a coin to a beggar or restructure society

The corn should be more than a half-metre high by now in La Garrucha, Chiapas. The people of this small Tzetzal Maya agricultural community on the…

The corn should be more than a half-metre high by now in La Garrucha, Chiapas.

The people of this small Tzetzal Maya agricultural community on the Mexican side of the border with Guatemala still rely on the corn and beans they grow for the bulk of their diet.

Corn planting season started in April when most of us here in the Yukon still wondered when winter would ever end.

The folk of La Garrucha struggle against many forms of poverty.

The settlement’s first families came down from the cool, pine clad highlands to the heat and humidity on their rapidly receding edge of the Lacandona Rainforest over three decades ago.

These indigenous people, like those elsewhere on the continent, find themselves facing structural poverty, the kind reinforced by administrative, economic and social barriers and the remnants of colonial patterns of discrimination.

They were forced to the fringes, the marginal areas to make a living while 20 wealthy families hold the great majority of the productive land in Chiapas.

Systemic poverty has afflicted this community as well.

It results from system-wide factors like the free-trade accords, which have left small farmers in Mexico and elsewhere vulnerable. Surplus corn no longer provides the cash needed by local campesinos to buy the goods they can’t produce.

Government subsidies protect interests of agro-business to the detriment both of the poor and the hungry as advocates of fair trade again pointed out at the World Food Security conference in Rome earlier this week.

Education can be a way out of poverty. When I visited the two-room school house in La Garrucha it had no desks for students but more importantly no teachers.

The government’s own statistics place the illiteracy rate among indigenous women in Chiapas at 56.2 per cent.

Poor housing, a lack of formal education, inadequate nutrition, sanitation and health care plus little income would handicap anyone.

Still the people of La Garrucha have determinedly struggled to break the shackles of poverty.

The Zapatista movement, which came to world attention with their uprising in 1994 inspired their resurgence.

They have creatively attempted to deal with the reality of poverty, but the struggle to maintain their culture and secure a decent standard of living continues.

Last week, the Yukon government finally announced the long-delayed increases in social assistance rates.

While this is laudable, the increments reflect basically just the cost-of-living increases since the rates were last set more than a decade and a half ago.

More interesting is the change which allows recipients “to keep $2 out of every $4 earned, rather than $1 out of $4 under the old structure,” according to a YTG press release.

This can be considered a small step towards confronting the reality of poverty here in the territory.

Our legislators would do well to look at the current anti-poverty initiative from Manitoba: Bill 226, The Social Inclusion and Anti-Poverty Act, sets out to halve the level of poverty in the province by 2012.

Among other initiatives it obligates the provincial government to set up a standing committee with individuals from social justice and anti-poverty groups to “develop, implement and evaluate the provincial strategy to fight poverty.”

Other organizations like Citizens for Public Justice are calling for similar initiatives at the national level. See www.canadawithoutpoverty.ca.

What can we do here in the Yukon?

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “True compassion is more than flipping a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition will be holding a Community Barbeque at the CYO HALL, corner of 4th and Steele on Tuesday, June 10 from 5:30-7 p.m.

It will be followed by a guest speaker, Jenni Tupper from Vanier Institute. She will be talking on the Family and Finances. 
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.