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Mayans hope for better world after December 21

December 21, 2012, has generated many stories regarding the end of the world, said to be linked to a Mayan prophecy. DW looks at what the date means for Mayans in Guatemala.

The ancient Mayans observed the constellations, the sun's movements, the planets and the stars. They read climatic cycles, the duration of day and night, the heat and cold, the rain and the drought. And they made a year, which was divided into 18 20-day months.

At the end of the year, Mayans contemplated the past, the present and the future during five holy days. So the Mayan calendar year was 365 days - the same length as our Gregorian calendar.

Back to the future

The Mayans are not just an ancient civilization with ruins that astound tourists - they are the majority of Guatemala's population. They have their own language and practice agriculture as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. And the Mayans are struggling to survive in a modern, globalizing world.

Books on display at the University Library Dresden chamber in the German state of Saxony

The original Mayan calendar at the University Library Dresden in the German state of Saxony

Despite the ancient Mayan calendar causing a lot of excitement in Western media, because it supposedly says that the world will end on December 21, some Mayans in present-day Guatemala see things differently.

Maria Mateo, a Mayan farmer from Popcomchi, doesn't believe that the world will end this month.

December 21 refers to the end of the 13th baktun and represents an opportunity for hope, she said. In the Mayan long count calendar, a baktun is a period of almost 400 years.

Mayans believe that there will be a change - but not on a specific date. And everyone can contribute to the change, Mateo noted.

"People must really begin to protect nature. The Mayan people and especially the women must unite, join their forces and fight for Mother Earth," she added.

New era

December 21, which is the end of the 13th baktun, marks the beginning of new era for many Mayans, who hope that their standard of living will improve.

Image showing Mayan children in Guatemala

The end of an era is about hope for Mayans in Guatemala, one of the world's poorest countries

Western media has used the Mayan calendar as an opportunity for off-the-wall coverage, which isn't related to Mayans today, said sociologist Virgilio Alvarez, Director of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Guatemala.

"Sometimes, Mayans are still romanticized as the poor, wild indigenes who need support and wear feathers on their heads," he added.

But Mayans are mostly in a process of globalization after being discovered as a consumer group by multinational corporations, Alvarez noted. Businesses are trying to sell everything, from smartphones to tablet PCs, to Mayans.

Hope for a better future

In a joint statement, Mayan spiritual leaders expressed their worries and hopes for a new era. They point to the destruction of nature, the effects of climate change and the extinction of some animal species as events that Mayans experience directly.

Researchers examining the original Mayan calendar

Researchers examine original Mayan calendar

"More than 80 percent of our people live in poverty. Our mountains, forests and rivers have been stolen by major corporations, which are building hydroelectric power stations, mining coal, doing oil research or growing a monoculture crop," the spiritual leaders stated.

The natural resources and rights of Mayans still being violated today, as they were 400 years ago at the beginning of the 13th baktun, the spiritual leaders added.

Vitalino Similox, a Presbyterian priest, was one of the authors of the joint statement.  The priest, who stood to be Guatemala's vice president on the ticket of Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, linked the change to ending an era of suffering.

Similox believes that this is the beginning of a time of healing. "The spiritual leaders say that every person is born with a certain gift," he said, noting that several talented Mayans were born in the present baktun.

"There's hope that they will revive classic Mayan math, science, astronomy and art. So it's not an illusion to believe that Mayans will become stronger with time," Similox added.

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