8 Global Capitalism’s Attack on Mother Earth and Her Indigenous Daughters

Kim Erno

Kim Erno[1]

I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation for the privilege of gathering and being present with you to share this time and this space—to give my thanks to the Elders, to the grandmothers, to the grandfathers, to Carla, to Brenda, the coordinators, to this institution, and to all of you who have gathered here with this theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women. If we have gathered here because there are missing and murdered Indigenous women, it is because we are also in a world that has lost its way. And so part of our search, part of our reason for this gathering is trying to recover that way, to pick up the lost stitches, to re-weave the torn fabric, and to struggle and hope for a world that is not only possible, as we say in Latin America, but a new world that is also necessary. So I thank you very, very deeply for the privilege of being in this time and this space with all of you.

As I was reviewing the agenda for today with my colleague, Marta Perez, who will be sharing this podium in a short while, Marta said, “Look, Kim, they are all women in the presentations.” And I said “Well, Marta, not quite.” And so, I asked myself, “What is my particular role, my presence, here; what is my contribution?” In Latin America, we like to dance and I am looking forward to, we are going to have a chance here, too, I understand, to dance together, to sing together, to move together. The dances that we have are salsa and merengue and cumbia. They have a lot of rhythm and a lot of movement. They say that a good male partner realizes that he is simply the frame; that the woman knows the moves and knows the steps. So, a good male dancer knows that he is a frame for the work of art who is the woman. So that’s what I understand is my role and what I will attempt to do here this morning is to set a frame. And I trust my sisters will bring the moves in the steps. And the frame that I have been asked to give is with the theme of globalization.

The first step in addressing globalization is to locate ourselves, because part of what we are seeing in this globalization is an effort to erase who we are—our languages, our cultures, our origins, our roots. As I join you in this land, I am very, very conscious of my homeland. My homeland, according to the original peoples is the Dawn Land. It is the land that stretches from the waters that lie in between the People of the Longhouse and the people of the Dawn Land that stretches to the sea and the rising sun. And so, I bring readings from the Dawn Land. I am also very conscious of my new land to the South: the Cradle of Corn. There are as many varieties of corn as there are original peoples and languages and for that reason the original peoples refer to the people as the Children of Corn. And so I bring readings from the land that is the Cradle of Corn. Also, to locate myself and my perspective on globalization, I need to say that I grew up on a border, on the Vermont/Quebec border. So I grew up moving back and forth between cultures and languages. I grew up on a border line. And while I most certainly can enjoy the privileges, the access, and the power that comes with my white maleness, I am most comfortable on the margins and on the border lines. So I have a perspective that comes both from being able to enter into those centers of power but also from being able to step back from them.

The second step after we have located ourselves in globalization is to imagine this beautiful globe, to imagine her spinning and moving and dancing through space, to imagine her with her multitude of colors—of browns and yellows and whites and blues and reds—to see her valleys and mountains and deserts and waters and rivers and oceans, to see her in all her beauty, and realize that she is a living, breathing being and that she carries scars. She carries scars because she has been sliced and diced, cut into pieces that we refer to as borders. These are barriers that are not natural divisions between peoples and lands, but rather, most often, they are the spoils of war. They are acts of violence that serve the interests of global profiteers.

The US/Mexico border is a case in point. The perspective from the south is much different than the perspective from the north. US history textbooks in this particular period in history most often tell us to remember the Alamo—the holdout of the brave Texas rangers in that mission in Texas called the Alamo—with no mention of how those Texans got there in the first place; crossing the border illegally and breaking Mexican law that had already abolished slavery. So, while US students are challenged to remember the Alamo, Mexicans never ever forget that almost half of the territory of Mexico was lost in what is considered an unjust war of aggression provoked by President Polk and justified by a white supremacist theology called manifest destiny that says that the white race has been ordained by God to rule from sea to shining sea. One more scar on the landscape.

And now we are in this new world order with the dominant economic model that is often referred to as neo-liberal economics—liberal not in a political sense, but rather an economic sense—saying that economics and economic policies and practices are to be liberated; that there are not to be any restraints, particularly any restraints by the state. So, if there are state enterprises, be it transportation and communication and banking, they are to be privatized, sold off to the highest bidder. Neo-liberal economics says that if there are any laws that could interfere with maximizing profits—even if those laws are designed to protect the environment or to set minimum wages—then they are to be relaxed. It says that if there are taxes that are designed to protect national regional economies by taxing imports—what are known as tariffs—they are to be eliminated.

