Latin America is a region filled with beautiful landscapes, wildlife and vegetation. The region’s history and diversity of cultural manifestations makes it unique. Nevertheless, it is also a region full of contrasts and, as in my native Guatemala, those contrasts are hard to miss.

According to the Guatemalan Association of Pilots and Aircraft Owners, by 2005 the country had one of the highest penetrations of private aircraft per capita (one per every 26 thousand inhabitants). On the other hand, data collected by UNICEF shows that Guatemala also hosts the highest burden of chronic malnutrition in children under the age of five in the entire hemisphere. It is hard to believe that these two realities co-exist in a country the size of the state of Colorado.

According to the National Statistics Centre, 40% of our population is considered indigenous. Even though they are inheritors of a millenary culture, the sad truth is that the lags in social indicators such as poverty, poor education and chronic malnutrition are most evident amongst indigenous people. Despite the circumstances, many communities continue to self-organize around the Indigenous and Ancestral Authorities, with no government support or acknowledgment of any kind. Through an election process that has been passed down over 450 years, these authorities strive to better their communities without compensation.

One such authority is Tomás Calvo, known as Nim Winaq, the most respected and highest moral authority of the Mayan people. Don Tomás was invited as a speaker in the 2012 ENADE (National Meeting of Entrepreneurs) and the simple but profound message of his words moved the 3,000 people that were present in the room that day: “To put our shoulder by your shoulder, our feet by your feet, to achieve different results and obtain abundant and distinctive harvest, that is what we need to start in this new sun”.

The call to action from Tomás Calvo motivated many private-sector actors to lend their shoulders and their feet towards a joint effort and path that would steer us towards a more prosperous country for all.

This year, members of the private sector and their representative institutions have actively participated alongside indigenous leaders in a series of activities such as the Forum of Indigenous Peoples and of Local Communities of the United Nations, the “Consulta Previa” panel discussion at the Council of the Americas, and visiting the Human Rights Foundation, among others. All of these efforts are not only to acknowledge and raise awareness about the work that the authorities do in their community, but also to demonstrate the will to work together towards joint solutions.

Yet, polarization and conflict are big obstacles to overcome. A mere 18 years have passed since the signing of Guatemala’s peace accord, after being one of the venues where the Cold War led to real war.  In this context it is often difficult to distinguish between legitimate and good-hearted leaders and those who use international sympathy and stereotypes as cloaks for criminal activity.

For example, a local group illegally replaces the electric meters, steals the electricity and charges the local communities. Part of the proceeds goes towards fuelling social unrest and separatist agendas. That is a very different situation from local leaders who legitimately gripe about abuses from local mayors that charge for public lighting when no such lighting even exists. The fast shutter of the media often misses the obvious and stark differences between these two factions.

“Consulta Previa” or the implementation of OIT 169, might be one of the tools to reduce conflict. Community buy-in for large-scale projects is a no-brainer anywhere in the world. However, it requires strong state institutions to implement the appropriate consultation mechanisms. To prevent abuse, it also calls for those consultations to be properly regulated or legislated. Ideally the process would occur before the project was submitted for bidding or the licence awarded, so that all costs can be factored in from the start. Finally, proper education of all parties insofar as the rights, obligations and expectations of the process are keys to its enduring success.

After much reflection on Tomas Calvos’ words, I am convinced that the best way to make progress is by designing and implementing joint solutions. Our path will be long but we must celebrate the progress to date. Only through hard work as a single nation, and not as splintered communities, will we be able to achieve the nation that we dream of. However, we must be weary of those that highlight our differences only to promote conflict. Our diversity is our strength, but only if we leverage it wisely for the benefit of future generations to come.

Author: Salvador Paiz is president of FunSEPA, vice-president of FUNDESA and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Conflict Prevention.

Image: Local resident Maria Lopez sits with her daughter outside her home in Suyapa, near Honduras’ border with Guatemala, August 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera