In Copán Ruinas everybody comes to see the ancient Maya ruins. But are the Mayans in this area really something of the past? Being Maya Ch’ort’i certainly appears to be a complicated issue in this area. While most Ch’ort’i are marginalized and ashamed of their roots, their name and identity has been co-opted and their culture became an exhibition. But other Ch’ort’i do not sit back idly. Theirs is a struggle to recover their culture, and their land. In a battle against a planned mining project the assertion of Ch’ort’i identity suddenly became a tool. Maybe this new pride in a Ch’ort’i identity will solidify their claim to land.
Published by Intercontinental Cry – 6 march 2016
A Maya civilization all dead and gone?
Ever heard of the town of Copán Ruinas? If you travelled in Honduras you probably did. Chances are you came here just to see the famous nearby Maya ruins. Statistics declare them the most visited tourist attraction in this country. They are indeed astonishing these ruins, famed for their remarkable sculptures and hieroglyphics, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Lonely Planet describes it as, “one of the most important of all Maya civilizations lived, prospered, then mysteriously crumbled around the Copán archaeological site.” When scrolling around town and in the local museums, when looking for a hotel or restaurant, you get indeed the impression all celebrate this grand Maya civilization as something of the past, all dead and gone.
Ever heard of the Ch’ort’i? If you aren’t from Central America the chances you did are rather small. The Ch’ort’i are Mayans, one of the seven indigenous peoples in Honduras. Honduras counts around 38.500 Ch’ort’i, living in the northwestern departments of Copan and Ocotepeque. The majority of the Ch’ort’i reside in southeastern Guatemala but you can also find some of Ch’ort’i in the north of El Salvador. Centuries ago their ancestors ruled these lands and built the magnificent civilization near the town of Copán Ruinas tourist come to admire. Now they are the most marginalized inhabitants of the region. Many tourists, like the backpacker in my hotel, respond surprised hearing an indigenous population still inhabits the area. My sympathetic hotel host, similar to many locals living in the town, downplay their existence, their numbers, their “indigenousness”.
The Spanish invaders did indeed a great effort to erase the Mayans and their rich culture. The Ch’ort’i suffered a particularly cruel and tough persecution. They were expropriated from their lands, enslaved and forced to accept a new language, religion, dress, and housing. The policy of assimilation and marginalization continued with the formation of the Honduran State. Consequently, the Ch’ort’i lost much of their ancestral knowledge, traditions and spirituality. In Honduras only a few still speak their native language. Most Ch’ort’i live in villages mixed with a mestizo population. With the exception of a few women you could not differentiate Ch’ort’i by their dress from other local Hondurans.
Being Maya in the shadow of a Maya tourist attraction
But are they therefore less indigenous? Are the Mayans in this area really something of the past? Being Maya Ch’ort’i certainly appears to be a complicated issue in this area. Various locals minimize the existence of these Mayans while appropriating their name. Meanwhile some Ch’ort’i villages exhibit their culture for tourists while others refuse to identify themselves with their kin.
“In town some people say that the Maya do not exist anymore. But if one goes to the surrounding communities one sees a different reality. Many Ch’ort’i still live there. Being Ch’ort’i does not depend on the colour of your skin or the way you dress. It is something you feel inside, in your heart. It is about sharing our worldview, our practices and beliefs.” Juan Manuel Peres is a longtime Ch’ort’i community leader. I visit Mr. Peres at home without prior notice but after putting on a clean shirt he gladly makes some time. His wife keeps busy doing the many household chores, his children alternate between playing around and curiously listening to what their father has to say.
Juan Peres denounces the marginalization of the Ch’ort’i while simultaneously many appropriate their name for commercial purposes. “Others fill their pockets with our name and culture. We don’t see a dime from the revenue made from our ceremonial grounds, the famous ruins of Copán. The hotels, the restaurants, the municipality call themselves Maya-this or Ch’ort’i-that. Even the military police and mining company appropriated our name. Meanwhile so many of our people have nothing. Nothing to eat, nowhere to build our home, no land to grow our corn. Outside town people are suffering hunger”.
Antonio Arras could not agree more. Antonio is the coordinator of one of the two local Ch’ort’i political organizations, CONADIMCHH. He made some time for me on his free Sunday so I ran straight from the bus to the organization’s office, a simple room with two old computers and a fan. “Our culture became a business, we became an exhibition. One of the tourist attractions for example is a visit to a Ch’ort’i community, La Pintada, where little barefoot children with their corn-leaf dolls sing you the national anthem in our native language. Meanwhile there is no real acknowledgement of our culture, no indigenous representation in the local council or government support programs. Hardly any Mayans work in the local businesses that carry our name.” The lack of acknowledgement sometimes goes to extremes. “Every now and again we hear about studies, even from government institutions, that aim to determine if we really are indigenous.”
The denial of the specific Ch’ort’i reality ironically also reflects itself in the curious observation that most people I talk with, even a local government functionary, consider themselves ‘descendants of the Mayas’ and can therefore claim an indigenous identity. Many Ch’ort’i on the other hand appear ashamed of their indigenous identity and consider themselves mestizos. “They do not want to accept they are indigenous” Antonio tells me “We eat the same, we share the same wordviews, you can see their culture in them. But they feel they are mestizos like the rest of society. They scorn us”
‘An Indian without land is a dead Indian’
Although culture is a changing thing and some of the ancestral culture remains, the century long marginalization and assimilation did obviously leave scars on the Ch’ort’i identity. The Ch’ort’i I speak to lament they lost much of their culture. Another thing the Ch’ort’i lost is ownership of their ancestral land. …. Land and culture … recovering them is what the struggle of the Ch’ort’i, like many other indigenous peoples, is all about. One fight cannot exist without the other. “An Indian without land is a dead Indian” both Juan Peres and Antonio Arras tell me. Antonio adds “Land is what guarantees our identity, our survival.”
