For many years and for many reasons the indigenous people of Central America have been separated. This has caused many groups to be isolated. For a long time local radio has been on the edges of the law, but this new law will allow the indigenous peoples and languages to be united at least on the airwaves.
Long before the arrival of the Europeans Mayan languages and cultures have spread through the mountains and flat limestone Yucatan peninsula, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Guatemala’s Peten and Southern mountains.
New Guatemalan Law Would Spur Local Community Radio Development
by Kara Andrade, FEBRUARY 11, 2010
On a smoggy Thursday afternoon in late January, Mark Camp, director for U.S.-based Cultural Survival Project, drives a big red truck with Massachusetts plates through Guatemala City traffic toward Congress. Camp—who looks more like an insurance salesman with a ponytail of gray hair, suit and polka dot red tie—has organized volunteers from community radio stations to flood the legislature’s halls on this big day for Guatemala’s community radio movement. Some have traveled almost two days by bus to make it in time.
“This is a historic occasion—years of trying and frustration have never brought us this far before,” said Camp nervously waiting outside the steps of Congress. “We think we have a real opportunity this year to get a law passed that will recognize the right of communities to have their own radio station.”
For the first time in 12 years of attempts to pass a law to legalize and to grant frequencies to community radio stations, the National Movement of Radio Stations—represented by these cell phone-wielding radio volunteers ready to broadcast live in a Mayan language—have scored a win. The bill, called “The Law of the Community Radio Number 4087,” has received support from the President of Congress’ Pueblas Indigenas Committee and is now being sent back to the General Assembly. If passed, the bill would guarantee the use of at least one FM frequency for community radio in each of Guatemala’s 333 municipalities. Multiple towns could use the same frequency because of their limited broadcast range and one-third of all FM frequencies would be added to a new reserve as they become available.
For almost 60 years, community radio in Guatemala has existed without legal backing; close to 2,000 radio stations now exist without a license. Many are religious and about 10 percent are community-backed stations run by volunteers. The radio towers, such as the one on air since 2003 in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez, often sprout out of people’s homes to transmit to a mostly indigenous population with a strong oral tradition.
Volunteers of the National Movement of Radio Stations gathered to demonstrate in January 2010. Photo courtesy of Kara Andrade.“Community radio is a development tool for our people,” said Anselmo Xunic of Radio Ixchel of Sumpango. “Our experience with radio means we spread our culture, traditions and use that space to keep ourselves informed of what happens locally, nationally and internationally.”
The role of community radio for development in rural countries like Guatemala with high illiteracy rates is multifold, writes Bruce Girard in The One to Watch – Radio, New ICTs and Interactivity because it involves communities and individuals in an interactive social communication process. One of the reasons there are so many community radio stations in Guatemala can be explained in part by the fact that most television programming in Latin America is produced locally or nationally. With only 30 percent of television programming coming from the region, indigenous languages are generally absent from the region’s television screens. But in Guatemala the majority of community radio stations regularly offer programs in a local language.
For the National Movement of Radio Stations—representing 20 of the 22 departments and 168 radio stations—a precedent is being set in the way that people are lobbying members of Congress as one unit.
But Federico Balderramos Vallerades, Secretary of the Guatemala Chamber of Broadcasting, says the stations are doing this behind his organization’s back. “The problem isn’t the existence of these stations, it’s the illegal use of the space. They are creating competition, but they are also blocking legal stations’ frequencies, it’s a finite space and not everyone can have their own station because they want one.” He agrees with the general sentiment that these spaces should be opened up and frequencies set out for the use of community projects for temporary periods of time. But who’s going to guarantee that these spaces won’t be used for inciting political action against the leaders of a community or for making a profit?
Prospects may look better than ever for legal recognition of community radio stations, but Camp doesn’t kid himself about the road ahead. “If our journey started from New York, maybe we’re in westernPennsylvania.”
Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.
In Pictures: Community Radio Station “Xilotepek”
San Luis Jilotepeque is a town in the department of Jalapa, located on the southeast of Guatemala. It is a community where two cultures meet- the mestizo population with the Poqomam Maya. According to history, the Poqomam people were divided by the Spanish during the time of the invasion, which explains why today the Poqomam people are found in different pockets of central and southern Guatemala.
A group of neighbors joined together in 2009 to form the community radio radio station Xilotepek Stereo. Together they drew up a list of objectives for a radio station: “to use communication to promote the community participation in town-wide decisions, by informing, educating, and promoting human values and equality,” explained Victor Sanchez, the station’s director.
Since 2009, the station has been broadcasting town-wide social events, cultural celebrations, politics, and local sports, with live coverage on location. The station also broadcasts local and national music, hosts interviews, and runs programming on customs and traditions of the community of San Luis Jilotepeque.
Volunteers of the station include youth, adults, and elderly members of the community, all of whom have been eager to participate. The station has been a member of Cultural Survival’s pilot radio program since last year, where they are learning more about community communication and hoping to be able to expand the content of their programming.
Cesar Gomez (pictured right) and other Cultural Survival Staff visited with radio director Victor Sanchez in February 2012. Both Cesar and Victor speak Pocomam, one of the minority Mayan languages which exists only in small pockets across the country. The low watt radio tower over the station and a young volunteer broadcasts inside the radio cabin.