Neo-liberal economics tells us that those borders, those boundaries, are opening up so that we can enjoy this one globe all together as one people. There is both a truth and a lie to that, because there is an opening of borders, but it is a very selective opening. Again, an opening that is designed to benefit global profiteers—raw materials, finished products, capital investment and speculation are free to cross borders in this new world order. But people who inhabit this globe and, for that matter, all beings who might want to move across the lands are restricted and so, in effect, what we have set up is competition in capital production between the labor markets. Factories, investments, and materials are free to move anywhere in the planet based on what’s called “maximizing your competitive advantage.” So, if in Mexico our competitive advantage in the global marketplace is cheap labor, then we need to keep labor cheap, which means that we weaken our unions and that we keep the daily minimum wage to fifty-two pesos (about five dollars). You’ll find that the prices in Mexico compared to the United States and Canada are not that significantly different; try surviving on five dollars a day—but that is our global “competitive advantage.”

As a result of these kind of economic policies, we have achieved the highest concentration of wealth in human history, what some refer to as the champagne glass economy. Some 20 percent who make up the wealthiest sector of this world now control 83 percent of the world’s wealth and resources. As we enter into this new millennium, there are 475 billionaires whose wealth was equal to the combined income of the poorest 50 percent of the world. So, if we are on a planet with six billion inhabitants, we are talking about 475 individuals whose wealth is greater than three billion human beings. In theological terms, there are many sectors that refer to this global system, this neo-liberal system, as idolatry, saying that idolatry has two primary characteristics. First, it is unquestionable and untouchable, it simply justifies itself and exists because it exists; it’s like the law of gravity, it just is. The second characteristic is that it always, always demands human sacrifice.

And so that is where we begin to locate the missing. I would like to lift up four particular categories in which this sacrifice carries down. The first is through exclusion, the next is through exploitation, the third through expulsion, the last through extermination. And I’d like to cite particular communities in Mexico that I’ve come to know. So we’re going to do a little bit of a tour of Mexico, but I guarantee that these are not the ones you’ll find in your guidebooks; these are way off the tourist trails.

So, the first stop is the state of Guerrero, one of the most southern states of Mexico, best known for the tourist city of Acapulco, where the cliff divers make their death-defying leaps into the waves below and where young college students from the north come for their spring break. We don’t even translate in Spanish; we just say, “spring breakers.” So they come to bathe in the sun and guzzle beer. But if we were to go way, way off the tourist path in the state of Guerrero and climb up into the mountains, we would come to an Indigenous village where the people still speak their native language, a language that predates the Spanish conquest and the conquest of the Aztecs.

The village was founded in 1523, two years after the Spanish conquest of 1521. People were afraid for their lives, so they were fleeing into the mountains to escape the onslaught of the Spanish conquest. It still remains a very, very isolated village. There’s barely a road, it just winds and spirals around the mountain, and as you come to the outskirts of the village, as is common to many of the villages, you would pass the village cemetery. And if you were feeling particularly brave that day, you may stop and wander through the tombs. I say “particularly brave” because, in this village, there are not enough resources for the living, so there is nothing left over for the dead. So in a country where there is so much respect and care for our ancestors, this village is unable to care for their ancestors. In this cemetery you will find that some of the tombs have broken open and suddenly you are face to face with human remains. The first time I was in the village was some twenty years ago and I met a grandmother who held her grandson Leonardo in her arms as he took his last breaths. Her major preoccupation was how she was going to feed the grave diggers (as payment) and have enough food left over for all the hungry mouths in her home.

Contaminated water continues to be a major health issue, so much so that cholera has been the major cause of death in that village. Some years ago when the North America Free Trade Agreement—one of the expressions of the neo-liberal economic policies of opening up borders—came into effect, the delegation had visited the village and later had a meeting with an official responsible for economic policy. Very good questions were raised on how this new world order, how these trade agreements, would affect or benefit those who are part of the village. The official—incredibly cold, but perhaps, in his perspective, honest—said, “That’s what cholera is for.” Do you understand? If people cannot produce and cannot consume in this global economy, they count for nothing, they are zeros in this global economic equation. That’s what cholera is for, we’re better off without them. They are the excluded ones.

This village is a village where the major source of income comes from these beautiful baskets that women weave with quick fingers, moving quickly, weaving stories. Right now, Mexico is being inundated with arts and crafts that are being made in China and sold much cheaper. Tourists cannot tell the difference or really don’t care. So if these people in this village were to disappear off the face of the earth, who would miss these baskets? They really are not producers and consumers in the global economy and so they count for nothing, they are the excluded. And the women who care for their households, who wonder if there will be enough food to feed the hungry mouths, women in these Indigenous villages who bring in the water, who collect the firewood, who give birth to life, who breastfeed their babies—none of that shows in the gross national product. They carry out economic activities that are zeros, they are the excluded ones. But there is work, there is work that is paid where you can earn a salary, where you can earn the daily minimum wage of fifty-two pesos, correct? So we move to the next category of exploited.

Detailed work, repetitive work: putting the tiny screws into the sunglasses—3,500 pair per day—until you start to squint to see more clearly; bending steel cables for seat belts to keep the drivers and passengers of Ford and GM safe and buckled up—3500 cables a day—until your hands are tired and so sore that you can’t bend down to tie your shoes. The blue wire goes here, and the yellow wire goes here, and the circuit board goes—God knows where. Stitch after stitch after stitch sewing GAP jeans; thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-olds sewing Barbie costumes for Toys-R-Us, but they lock us up until we’ve made the quota for the Christmas sales. All of this requires nimble fingers, quick hands, keen vision, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day until the fingers are too bruised, the wrists ache from carpal tunnel syndrome and the vision is too weak, and your three-month contract is not renewed. You’re out of work, you’re not even thirty years old and you feel like you’ve lived three lifetimes.

Neo-liberal profiteers exist for capital production, not for human reproduction. Each woman is given a medical exam before she is hired, which includes a pregnancy test, and if the test is positive, the position is unavailable. During your term of employment, you receive regular checkups, part of the benefits, again including a pregnancy test, the results of which will determine your continued employment. Some factories decided to dispense with the façade of checkups and just demanded to see the used sanitary napkins once a month. It saves time and money, and that’s the bottom line. A woman who is reproductive for human life is not considered productive enough for corporate life; she becomes part of the landscape of capital waste, thrown out with the factory’s toxic waste.

In the community of Tijuana, there is an industrial park, although park is a misnomer—it’s more like an industrial wasteland. The battery recycling factory is long gone, but the eighty-five hundred tons of toxic waste remains. And so it seeps into the ground, it runs into the streams, it collects in puddles where the children like to run, and so they develop skin blisters. Parents sleep with children because they’re afraid that their children might drown in the pools of blood that come from spontaneous nose bleeding in the middle of the night. Women who work in the factories have high rates of miscarriages, birth defects, and have children born with no brain stems. The local school has set the record for the highest levels of lead in their students’ blood.

If the women organize, if they demand rights, if they try to increase the wage or have better working conditions, then the factories like the battery factory in Mexico, we say they just “sprout wings and fly away.” But if factories can sprout wings and fly away, why can’t the workers do the same? And so we go to the next category which is expulsion.

We go to a village somewhere in the desert. The name—Ultar—is derived from a rectangular stone. Some years ago in the eighteenth century there was a missionary who came across this rectangular stone and it reminded him of an altar, and so he would gather people and invite people to come and celebrate the mass at it. Nobody knows where the stone is anymore, it has been buried under the sand, the river bed has been shifted, but the name is stuck. And so it is now an altar of human sacrifice. In Spanish, we say that this is the trampolina, this is the trampoline, this is the staging ground for the migrants getting ready to make their risky crossing through the desert to go north. In the years of 2000, 2001, in the peak months of crossing, which are January through May, some 2,000 migrants per day gathered in Ultar, a village that in its immediate vicinity numbers 5,000 inhabitants. So in a village of 5,000 people, an extra 2,000 arrive per day.

This was once a farming community, but it has also lost its way in this NAFTA, this free trade, this neo-liberal economics that allows the free flow of grains like corn coming in from the US, genetically altered corn that comes in with heavy subsidies so that companies like Cargill can set the prices and sell the low production cars in Mexico and rule the world economy. So, Ultar is no longer a rural village. It is a village that has its entire economy revolving around human trafficking.

Around the plaza you’ll find the prestos, you’ll find the stands where you can buy your new tennis shoes, baseball caps, bottles of water that will never ever be enough to keep you from being dehydrated—you have to carry at least twenty to thirty pounds of water into the deserts. There are vans around the plaza that have the back seats taken out with benches so that you can crowd twenty to twenty-five migrants and make the race two hours up to the line. And then when there is the opening—that window of opportunity—the migrants, or the young men who are the guides, go off into the desert for two days, for three, four, or five days and nights to make the crossover.

