9 Update: Global Capitalism’s Attack on Mother Earth and Her Indigenous Daughters

Kim Erno

Kim Erno[1]

Introduction

Previously, I identified four forms of human sacrifice demanded by the idolatry of global capitalism: exclusion, exploitation, expulsion, and extermination. Exclusion represents those women who are outside of a global economy that only values the potential for monetary production and consumption. Those whose economic means are so limited that they are neither consumers nor producers and who perform tasks such as child rearing, gardening, collecting water, caring for the elderly, etc. without any monetary remuneration, count for nothing in the global economic equation and therefore have no justification to exist. Exploitation represents those who for a limited period of time contribute to the global economy through the tedious labor in sweatshops often in inhumane conditions. Once their production rate declines or they become reproductive, that is, pregnant they are discarded. Expulsion represents those women who live in the villages that are like “ghost towns” where the vast majority of the males have gone north in order to feed their families. These are primarily rural areas since they are the ones that have been most devastated by trade agreements that flood the market with cheap corn and other basic grains. These women risk their lives crossing north through the desert to reunite their families who have been expelled by the global economy’s impact on their hometowns. Extermination represents those women who resist and organize alternative societies with collective decision making, sustainable living styles and gender equality. Such women are a threat to a patriarchal global system that is based on competitive advantages, maximizing profits and converting people and the planet into commodities to be bought and sold or traded for profits through speculation. I cited particular communities in Mexico that are exemplative of each of these sacrifices. In the case of extermination I had described a massacre by paramilitaries carried out in the Indigenous community of Acteal (in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas) in which women, particularly pregnant women, were specifically targeted in order to eliminate “the seed” of resistance to a global economic model designed to generate wealth for a few rather than the well being of all.

Now, at this juncture, I would like to pick up where I left off, namely with extermination. I believe that there is an even greater urgency now to expose how extermination has become so amplified that we are now faced with a convergence of femicide with ecocide. Femicide has reached global proportions by the fact that we as humans are also committing ecocide by killing la Tierra Madre, Mother Earth! The culprit is a global economic system based upon unlimited growth fueled by the endless extraction of limited resources to feed an insatiable consumerism with waste and contamination left in its wake that is heating up the earth at a record rate. Furthermore, anyone who gets in the way must be eliminated so what we are now experiencing is a combination of the killing of the planet with the killing of women who are defenders of the planet. These women are the faithful and valiant daughters fighting to protect their Mother for the sake of their children and the generations to come.

Ecocide: Mother Earth at Risk

In spite of those who deny global warming or anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the data is readily available. Notably, about 97 percent of active, publishing climate scientists believe in ACD, meaning that they consider human activity to be a major cause of climate change. (Doran and Zimmerman 2009; Anderegg et al. 2010).

There are some places on the planet where denial of ACD is not an option. What do the residents of Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, and Kivalani, an Inuit village above the Arctic Circle, have in common? They are in a race, not by choice, to see which ones become the first global warming displaced refugees.

Tuvalu is the fourth smallest nation on the planet consisting of a twenty-seven square kilometer land mass with a population of around 11,000. The highest point on the island nation is about four meters above sea level. As the oceans continue to rise, the island nation faces an uncertain future. Storm patterns have also changed from the most severe ones that were once concentrated in the months of November and December to storms with high winds and huge swells that can wash over the island striking virtually any time of the year. Speaking at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference the prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoago, challenged the industrialized world to set even higher goals for combating global warming: “Tuvalu’s future at current warming, is already bleak, any further temperature rises will spell the total demise of Tuvalu. For Small Island Developing Nations, Least Developed Countries and many others, setting a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels is critical. I call on the people of Europe to think carefully about their obsession with 2 degrees. Surely we must aim for the best future we can deliver and not a weak compromise…Let’s do it for Tuvalu, for if we save Tuvalu we save the world.” (Sopoago 2015). Sopoago’s words may prove to be prophetic. While the Paris Agreement calls for holding the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius for this century, the accord is based upon political motivation for implementation rather than legal mandates. Plus a recent report from the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) states that reduction of emissions under the Paris Agreement will still result in a 3.5 degree Celsius rise in global warming by the end of the century. In the introduction to the report UNEP leaders warn: “Current commitments will reduce emissions by no more than a third of the levels required by 2030 to avert disaster.”(Solheim and McGlade 2016, xi). Furthermore in what is referred to as potentially “the most impactful climate change reality of our time”, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could produce an abrupt and catastrophic ten foot rise (about one meter below Tuvalu’s highest point) in sea level between 2050 and 2060. To avert this disaster we must restore ocean temperatures to their pre-industrial state.

