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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
Maya build future on ancient traditions
Maya indians who live along the Rio Dulce go down with malaria and other insects-borne diseases.
The Queqchi Maya fled to the rain forest during the civil war

In the jungle of eastern Guatemala, where the Rio Dulce flows into the Caribbean Sea, thousands of displaced Mayan indians are learning to adapt their ancient lifestyle to an alien and often hostile environment.

Foreign dentists often need an interpreter to communicate with their patients.
The dental clinic is fitted with powerful outboard motors and can travel far
There, where the river widens to form "El Golfete" - a beautiful, but mosquito-infested lagoon covered with water lily blossoms - project Ak Tenamit, or New Village, is working to instill pride in a new generation of Qeqchi indians.

Ak Tenamit is teaching the Qeqchi, who fled their highland homes to escape the devastating civil war, how to create sustainable communities in the rain forest.

Only since the signing of a peace agreement in 1998 have the Mayan indians been allowed to freely express their traditional cultural identity.

Some pupils are trained to become Mayan priests.
Most of the children at the school sleep in hammocks
At the heart of the Ak Tenamit project is a determination to work within the framework of the indigenous Mayan culture, learning new skills, and also recovering old ones.

The project, one of many across the country, has expanded dramatically since it was founded in 1992. It now has a hospital, a floating dental clinic and a school that accommodates 600 children.

It is also providing basic health care and education and building infrastructure such as drinkable water systems.

At the local school, lessons are taught in Qeqchi - one of the 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala - and in Spanish.

Copal, a fragrant resin, is mixed with incense and used for purification rituals.
Mayan priests perform traditional ceremonies on a hill overlooking the site
Crops are sown and harvested according to the ancient Mayan lunar calendar, and traditional medical plants are offered as an alternative to those who refuse to take modern drugs.

But at the same time, the Qeqchis are encouraged to abandon their traditional slash-and-burn farming techniques in favour of more sustainable agriculture, harvesting the resources of the rain forest.

They are also being taught the skills to create traditional arts and crafts using local materials, part of efforts to attract eco-tourists into the region.

Advanced civilization


We hope that by acquiring new skills close to their villages they will build a better future for themselves and their people

Carlos Rigoberto Pop

The Maya flourished between around AD 250 - 900 creating an advanced civilisation across central America and the Yucatan peninsula, before collapsing suddenly and mysteriously.

Today's Mayan indians still practise many of the ancient rituals and weave clothes with the old cosmological motifs.

The project is also working to overcome the marginalisation of the Maya - who make up 60% of the population - within Guatemalan society.

I visited several projects in Guatemala. This seemed the best one, and I decided to stay. - Stine Hansen, 21, volunteer
Volunteers live on the site in very basic conditions

The United Nations' representative for Indian peoples last week accused the Guatemalan authorities of doing too little to put an end to what he called "political and structural" discrimination and violence.

At the heart of the project is the desire to create a new generation of community leaders able to improve the lives of people where they now live, rather than in far-away towns.

Carlos Rigoberto Pop, one of the project co-ordinators, told BBC News Online: "We hope that by acquiring new skills close to their villages they will build a better future for themselves and their people, without ever losing their cultural identity."

See also:

12 Sep 02 | Americas
19 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
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