So, what we would say is that while we have these borders, they are open to some and closed to others and, in effect, we have filters. So the desert acts as a filter, to select the labor market that the US economy requires. According to the US labor statistics, 53 percent of all agricultural workers in the US are undocumented. In California that goes up to 90 percent. So if you can make it three, four, five, six days and nights through the desert, then you’ve proved your worth and you can pick lettuce in California, apples in Washington, tomatoes in Michigan, blueberries in Maine, cucumbers in North Carolina, and oranges in Florida.

Why this area? When the free trade agreement came into effect in 1994, there was another initiative, called operation gatekeeper by the United States, to shut the border in the places that had been the traditional places of crossing, Tijuana, and urban areas, and so that’s where the barriers, that’s where the walls went up. The walls are made with former helicopter landing pads from the Vietnam war and the first war in Iraq—metallic walls become the first barrier. Stadium lighting, motion detectors, helicopters, all kinds of sophisticated surveillance technology now drive the migrants to the most hostile environment, which is the desert, to make that dangerous crossing, and it becomes the filter.

The desert once had been the flow back and forth primarily of men, going up for seasonal labor and then coming back to be with their families and their homes and their communities. Because of the risks, because of the costs, they now stay in America, so there are more undocumented migrants in the US after NAFTA, after 1994 and Operation Gate Keeper than before. As a result, while males continue to be the higher percentage of those who are crossing, there has been a significant increase in women who are making that risky crossing with their children. Why? Because they want to be re-united with their families, with their husbands, for their children to know their fathers. And so, they are left with a choice to stay behind in the ghost towns or to make the dangerous trek north and to become part of this migrant trail of those who are the expelled in this lonely economy. But you could stay, right? And if you stay, you could fight for change, right? And so we go to the last category of extermination.

We go to the south of Mexico and the southernmost state, which is the state of Chiapas, the state that ethnically and language-wise identifies with the Mayan peoples, where people still speak the traditional language. Mayan languages present a different worldview—there is no word for “I” or “me,” only “we” and “us.” There is no word in Mayan languages for “rich” or “poor” because they don’t exist as social categories. For many, many centuries there was no word for “enemy.” Chiapas is one of the richest states in terms of natural resources, of anything that you could imagine—from water to generate hydroelectric power, which generates over half of the electricity in Mexico, to uranium to timber to coffee to land, whatever you want to imagine, Chiapas sets the record for the greatest wealth of resources in Mexico.

At the same time, it has some of the poorest living standards in all of Mexico. Chiapas is “off the grid”; the land reform carried out in Mexico in the 1930s didn’t quite make it all the way south, but the Indigenous peoples, the farmers, held onto the promise and the hope that someday that communal land would be theirs because it was protected by law in the Mexican constitution under article 27, which would not allow the purchase nor the sale of communal lands. But in anticipation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, under pressure from the United States to pave the way, the Mexican administration in 1992 amended its own constitution to allow for the purchase and sale of this communal land. For Indigenous families that was taken as a death sentence. On January 1, 1994, when NAFTA came into effect and when the power brokers in Mexico City were celebrating and toasting their entry into this new world order, an Indigenous army of Mayan peoples occupied six municipalities in Chiapas as part of a protest. Mayan mathematicians had done some quick calculating and had determined that, based on the infant mortality rate, they had just a few generations left and so they decided to go down in a fight.

Onto the scene appeared the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). Twelve days of fighting ended in a ceasefire. Civil society in Mexico also rose up and called for negotiations and identified with the cause of the Zapatistas to defend communal lands, to defend cultures and traditions that are part of the Indigenous peoples. So there was a ceasefire, and the Zapatistas have respected that ceasefire since January 12, 1994, without having fired a shot. In the meantime, the Mexican government has continued to carry out a military strategy of counter-insurgency, sometimes described as “in order to kill the fish, you drain the ocean,” which is to say that all life becomes a military target. And so, counter- insurgency policies in the southern state of Chiapas have pushed people out, have cleared areas, only allowing those who agree to collaborate with the government to stay, as a way of trying to remove any popular base and support for the Zapatistas. All of this because of the concerns of the north, including a memo that once came from Chase Bank to the president of Mexico saying, “unless you eliminate those Zapatistas, we can no longer consider Mexico a secure environment for investment.”

So, in a little village in December 1997, people had assembled, Indigenous Peoples who were on the run because they understood that there was a military operation coming into the area. So they gathered. And, while they themselves were not Zapatistas—in fact, they had formed themselves into an organization called the Bees—they shared the causes of Indigenous rights, protection of culture and traditions, land reform, democracy, and human rights, but they did not share the strategy of taking up arms. And so they gathered in the little village with rumors that there was a military operation on the way, and they gathered in the little wooden chapel to pray and to fast for peace.

