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Promoting Indigenous voices and rights on community radio.

The Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala have kept their culture through 500 years of colonization, brutal repression, and, most recently, 36 years of genocide that killed 200,000 Maya.

In the internet age, small community-based radio stations may seem an outmoded means of communication. But for many Indigenous Peoples the low cost of community radio makes it the ideal tool for defending their cultures, their lands and natural resources, and their rights. Even in very poor communities lacking electricity, many can afford a small battery-powered radio. Radio is the medium of choice in many remote areas with little other forms of communication. Radio is the primary source of news, information and entertainment. 

Town officials, the Guatemalan Ministry of Heath, the National Police, and, during elections many political candidates, use community radio because they know it is the best way to reach listeners in rural prodominately indigenous regions of the country. Ironically, the current Guatemalan telecommunications law does not provide a licensing mechanism for community radio. Community members know that they have the right to operate community radio stations because it was guaranteed in the peace accords, the Guatemala Constitution, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This situation places the volunteers who run each local community radio station in a difficult position; in order to exercise their right and serve their community they must risk arrest for operating a station without a license. In spite of the risk everyday hundreds of volunteers in dozens of communities choose to go on the air. 

Two protesters at last years International Indigenous People's Day, holding a sign that reads: "Community Radios: present in the fight for memory, dignity and popular rebellion".

Owned and run by the community, Indigenous community stations are uniquely qualified to choose content representing their interests and cultural norms. Community radio stations strengthen social and economic ties by involving local leaders and community organizations to speak on radio programs. The opportunity to speak Mayan languages over the radio while discussing Mayan issues reinforces pride and interest among the community in maintaining their culture in the face of strong assimilationist pressures. However, depending on its particular situation and history, each station has unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, the ‘Xobil Yol’ station (shown in the video above) has an effective board of directors, but difficulty with youth participation. Each independent and autonomous community radio station has something to teach and something to learn from other stations. This is where Cultural Survival comes in.

Cultural Survival, alongside our Guatemalan sister organization, Sobrevivencia Cultural, have developed a network of 80 community radio stations across Guatemala, as well as in El Salvador and Belize. These stations learn how to improve their operations through a series of training workshops and exhanges. We also provide these stations with programming on a regular basis, covering important topics such as Indigenous communities' right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent; reproductive rights and education; and caring for the environment. 

Languages on the brink of extinction have come back into common use; marimba music that was being replaced with top-40 songs is being played again; and people are wearing the distinctive traje that defines where they come from and who they are, all because of the impact of community radio. But the job has only begun. A loophole in Guatemalan laws allows the police to shut down stations and confiscate equipment, and they are doing this with increasing frequency. We need your help to shore up this fragile network of protection for Mayan communities and cultures. Our teams at Sobrevivencia Cultural and Cultural Survival work together to combat the discriminatory telecommunications laws. The Community Radio Bill 4087, which would legalize community radio in Guatemala, came very close to becoming law in August 2012 before national elections changed the composition of the Congress. The prospects of passing the Bill in the current Congress are slim unless international pressure can generate some political will. We continute working with international as well as national entities, attempting to get Congress to recognize the importace of this bill, so that community radio volunteers will not have to face raids, which more and more commonly, include jail time for volunteers.

Nonprofit community radio plays a critical role in the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people in Guatemala. Francisco Xico, a Mayan priest who volunteers at his local community radio station says, “The radio helps keep our culture and language alive.” As Cultural Survival staffer Ancelmo Xunic says, “It is by the community, for the community.” Community radio volunteer at Radio Ixchel, Sumpango, Angélica Cubur Sul says, “As an Indigenous women, I can say that the community radio is the only place that I can express my views and opinions and be sure that they will be heard by the entire town. The Mayor expresses his opinion on our radio, so do the police, and so do I.”

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The indigenous peoples of Guatemala have kept their culture through 500 years of colonization, brutal repression, and, most recently, 36 years of genocide that killed 200,000 Maya. But where brute force failed, globalization is succeeding. Mainstream Western entertainment is now flooding Guatemala‘s airwaves, hammering home the 24-hour-a-day message that Mayans should abandon their languages, their clothing, their spirituality, and their identities. And the only thing holding back this tidal wave of homogeneity is a network of tiny 500-watt radio stations.    

Cultural Survival is partnering with Guatemalan nongovernmental organizations to strengthen this network of 175 community radio stations across the country, many of which broadcast in one or more of the country’s 23 indigenous languages. The stations provide news, educational programming, health information, and traditional music, all reinforcing pride in Mayan heritage. We provide the equipment and organizational expertise; they provide the people and the passion. And it’s working: languages on the brink of extinction have come back into common use; marimba music that was being replaced with top-40 songs is being played again; and people are wearing the distinctive traje that defines where they come from and who they are. But the job has only begun. A loophole in Guatemalan laws allows the police to shut down stations and confiscate equipment, and they are doing this with increasing frequency. We need your help to shore up this fragile network of protection for Mayan communities and cultures. 

Nonprofit community radio plays a critical role in the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people in Guatemala. Francisco Xico, a Mayan priest who volunteers at his local community radio station says, “The radio helps keep our culture and language alive.” As Cultural Survival staffer Ancelmo Xunic says, “It is by the community, for the community.” Community radio volunteer Angelica Cubur Sul says, “As an Indigenous women, I can say that the community radio is the only place that I can express my views and opinions and be sure that they will be heard by the entire town. The Mayor expresses his opinion on our radio, so do the police, and so do I.”