Census highlights ‘extreme poverty’ among southern Mexico’s indigenous

About 58 percent of jobs in Mexico are in the informal sector, which includes categories such as unregistered vendors, artisans and domestic workers. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)

A new census in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz has for the first time measured economic status differences among ethnic groups, revealing staggeringly high rates of poverty within its indigenous community.

María Angélica Méndez Margarito, director of the Veracruz Institute for Indigenous Affairs (IVAIS), said the government of Veracruz was “very concerned” about the figures, which showed that out of every 10 people living in the indigenous municipalities, eight live in conditions of extreme poverty, according to an Organización Editorial Mexicana report.

“There is a lot of poverty more than we thought,” she said in the OEM report, “we now have an accurate census of the needs all over the state and it really is very worrisome, because the pollsters knocked on doors in the most remote communities, where no government had gone before.”

Méndez Margarito said the indigenous poverty rate is rising in part due to a lack of government programs. The Veracruz government will first focus on delivering basic food baskets, she said, before providing housing to those in most need.

After Oaxaca, Veracruz has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. The country has more than 8.7 million indigenous people, representing a third of the continent’s total native population.

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Historically, however, Mexico’s indigenous population has suffered more discrimination and marginalization than any other segment of society. According to the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) in 2014, 72 percent of the country’s indigenous live in extreme poverty.

Experts have attributed the economic exclusion of Mexico’s indigenous to a variety of factors. One is that 80 percent of Mexico’s indigenous are in the informal work sector, according to a report released this week from the country’s government poverty agency (CONEVAL). Because half of these workers have never paid social security, according to the report, many of these workers will not have a pension or retirement and will depend only on social programs.

The problem is more serious for indigenous people living in rural areas, 92 percent of whom have never paid social security, according to the report.

Economists have also blamed inequality on the country’s education system, which has historically underserved Mexico’s poor and indigenous communities. In recent months, experts have urged Mexico to prioritize these students by encouraging bilingual education, which they say will expand indigenous students’ opportunities for employment.

Critics of the Mexican government say politicians have done little to nothing to lift the country’s indigenous out of poverty. They say that while Mexico has written the protection of indigenous rights into their constitution, mandating nondiscrimination and the right to education, each state has its local legislation that can overlook national provisions.

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Some advocates are hopeful that indigenous issues will be brought into the national spotlight during next year’s presidential campaign. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a leftist political and militant group, is presenting a candidate for the 2018 presidential election – the first time that an armed, socialist group will enter the country’s electoral scene.

The Indigenous Council of Government (CIG) recently confirmed that the Zapatista candidate would be identified next month.

“The CIG will not push a candidate but a spokeswoman. An indigenous woman, because she has been discriminated against, humiliated, violated, the poorest of the poor just by nature of being a woman,” council officials said in a statement. “She will be the one to bring the voice of the Indigenous Government Council to the whole country, to the whole world. She will be the voice of peoples and civil society. She will be us.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com