Heading north to the Arctic with a warming rate twice as fast as the world average, we enter a region also susceptible to the impact of climate change. The residents of Kivalani live with climate change on a daily basis. The force of the late fall storms were once diminished by the ice pack that formed along the coast as a protective shield. However with warmer temperatures this ice pack does not form until much later in the year often December or later. This leaves the coastal area significantly more vulnerable to erosion. The warmer water also increases the intensity of the storms. Some homes simply fall into the sea. There are no climate change deniers in their midst! City council member Colleen Swan is also a first responder for her village. She describes the exhaustion from the endless struggle to protect her community from being washed into the ocean. When one minor fall storm hit she decided she would try to get some rest.

When we got that storm last fall, I decided I’m just going to go to sleep. I’m tired of worrying, I want to get some rest. The next morning when I woke up I saw the impacts from a minor storm and how quickly the water rose, and I realized that was a very dangerous thing for me to do, to sleep, to not face the reality of that night. I realized this is what climate deniers do not us. Not us who face the reality every day. We wake up to it. We wake up to it every morning. (Wernick 2015)

Indeed global warming is making itself felt in the farthest reaches of the north. During the second half of November 2016, temperatures at the North Pole averaged an alarming 36 degrees above normal! At a time when Arctic sea ice should be freezing it is melting, meaning that storms pounding the coast along Kivalani will be even more destructive and Colleen Swan will have many more sleepless nights.

In both places resettlement is considered the last resort but could soon be the only option. Abandoning the land that represents their traditions and livelihood for centuries means also losing their identity as a people. Maina Talia, secretary of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network and a theologian states:

“Our people continue to experience the dramatic effects of climate change on our islands. Our traditional root crops…are gradually dying because of sea intrusion and frequent droughts. Fish poisoning has become a major issue, due to increased temperature and acidification of sea water…We are losing our lands to the sea as a result of soil erosion, and land defines who we are. Our culture, our life, our heritage, and our language are all rooted in the land…Losing our land literally means life becomes meaningless to us.” (Talia 2014)

Furthermore, like the sea, the cost of relocation continues to rise. In the case of Kivalani the estimate is around $400 million USD. In a strategy to garner these funds, as well as, to hold accountable those who are some of the biggest contributors to global warming, Kivalani filed a law suit in February, 2008 against twenty-four oil, coal, and utility companies including ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron Corporation, Royal Dutch Shell, and Xcel Energy. The law suit claims that the defendants by their volume of green house emissions are exacerbating global warming and the erosion of Kivalani and therefore constitute a “public nuisance” under federal and state common law (Montague 2013, 2). For a time Tuvalu had entertained a similar strategy considering legal action against United States and Australia as the world’s largest and overall highest per capita producers of green house gases on the planet. The law suit filed by Kivalani was subsequently dismissed by the U.S. courts on the grounds that the remedy for their situation must be sought through legislative and executive branches of the government rather than through federal common law (Armstrong 2009).

Those who face “eviction” from their homelands due to climate change are at risk of becoming global castaways since there appears to be no political body willing to take responsibility for their relocation. The UN refugee convention applies only to those fleeing persecution and with the growing number of people in this category of refugees there is little political will to expand refugee status to those forced to move by rising sea waters and droughts. With predictions of an estimated 250 million climate refuges by 2050 we are set for a global migration crisis (Sunjic 2008).

