Ursula Klesing-Rempel/ Linda Itati Nosa Zunino Encues

This is an example from Latin America of one way of combating poverty: Ursula Klesing-Rempel, head of the IIZ/DVV Project Office in Mexico, and her colleague Linda Itati Nosa Zunino Encues report on the work of the NGO Pro Educación Mexicano A.C. with the Tseltales, an indigenous people in the Guaquitepec region of Mexico, who earn a living from agriculture.

Ursula Klesing-Rempel/
Linda Itati Nosa Zunino Encues

The Fight against Poverty in Indigenous Communities

This study attempts to analyze the project of Patronato Pro Educación Mexicano, A.C., a Mexican nongovernmental organization that has been operating for nine years in a highly indigenous populated region of Mexico, with the purpose of proving that education for adults is a key input in achieving a long-term structural change in regions with high poverty indicators. To tackle poverty problems it is necessary to take comprehensive action and to rely on effective cooperation of different sorts that channels resources in such a way that they make it easier to build human capacities to promote endogenous development processes and the possibility of fully participating in the all-inclusive and democratic development of the nation.

The main feature of the specific dimensions of poverty in the indigenous communities is the historical situation that deprives them of several resources necessary to ensure physical survival and the right to a sociocultural development of their own. The prevailing social discrimination has yielded submissiveness, lack of self-esteem, and shortage of technological knowledge and intercultural education tools. The absence of these factors makes it difficult for a large part of the indigenous population to escape – by their own effort – from the poverty in which they live.

General Conditions

The Tseltales are an indigenous group of peasants; consequently, they devote most of the year exclusively to farm work, with the participation of women and children during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Agricultural life is the only means of survival, and for that reason, this activity is more important for them than the attendance of their children in the school system. The Tseltal families from Chilon cultivate small lots located on irregular surfaces; the average size is 2 ha per family, where they grow basic crops – maize, beans and vegetables – to partially meet their food needs. Their daily life is tense, as a result of the political context experienced in Chiapas since 1994; both political parties and religious groups have taken advantage of this situation to exacerbate conflicts between the indigenous communities and the authorities. From this perspective, it seems that knowledge about rural reality and understanding of the indigenous view of the world are essential requirements for any group or agency interested in participating with a development approach to improve the standard of life of indigenous families and communities.

Project Description

The nongovernmental organization Patronato Pro Educación Mexicano, A.C. responds to the concrete situation of the Tseltal population; based on the indicative development plan for the community, it has made the following comprehensive proposal:

  • To prepare human resources at local level; for instance: professionals and skilled workers (technicians) who would perform as leaders or experts in the field of community development

  • To develop knowledge, closely related to the problems posed by reality . To increase organizational capabilities

  • To rely on school as an institution that multiplies knowledge and actions to fight poverty

  • To use an intercultural approach to address the project

General Objective

To improve the standard of life of the Tseltal indigenous people, based on its cultural identity and considering it as an input to build a multicultural and democratic country.

Project Objective

As to the human resources level, to prepare young people, women and producers with specific technical and self-management skills to promote the development of both the region and the community.

Expected Outcomes

The strategic lines to achieve the project objective – promoted by the Patronato in the Guaquitepec region – include programs and projects whose purpose is to produce changes to solve the most severe poverty problems of the region, and to reach a more stable situation regarding education, nutrition and production issues, with a strong social dimension impact:

  • Short term: to acquire knowledge and develop practices to guarantee food for the peasant families.

  • Medium term: to reduce the marginalization and poverty of indigenous families from the Guaquitepec region.

  • Long term: to develop the social dimension to increase the constructive participation of Tseltal people to solve the socio-economic problems of the region.

Planning and Implementation of the Project

Since 1993, the Patronato Pro-Educación Mexicano, A.C. has been carrying out the project Strengthening of Local Capabilities as a Development Strategy in the Tseltal Region, in the Chilon municipality. The organizational activities performed by the Patronato Pro Educación Mexicano, A.C. are mainly divided into three levels that are important for the decision making of the project: 

  • Institutional level: The general coordination and the administrative division are responsible for the management of resources to implement the project. This involves the work teams from all the related areas in planning and monitoring meetings, carried out on a monthly and six-monthly basis, and an annual plenary session with all the members of the project.

  • Community level: The school as the nucleus of community development is organized in work teams of teachers, which are closely linked to the executive board of the project; they participate in meetings with the community committees, and also with parents to discuss school matters and community problems.

  • Traditional-authorities level: There is also work carried out with the traditional authorities on school progress and its related problems, which are mainly generational and gender issues.

Targeted Interventions to Reduce Poverty

  • Food security: to increase the effectiveness and diversity of lots, and to reorganize the breeding of backyard animals to provide the basic daily food for peasant families.

  • Reduction of malnutrition: to change cultural patterns of nutrition habits and reconsider the value of edible vegetables available in the region.

  • Production: this involves the production of high quality organic coffee, and the diversification of coffee lots with marketable crops.

  • Organization: to organize the Paluch´en cooperative and coffee roasting machine to sell coffee both in the domestic and international markets.

  • Education: The school, in its capacity of participant entity, as a place that generates knowledge and skills – for human development and also for a sustainable development – strengthens the development of the region and reduces rural migration.

