espirituales, comidas y bebidas nativas, cantos y danzas pech. En las asambleas, sus mesas principales las conformaron con ancianos/as, autoridades y guías espirituales (“caciques”) y médicos pech.
En una de las asambleas locales, Adrián Fiallos, Presidente de la comunidad Pueblo Nuevo Subirana, argumentó: “Nos dicen que los pech somos haraganes sólo porque no descombramos la montaña para criar ganado como los ladinos. Pero, nosotros no descombramos porque somos hijos de la montaña. Sin montaña no podemos vivir”.
Finalmente, el 12 de septiembre del presente año, el pueblo pech se autoconvocó en asamblea nacional, bajo la dirección de la FETRIPH, y, ante testigos invitados como la Alcaldesa de Culmí, el Vice ministro de la Secretaría de Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes, representantes nacionales y regionales de ICF, el Párroco de Culmí y la cooperación internacional, pidió al Congreso Nacional que declare la montaña El Carbón como Reserva Antropológica y Forestal Pech. Los testigos, quienes intervinieron al final de la asamblea, coincidieron en respaldar la voluntad del pueblo pech, y la representante de ICF se comprometió impulsar en proceso.
Luego de este proceso queda que ICF presente al Congreso Nacional el correspondiente proyecto de Decreto de declaratoria, especificando objetivos, justificaciones, macrozonificación y un documento base de estudio socioantropológico y ecosistémico del área para su correspondiente estudio y declaración como área protegida.
De lograrse la declaratoria de la Reserva Antropológica y Forestal Pech Montaña El Carbón, no sólo aumentaría a 69 el número de área protegidas en Honduras que actualmente representan el 36% del territorio nacional, sino que se hará justicia con el histórico pueblo pech que se resistió y se resiste a abandonar su identidad y pertenencia a la montaña. Pero, el cuidado y la administración de Muäka Usku debe ser compartido entre ICF y la FETRIPH (así lo pidió la asamblea pech), de lo contrario se podría repetir la triste historia del intento de la reserva antropológica Tawaka./Fotografía: La Tribuna


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