The death of 7-year-old indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ girl Jakeline Caal from Guatemala at the US border last week sent waves through social media and drew attention from major news outlets around the world. Just five months ago, reports that US border officials opened fired and killed 20-year-old indigenous Maya Mam youth Claudia Gomez from northern Guatemala similarily caused shock and horror. Between Claudia’s murder in July and Jakelin’s death in December, the “Migrant Caravan” left Honduras, drawing attention to the mass exodus of people fleeing the country. Though the so-called caravan drew attention for the size of the group that fled by foot together towards the Mexico-US border - by the time it reached Tiajuana reports were that close to 7000 had started to walk together, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but the truth is that 300 people are reported to leave Honduras every day in search for a better future.
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Without land, and facing extreme violence (many times, at the hand of the State that is supposed ot be protecting vulnerable communities) and living in extreme poverty, many families are forced to leave their homelands in search for safer opportunities. At the same time, deciding to leave home voluntarily in search for new opportunities is something that people all over the world do. Migration is not illegal. Neoliberal economic policies and reforms since the 1990s, pushed by countries like Canada, have led to devastation and lack of opportunities. "The poor keep getting poorer, the rich richer" is not a tired refrain, it is a harsh reality that means that mere survival is less possible today than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. As the cracks in this capitalist system break further open, especially as the impacts of climate change ramp up, the desperation (of both communities and companies who keep wanting to exploit them at all costs) will only get worse.
Last week, 32 religious leaders were arrested in San Diego for supporting migrants by crossing into a restricted area controlled by US border agents. "How we act in these moments determines who we will become as a nation,” said one preacher. Read, "Faith Over Fear: Welcome Asylum Seekers," by the United Church.
What are you doing in these moments? For yourself and others, your defined community, your "nation", this world, that needs change. As Berta Caceres pleaded in the months before her murder: "Wake up humanity, there is no time left!"
What are people leaving behind when they go north?
Extreme poverty and dispossession of land: Young Jakelin Caal grew up in a rural community with no electricity and limited access to drinking water. Most kids in her community would have no access to education or even basic health care. Though Jakelin is from one of the most agriculturally fertile regions of Guatemala, large scale agrobusiness (like African Palm oil production) and extractive companies (in particular Canadian mining and internationally funded hydroelectric projects) have pushed indigenous farmers off their land. The devasting role of Canadian mining companies have been well documented in Central America. In the area where Jakelin grew up, indigenous communities have been forceably, violently evicted from their homelands by private mine security and state security forces working on their behalf, while others have been shot, killed and raped, forcing survivors to flee and seek asylum outside their country. There are currently two cases in Canadian courts related to violence at Canadian mines in Guatemala (www.chocversushudbay.com and www.tahoeontrial.net for more information). The Canadian embassy continues to give diplomatic support to Canadian mining companies working in Guatemala despite the long history of violence (since at least the 1960s when Canada's INCO pushed for mining law reforms and used to state forces to target and kill academics and local communities in opposition to large scale mining, a pattern that continues today).
In Honduras, just after the 2009 coup d’état, the Canadian government not only legitimized the coup and the ensuing elections by refusing to sanction the de facto coup regime, they took advantage of the unstable political climate to rewrite the Honduran mining law (see MiningWatch Canada: https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/Canada_and_Honduras_mining_law-June%202012.pdf) to favour Canadian mining interests and business elite (many now tied to large scale corruption and drug trafficking rings) over communities impacted by mining. The changes came by way of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) officials and so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) talks to reverse an initial proposal (by the democratically elected government that was overthrown) for higher taxes, mandatory consultations with local communities and a ban on toxic chemicals. In addition, the new mining law requires companies to pay a security tax that goes directly to Honduran State security forces, which have been clearly denounced by the UN as having opened fired and killed up to 23 unarmed civilians and detained and jail hundreds more (there are still more than 11 political prisoners) following the illegal 2017 elections and widely perceived fraudulent results (condemned by the OAS and the EU, but not Canada). State-led violence and the resulting impunity is forcing Hondurans to flee the country.
Since the 2009 coup in Honduras, violence has surged in Honduras agaist environmentalists, journalists and LGBTQI folks, forcing many people to leave the country. In addition, in the last seven years, 21,000 (twenty one thousand) students have been killed in Honduras. Youth, being coerced into joining gangs, or being forced to flee to escape them, is a key factor in this violence. Students, LGBTI individuals, environmentalist and journalists, who make up a strong component of opposition to and those reporting on the repression perpetuated by the Juan Orlando Hernandez regime are regualary attacked, gassed, jailed and murdered with no consequence.
Central America has the highest rates of “femicides” (one definition: aggravated homicide due to gender) in the world. As militarization increases (through mining taxes, and the so-called war on drugs that trains police and military to "combat" trafficking and "secure" borders (many hihg ranking police and military have been charges with their role in actually leading these cartels), so does violence against women. According to the the Women’s Forum, a network of 17 women’s rights organizations in Honduras, and independent reports, sexual and domestic violence (and impunity in these cases) are key reasons that women and children are forced to migrate. Indigenous women, like Berta Caceres, movement leaders who are targeted with little repercussion, are especially vulnerable.
There is no doubt the situation in Honduras has signifcanty deteriorated since the 2009 coup, yet the Canadian government has refused to sanction Honduras or cut diplomatic ties. Despite serious critiques by Honduran and Canadian civil society and human rights organizations, Canada signed and ratified a free-trade agreement during the post-coup period and promoted “ZEDEs” that would specifically push Afro-indigenous (Garifuna) communities off their coastal homelands in favour of tourism development.
Almost a year ago, the Canadian government pledged to create CORE - the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise - a mechanism that would be able to take action when victims of serious human rights violations near Canadian mining sites made complaints. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Canada's historic and ongoing support of mining companies, there is still not an ombudsperson in place. Communities, like those in Honduras denouncing a mining company that is digging up a century old community graveyard to get at the gold undernearth, or communities near Goldcorp's now closing Marlin mine whose water springs have dried up and homes have fallen apart, have no way to make Canadian mining companies accountable for the harm they are causing. We must continue to pressure the Canadian government to take serious action immediately.
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