Outcomes and Achievements

Original Situation

The original situation in 1995 was marked by the presence of 33 Tseltal peasants interested in finding a solution for the 70 head of cattle that had been given to them by the Church, but without any technical training to take care of them and preserve them in good health.

Community life had been debilitated by the Zapatista armed conflict and the subsequent remunicipalization political project. This involved changes in land titles and attention was focused on a few municipalities.

Tzeltal women did not have a visible presence in any project; they did not seek to participate either.

Present Situation

At the beginning of 2004 the situation of people shows trends that involve changes in their quality of life and the availability of human resources:

a) Food security: Regarding food security and nutrition, there are 150 families working in lots; 200 women enjoy a nutrition-oriented health service; and 80 other women have actively been incorporated into the program.
b) Secondary education: The 120 students enrolled in the three-year secondary level graduate with a certificate that also qualifies them as Family Welfare Workers with practical knowledge of food security both in the family lots and the practical-training school lots.
c) Pre-university education: A hundred students from the three-year pre-university courses graduate with a certificate that also qualifies them as Production Technicians or Technicians in Development- Oriented Training, with practical expertise in the different areas of the project program: production, development-oriented training, health, nutrition, administration and management.
d) Production: One hundred and twenty two members of the Paluch´en cooperative – created as a result of the targeted intervention – produce and sell organic coffee both in the domestic market and the fair market; 48 new producers, who are organizing themselves in a cooperative, work in coordination with the Paluch´en cooperative. Another 130 members of a new cooperative that has not yet been legally organized in the community of San Antonio Bulujib have started to produce organic coffee.
e) Health: Thirty health workers with knowledge of traditional medicine and preventive Western medicine provide service for people from communities in the project intervention area.
f) University students: Twelve graduates from pre-university education, who are responsible for the operational coordination of the project, are attending university courses.
g) Social commitment: The secondary teachers are Tseltal people who teach in their own communities, where they fulfill a traditional commitment.

Likewise, the sustainability of the programme is demonstrated in the following indicators:

  • Fourteen pre-university education graduates, who are still studying or have gotten a university degree, are responsible for the coordination of actions in the target intervention areas.

  • The schools have negotiated larger resources from the State, demanding that it assume its responsibility in public education.

  • The Paluch´en cooperative of producers has a community-owned storehouse and solar dryers to store coffee; it also relies on a savings bank that manages a fund of 90,000 Mexican pesos, and an operating fund for the expenses arising from or in connection with the marketing of coffee, in the amount of 60,000 Mexican pesos.

  • Paluch´en has proved its creditworthiness and credibility before the Federal Government by managing the Merchandising and Storing Fund for five consecutive years, in the amount of 250,000 Mexican pesos.

  • Graduates from the pre-university level operate the first productive poultry project, proving their skills in administrative and technical management to improve their income.

  • Research has recently been conducted about the future possibilities of developing microbusinesses in the region to foster employment.

Impact of the Actions of the Project

The project of Patronato Pro Educación Mexicano, A.C. permeates the economy, the culture and the psychological condition of indigenous people, generating a social-dimension impact in the region. Living conditions have improved thanks to the diversification of crops, resulting in family savings. At the same time, monetary income has had a 100% increase generated by the production of organic coffee. Similarly, both strategic lines focused on environmental impact, strengthening the sustainability of natural resources.

The intercultural approach – which has not modified the existing standards of the community, but has enriched them by getting in touch with other cultural settings – has strengthened the self-esteem of participants. This has started, in turn, to break down the rigidity of social gender roles.

Contribution to Groundbreaking Education Projects in the Future to Fight Poverty

In spite of the undeniable scope of the globalization process, it should be taken into account that income and living conditions in indigenouspopulated regions and rural areas are highly dependent on their own local sociopolitical contexts. In this sense, the optimum value of local potential should also be considered in national development. For that reason, the transformation of the indigenous peasant situation should necessarily include in its analysis the historical roots of inequality in income and distribution of goods, as well as the asymmetric development of different levels of education, which are related to the character of the transformation process.

The strategic link between education and production is essential to ensure that there will be a positive impact, of different sorts, on the participating population.

The intercultural approach in the teaching of multiple-type knowledge, values and development of community crafts allows, helps both to find a solution to local problems and to achieve reflexive training on one’s own culture. The permanent intercultural dialogue entails a more balanced vision of possible cultural changes without a fear of cultural uprooting. It rather increases the dimension of social skills and opens up the conscious integration of universal knowledge.

In specific projects to fight poverty, emphasis should be placed on the knowledge that needs to be developed and on the empowerment of awareness, strengthening the understanding of problems posed by reality, instead of giving priority to planning directed by Western logic and rationality.

The possibility of having access to education, cultural and material means, and the participation of people under equal conditions makes possible growth and cultural reproduction.

Concluding Remarks

It could be stated, in general, that the implementation of the project described above has promoted important changes in the community it is focused on. These changes have resulted in obvious improvements in the quality of life of its population, while the integration of production and food habits have had an impact on reducing poverty levels.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this proposal is that, throughout nine years of targeted intervention, the cultural standards of these people have not been substantially modified. Some intercultural conceptions have indeed been incorporated, for example the importance of ecology, and the participation of women in the community life, but the cultural core of the group has been respected. These communities have a different relation with the concept of time; and the certainty is that it should be respected. Probably without this respect for the various differences, it would not have been possible to run the project with a high participation rate in these communities.