Elizabeth is a dual degree M.A. candidate in Latin American Studies and MSCRP at UNM. This research was made possible in part by funding from the Latin American & Iberian Institute and Tinker Foundation Field Research Grant (FRG). For more information about the FRG, visit the LAII website.
Radio Ixchel, Sam Pango, Guatemala
This summer my thesis research had me travelling though the Sierra Madre Mountains in Guatemala to conduct field research on my Master’s thesis on community radio and international development. While weaving through the Highlands to various research sites on the legendary camionetas (local buses), I had three goals in mind: (1) to learn how local community development in the Guatemalan Highlands is in part facilitated through the international NGO, Cultural Survival’s Community Radio Project; (2) to understand how local issues of indigenous rights and development inform the international development goals of Cultural Survival; and (3) to observe how community radio is used as a tool in local development efforts. I approached the democratization of media, indigenous rights, alternative community-based planning, and international development using three field methodologies: (1) interviewing community radio volunteers and Cultural Survival’s Radio Project Coordinators; (2) observing community radio workshops that Cultural Survival attended; (3) listening to community radio broadcasts.
Community Radio in Guatemala
Guatemalan community radio is different from community radio in other Latin American countries because Indigenous peoples make up the majority of Guatemala’s population at approximately 60 percent and speak 24 different languages including Spanish. Broadcasting in indigenous languages, community-based radio stations are very localized. Providing news, education, and public services to communities that otherwise would not have access to media in their native language, community radio is by far the most effective method of circulating information among culturally, linguistically, and geographically isolated communities. It has been argued that these stations are instrumental in the reconstruction of Guatemalan democracy in a country where indigenous communities have suffered social, economic and political disparities after 36 years of armed conflict.
The ability to receive and convey information and ideas through media outlets was recognized as a fundamental right in the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords. With more than 240 stations, community radio broadcasters are not protected by the current Law of Telecommunications. Known as “pirate” stations, community radio is viewed as a threat to the national commercial stations. Currently, no one community station is officially recognized by the Guatemalan government.
The threat to commercial interests is questionable since the non-conglomerated community radio frequencies cover only a few square miles. The government currently charges around $28,000 for bandwidth access. This means that every station that wants to broadcast must apply and pay for a one-time license to transmit its content over the airwaves. As most community radio stations cannot afford such an expensive access fee, they broadcast illegally. It is then common for religious or commercial groups to purchase the rights to the community’s radio frequency. Even though the Guatemalan constitution theoretically ensures public access to media sources, the reality is that community radio stations are continually at risk of being raided by the police, their equipment confiscated, and radio volunteers arrested.
The failure of the government to recognize indigenous peoples’ right to access to media sources as defined in the UN’s Declaration of Indigenous Rights has brought about reactionary legislation proposals, outcry from community activists, and the grassroots based Community Radio Movement. The Declaration states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination.” Deeming the current media policies as unjust, community and indigenous activists throughout Guatemala are fighting for greater and just media access.
Field Work Experience
It was within this context of existing conditions that I began my fieldwork. Dividing my time between three community radio stations and Cultural Survival’s office in Xela, I wanted to accomplish as much as I could in six weeks. After meeting with Cultural Survival’s project coordinators, it was mutually agreed upon that I would first accompany them when they visited radio stations in the region before I began knocking on community doors. I had the opportunity to meet volunteer radio organizers and workers from Radio Ixchel in Sum Pango, Doble Vía in San Mateo, and Radio Sembrador in San Pedro La Laguna, as well as attend a workshop for community radio volunteers on HIV/AIDS prevention in San Mateo.
Preliminary analysis of my data shows that community radio in the three communities I visited takes on various roles depending on the needs of the community it serves. The impact radio has is difficult to measure in terms of direct results. There is no formula for community radio as a tool for community development. Much has to do with how organized the existing community already is. Radio involves dedicated volunteers, community resources, as well as personal risk of being caught by the authorities. The radio does not create social capital; rather it serves as a conduit for community knowledge, a platform for indigenous rights, a pillar for community solidarity, and an arena for empowerment of all community members, especially youth.
Cultural Survival plays an important role in sustaining and aiding the existence of community radio. As a facilitator, supporter, lobbyer as well as solidarity builder, the organization leaves the radio stations to manage the local scale, while it lobbies the Guatemalan Congress for telecommunications reform and build networks of solidarity on an international scale to garner support for the Community Radio Movement. Consequently, there remains routine interaction between the NGO and individual stations. Part of Cultural Survival’s work is to fill in the gaps, so to speak. It has helped to create an effective network between radio stations through hosting workshops, producing prerecorded radio spots, as well as organizing stations’ exchanges. Now in year eight of its community radio project, Cultural Survival is beginning to expand the community radio network outside of Guatemala to stations in neighboring Belize and El Salvador.
In mid-September, I returned to Xela while I write my thesis, carry out additional research, and be in close proximity for follow-up inquiry. Specifically, I will be looking at how the radio serves as a channel for indigenous activism. If you have any questions, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. My research was made possible through generous support from the LAII, the Tinker Foundation, and UNM’s Office of Graduate Studies.