In the morning of December 22, 1997, trucks started to arrive, young men in uniforms got down armed with high-caliber rifles and they took position around the chapel and high ground, and at 11:00 in the morning they began to open fire. You can still see the bullet holes in the wooden panels that touched them. The people ran, they fled, they dove down the embankments, they gathered their children, they covered them up, they tried to hide in the vegetation. The shooting continued until 5:00 in the afternoon; at 2:00 it reached its peak.

In the end, forty-five lives were lost, the majority women and children. The men had moved out of the area, assuming that they would be the ones targeted for violence, but they were dead wrong. In this strategy, the women were targets. It was gender-directed violence. Among the nineteen women killed, four were pregnant; one died because her abdomen was cut open. Just 200 meters away from the killing spree were public security forces. They blocked the only potential escape route from the village. This is a military strategy called the hammer and the anvil. The anvil holds the escape route, and the hammer comes in to do its work.

The government, in its attempt to cover up its complicity, stated that it was just a dispute between Indigenous Peoples, you know how they are. There was a sand pit and they were just fighting over that. They tried to cover up the gender-specific brutality. Cultural anthropologists who have investigated the case say that this kind of heinous violence has absolutely nothing to do with Indigenous cultures, but has everything to do with a culture of military counter-insurgency training. And so, in this globalized world, this new world order that promises profits and trickle-down economics, there is a system that demands human sacrifice through exclusion, exploitation, expulsion, and extermination.

But the global profiteers do not have the last word. They do not get the last say. There is a cosmic shift that we also feel; our solar calendar shows two serpents coming together head to head. One is the serpent of light, the other is the serpent of shadows. The elders in Mexico tell us that we are now in the shifting of the pendulum, that the serpent of the shadows is now being pushed aside, and the serpent of light is coming into force and power. In Spanish, the way we say “to give birth” is “to give light.” And so, this Earth Mother of ours is not only crying out because of the pain of her lost, murdered and missing sisters, she is also crying out in labor pain. She is giving birth to a new creation, what some refer to as an eco-feminist creation that places food sovereignty above food as a commodity. That places worker cooperation above maximizing our competitive advantage. That places meeting basic human needs above maximizing corporate greed.

And so we are awaiting the birth of a new order, and as those who are here as midwives, we participate by sowing seeds—we start small because we want to concentrate the life force—seeds that are cultivated, that become plots, that thicken, that write a new history and a new story. We start thin with many threads of many colors to weave a new tapestry. And we start slow because we are in it for the long haul. We are in this marathon of life and hope and we will not be stopped. And we are not alone.

Who has called us here? I would say that our missing and murdered sisters have also called us. You can feel them, their presence; they are here. Yesterday when Maria Campbell shared her powerful, moving, eloquent words, and she talked about walking through the cemetery and remembering her sisters who had died such violent deaths, outside, in the window, I saw in the clouds a kite flying. In Guatemala, on the day of the dead, people fly kites in the graveyards to remind them of the spirits that soar and lift them up. We are not alone, our sisters lift us up and they have called us and they have convened us in this marathon of hope.

So I want to close with the words of a sister from Guatemala who reminds us of this marathon of hope in a poem that she wrote called “They have threatened us with resurrection.”[2]

They have threatened us with Resurrection

Because we have felt their inert bodies,

and their souls penetrated ours

doubly fortified,

because in this marathon of Hope,

there are always others to relieve us

who carry the strength

to reach the finish line

which lies beyond death.

They have threatened us with Resurrection

because they will not be able to take away from us

their bodies,

their souls,

their strength,

their spirit,

nor even their death

and least of all their life.

Because they live

today, tomorrow, and always

in the streets baptized with their blood,

in the air that absorbed their cry,

in the jungle that hid their shadows,

in the river that gathered up their laughter,

in the ocean that holds their secrets,

in the craters of the volcanoes,

Pyramids of the New Day,

which swallowed up their ashes.

They have threatened us with Resurrection

because they are more alive than ever before,

because they transform our agonies

and fertilize our struggle,

because they pick us up when we fall,

because they loom like giants

before the crazed gorillas’ fear.

They have threatened us with Resurrection


  1. Kim Erno's presentation at the Mission Women: Decolonization, Third Wave Feminisms and Indigenous People of Canada and Mexico conference was translated into English by a conference volunteer, then transcribed and edited for ease of readability by Chelsea Millman.
  2. Excerpt from Julia Esquivel, “They Have Threatened Us With Resurrection / Nos han amenazado de Resurrección,” Spiritus 3 (2003): 96–101 © 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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