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Tara Ward, Mesoamerica Program Coordinator

Sergio, Patricia, and myself (Tara) are currently undertaking a three week field visit to Guatemala to meet with partners, see the impacts of the projects Horizons of Friendship supports in Guatemala, and host a regional consultation with all of our partners from Central America and Mexico in order to start planning for the future. These are some of our reflections from the field.

Welcome to Xelaju

Between November 13th and 15th, Horizons partner Pies de Occidente in Guatemala brought more than 140 people together to discuss the importance of recognizing Indigenous and Ancestral Health Systems. The goal of the event was to learn from similar experiences in the Latin American region, and debate the content of a bill Pies and other organizations will be proposing in Guatemala to protect such knowledge and health systems.

It all began with a welcome dinner when we arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xelaju or Xela for short) where we were treated to a traditional stew called Pepian. 

As we went around the table to introduce ourselves, I was once again overwhelmed by the knowledge and experience that surrounded me. 

To my left was a young Mayan Poqomam woman, who works with Indigenous and Afro-descendent Health Unit of the Guatemalan Government and is a GP with a Masters in Community Medicine. 

In front of me, a Quechua Doctor who has worked for years to have a Community and Inter-Cultural Medicine Specialty approved and recognised in Bolivia at the same level as other medical specialties such as gastroenterologists or gynecologists. 

To my right was the first and only Indigenous Mayan Mayor of Xela, Rigoberto Queme Chay, who would be leading and facilitating the conference. 

Not to mention Aura Pisquiy, the Executive Director of Pies, one of the very few Indigenous Mayan women in Guatemala who is a surgeon.

But again this is the point of Horizons’ learning networks, to bring together informed and engaged leaders and key actors to discuss, debate, and create joint strategies for change.

The Demand for Change – A Regional Exchange on Indigenous Medicine

The next day the conference was opened by two elders setting the stage for the event, and opening each participant to the potential of the exchange.

As the conference progressed, we were given an understanding of experiences in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Mexico in attempting a similar feat.

These experiences created a framework for any proposed bill in Guatemala including:

  • the importance of protecting ancestral knowledge from being appropriated by large pharmaceutical companies
  • ensuring that any such bill be recognised as state policy, not a governmental policy that can be changed after each election
  • the law must create a connection with the Public Health System
  • any implementation must be participative and respectful

Marco Antonio Valencia from Bolivia awed the crowd with history lesson spanning more than 500 years in less than 30 minutes.  In returning to the importance of Indigenous Health Systems at his conclusion, he stated that within these health systems health it is not just about medicating or treating illness when it presents itself, but living fully.  This is just one of the ways that Western health systems can learn from Indigenous knowledge and experience.

The conference facilitator Rigoberto Queme Chay stated that “Guatemala has a population that is by majority Indigenous, but has the least amount of legislation that recognises Indigenous peoples cultures, languages, and rights in all of Latin America.”

Another participant, Lourdes stated that in speaking about Indigenous peoples health indicators in Guatemala means we are speaking about the inequalities, racism and discrimination that persists today.

  • Eighty percent of the Indigenous people in Guatemala live in conditions of poverty or extreme poverty. 
  • 1 in every 5 indigenous children lives in conditions of chronic hunger. 
  • Indigenous women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than non-indigenous women.

Ultimately, Guatemala has the lowest health budget in all of the Latin America.

What became clear to me as the conference moved along was the importance of this idea and goal of creating this new legislation in Guatemala. 

Participants came from all over Guatemala including representatives from Garifuna and Xinca communities.  Through long-term alliances, Pies was able to ensure key governmental officials participation and public endorsement of the proposed legislation.

After expecting and planning for 60 participants, over the two days more than 140 people attended the exchange.  The staff of Pies had to run back and forth to ensure there was enough food, find more chairs, and open up the conference space to accommodate everyone.

At the end of the conference, Patricia and I were able to pull Aura from Pies aside and asked her how she was doing.  She sighed and thought for a moment, then smiled and said “satisfecha” or satisfied.