Ever since the Spanish colonizers invaded their lands the Ch’ort’í mounted sporadic acts of resistance. In 1995 that resistance revived. Both Pedro and Antonio dedicated most of their adult life to it. They tell me about the struggle of the Ch’ort’i to recuperate their land, their culture and identity. In that struggle their opponents criminalized, imprisoned and murdered their kin that dared to organize. Eventually the Honduran State promised the Ch’ort’i 14.700 hectares in 1997. Until today they received 4500 hectares of land, unproductive and difficult to cultivate.
Most locals, urban and rural, rich and poor, bluntly negate the Mayan’ claim to their ancestral territory even if powerful landlords own much of these lands. Unexpectedly however local respect for the Ch’ort’i and their fight to recuperate land and culture might take a U-turn. Ironically this increasing appreciation would come about because of the possible arrival of what Antonio declares another colonial enterprise, a mining company called Minerales Chorti S.A. In September 2015 this company was granted permission to explore 2819 hectares of the region for minerals, gold it is rumoured. Certainly on this side of the world mining ventures have resulted not too beneficial for local population and environment. Antonio’s organization CONADIMCHH stands on the frontline of the resistance against this mining venture. They joined forces with the local water committees who together with other concerned citizens established ‘Copan Ruinas Environmental Coalition’. In this battle against the mining project assertion of Ch’ort’i identity became a crucial tool, a resurgence and pride of Ch’ort’i identity resulted a consequence of this resistance.
Digging up Mayan gold, digging up identity
Rode Murcia is the coordinator of the Environmental Coalition. She receives me at her office, a small room beside the energetic family’s living room. “Before, many communities did not feel the need to organize themselves. Lots of people here lost their traditions. The prospect of a mine in our territory led many however to question their reality, the surrounding power relations and our history, it made many value their roots. One of our battle goals is that locals recognize their cultural identity, perceive the importance and value of saying ‘I am Maya, I am indigenous’.”
The awareness raising effort obviously had some results. I visit the mestizo community El Quebracho, one of the villages organized in the water committees and to be affected by the mining project. As evening falls I sit down with six men in the community yard, one of them does most of the talking. “We do not consider ourselves a Ch’ort’i community but now that we start organizing against this mining project we became to see ourselves as descendants of the Maya. We realize we are all one and united. Before we scorned the Maya, now we are proud of our origins.”
Asserting indigenous identity is also a strategic choice of resistance. Environmentalists and human rights activists argue the national Honduran mining law mainly serves mining companies. An international agreement from the International Labor Organization, number 169 to be exact, does however serve the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. It includes a statement that indigenous peoples should be previously consulted and informed about development projects in their territories “with the objective of achieving agreement or consent to the proposed measures”. Honduras ratified the treaty in 1995.
“As indigenous people, as Maya Ch’ort’i, we call upon our right to be consulted,” affirms Antonio. It is Rode that provides me an insight into the relevance of identity as a tool in this struggle. “It does not suit the government to recognize us as indigenous people because they know that, according to Treaty 169, this gives us rights.” Locals revaluing themselves as indigenous people, something the organized Ch’ort’i have long fought for, became a weapon of resistance.
The concessions for exploration of metals are there. In the future the Honduran government might grant concessions for exploitation. Alternatively, the locals their resistance may achieve that the whole mining project resulted nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. What can however not be turned back in time any more is the increasing cultural consciousness, the pride in a Maya ancestry and identity. It is the first step to a resurgence of one’s traditions, a re-appropriation of ancestral worldviews, a reliving of one’s identity. Who knows, right now locals stand united as one against the mining project, maybe in the future they will stand united as one in the struggle for Ch’ort’i land and culture.
—————- Dedicated to Yvan and Lina, forever within me —————–
Trouble in Paradise. Looking for treasures in the land of the Maya
In Copán Ruinas, a paradise for tourists and famous for its Maya ruins, locals were surprised by the approval of mining concessions to look for gold. United they hope they can stop this project.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
I always aim to finish my interviews asking what readers can do. This is what Pedro answered.
“Inform yourself, analyse the situation of indigenous peoples. A person alone does not achieve much but if people start to join the protest maybe they have to start listening to us. If we think negatively, if we think it does not make any difference or that it creates too much extra work, we will never achieve the positive change we want to obtain, we will never achieve respect and justice for the people.”
- Contact the Coalición Ambientalista Copan Ruinas or CONADIMCHH on facebook, express your solidarity, ask them what you can do.
- Inform yourself about the political and human rights situation in Honduras, and about the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide.
- Get involved in local solidarity networks in your area.
- Spread the news about the situation of indigenous people in Honduras and worldwide. Organize events. Share publications.
- Investigate which companies or investors are involved in encroaching upon the land of indigenous peoples. Expose them.
- Change your consumer habits if these damage humans and the environment.
- Write to your local representatives and/or Honduran embassy expressing concern about the situation in Honduras.
- Etc. Etc. Etc.