Indigenous Women from Mesoamerica make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals regardless of States

The Indigenous Women’s Alliance of Central America and Mexico focused its discussion on the SDGs on gender equality, health and respect for their territories and Cosmovision. They highlighted their best practice in order to attain the goals, despite a lack of government support.

Carmen González Benicio, in Tlapa, Guerrero, Mexico

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequality in Mexico and Central America. Over the last 18 months, eight million more people have fallen into poverty in the region. In light of this situation, the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Central America and Mexico (AMICAM) is not optimistic regarding the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 19 global goals to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives of the most vulnerable were established by the United Nations in 2015.

From la Mosquitia in Nicaragua, Miskito researcher Eileen Mairena Cunningham stated that even in this context ‘we have witnessed the commitment of Indigenous Women who have maintained the balance and wellbeing of their families and communities through experiences including examples of a circular sharing economy based on the notion of Buen Vivir (living well together)’.

The women’s activities in Nicaraguan communities cover the sustainable production of vegetables and tourist accommodation for community empowerment; defending traditional knowledge through ancestral medicine; examples of access to justice for cases of sexual violence through political participation, and even being national spokespeople, such as the Wangki Women in defence of the Coco River in Nicaragua.

Six years after the United Nations established Agenda 2030 for member States, Indigenous Women from Central America and Mexico, like Cunningham herself, met online at the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women and highlighted that there has not been ‘much progress’ on this global sustainable development agenda for Indigenous Peoples, and that this ‘directly impacts the human rights of Indigenous Women,’ as outlined by Arcelia García from the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Central America and Mexico (AMICAM).

Arcelia García stated that AMICAM’s assessment of the SDGs signposted a lack of knowledge about them amongst the Indigenous Women of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. A sample of 77 individuals showed that 42.9% do not know what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are. Meanwhile, although 57.1% have heard about them, only a third have participated in an activity, forum, or a national or international report where they are covered.

‘How do we make the SDGs a reality? The first challenge is how to ensure that Indigenous Women are not left behind, making the SDGs something concrete and everyday,’ asked K’iche’ Maya leader Alma Gilda López Mejía from Guatemala. For López Mejía, it is a challenge to bring the goals to life in the face of patriarchal, colonialist and racist states; this means that Indigenous Women’s organisations need to be strengthened from the local level as ‘there is no political will from governments for the SDGs to become a reality’.

‘Whilst western feminism still focuses on fighting glass ceilings, we come up against cement ones!’ commented Nahuatl Indigenous Woman Guadalupe Martínez, by way of contextualising the situation of Indigenous Women.

Moreover, Guadalupe Martinez recognised Martha Sánchez Néstor, a Me’phaa Indigenous Woman, as a multifaceted activist who had an impact at local, national and international level through alliances that challenge patriarchal obstacles. This stood as a homage since Sánchez Néstor recently passed away due to complications from COVID-19.

Covid-19—yet another factor in inequality

All speakers agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated inequalities, decreased economic growth, reduced rights and increased the criminalisation of human rights defenders; meanwhile, governments put health and education services on hold, in addition to wellbeing, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In the region of Kuna Yala in Panama, vaccines had still not arrived in August although they were available in cities. This was explained by the deputy chair of the National Union of Kuna Women, Isabelys Barsallo, who highlighted that the Panamanian government is failing to comply with Sustainable Development Goal 3: ensure health and wellbeing for all, at every stage of life. In light of this, the 51 Kuna Yala Peoples implemented their own protection measures.

The Kuna General Council—the governing authority of the Kuna Yala People—ratified a regional lockdown and temporarily barred entry to outsiders in order to control the spread of the virus. In turn, the communities translated the measures drafted by the Panamanian Ministry of Health into native languages since ‘it’s not worth sending out messages or having doctors if they do not use indigenous languages’. They have also applied their traditional knowledge to health issues. These are just some of the solutions found by Indigenous Women in light of their state governments’ failure to comply with the SDGs. Nonetheless, for Barsallo the challenge moving forward on the SDG on health involves universal access to healthcare even in the remotest locations; Indigenous People holding key positions; traditional medicine being recognised, and a care plan being put together for Indigenous Peoples and communities in response to resistance and discrimination.

Reina Correa, a Ienca Indigenous Woman from Honduras, spoke about how traditional medicine is part of Covid-19 care, although western medicine fails to acknowledge it, and how wellbeing as understood by community governments centres on a holistic balance with the territory. She also bemoaned the fact that the health and wellbeing goals are not mandatory for governments, who notify the UN about progress in compliance which, in reality, is not materialised on the ground in communities, where no information on this progress nor any budget for evaluation is available.

The speakers called on the entire UN system, governments and allied institutions to work together on mainstreaming the goals in public policies, as well as to recognise and take up what Indigenous Women already do in their territories, in addition to their comprehensive vision that is not shared in the 17 SDGs.