There appears to be no relief in sight as more and more hotspots erupt across the globe. During the summer of 2016 the temperature in Basra, Iraq spiked at 129 degrees Fahrenheit setting the record as the highest temperature ever documented and exceeding the limit of human tolerance (‘State of the Climate: Global Climate Report for Annual 2016’ 2017; Bouchama and Knochel 2002, 1981). Ironically Basra is situated along the Euphrates River by the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. What was once the garden of paradise is becoming a hell on earth! The months of July and August of 2016 also saw temperatures climb to the highest levels ever recorded in the history of human civilization! The most recent report from the World Meteorological Organization predicts that the year 2016 will go down as the hottest year ever on record. This follows the record setting temperature high of the year 2015; which followed the record setting year of 2014. You start to see a pattern?!?

Some of the most recent studies on global warming are the most disturbing. One describes an accelerated melt rate for the ice caps and ice sheets that produces what is known as a stratification in the ocean with the cooler fresh water from the melting ice pooling at the top and the warmer salt water settling below, which leads to even more melting as these warmer waters are melting ice sheets from the bottom up. This in turn will slow down the ocean circulation in the north, while the impact of global warming raises temperatures around the equator so we have a greater north-south temperature differential that will produce more severe tropical storms (Hansen et al. 2016).

While the year 2015 set a record for the hottest year ever (although 2016 is likely to surpass it) it was also a year when a record was set for the number of murders of environmental activists. While Mother Earth is warming up the heat is being turned up on those who fight to defend her. According to a Global Witness report titled “On Dangerous Ground”, the year 2015 “was the worst year on record for killings of land and environmental defenders – people struggling to protect land, forests and rivers through peaceful actions, against mounting odds…” The report continues “The numbers are shocking. We documented 185 killings across 16 countries, a 59% increase on 2014 and the highest annual toll on record. On average, more than three people were killed every week in 2015…” Furthermore those who are most vulnerable to attack are Indigenous populations. “This report sheds light on the acute vulnerability of Indigenous people, whose weak land rights and geographic isolation make them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resources exploitation. In 2015, almost 40% of victims were Indigenous” (‘On Dangerous Ground’ 2016, 4). The following is a case in point…

Femicide: The Risk of Defending Mother Earth

In the early morning hours of March 3, 2016, gunmen broke into the home of Berta Cáceres, an internationally recognized Honduran environmental activist, and shot her to death. Also wounded in the attack was Gustavo Castro Soto coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas, Friends of the Earth México, and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4). Gustavo was a close friend and colleague of Berta and was staying with her as an act of international solidarity to provide some measure of security by his accompaniment. By feigning death Gustavo survived the attack and is the sole witness to Berta’s murder. He was subsequently held for several days in inhumane conditions by Honduran authorities for “questioning”. After his release he was once again detained at the airport and placed into protective custody at the Mexican embassy only to be handed back to the Honduran authorities for further “questioning”. The initial government finding was that the murder occurred during a robbery and there was no political motive. This conclusion could not be further from the truth (‘The Death of the Guardian’ n.d.).

Berta Cáceres grew up in a household with progressive and revolutionary ideals. Her mother, Doña Bertha, served as a role model of female leadership and community service. She was mayor of her town and later became governor of the state at time when women seldom if ever held public office. Doña Bertha was also a midwife for her community and provided refuge in her home for those fleeing from the civil war in El Salvador (Blitzer 2016).With this formation Berta emerged as a powerful Indigenous female leader among her native Lenca people. In 1993, she co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). COPINH was created to promote indigenous pride as well as political clout among the Lencas, peasant movements, and grassroots organizations of Honduras. Together they took on some very powerful economic and political interests (both national and international) and won some significant victories: reclaiming ancestral lands through communal land titles, blocking mining and logging operations, organizing a boycott of all international financial institutions on their lands, and facilitating 150 local referendums across the country to give people a voice in determining their futures (Barra 2018; Bell 2016).

The latest campaign was to halt the construction of a megaproject which was a hydroelectric dam known as the Agua Zarca to be built on the Gualcarque River that is considered sacred by the Lenca people. The project violated international law because it was initiated without the prior consent of the Indigenous people and would have resulted in the displacement of the COPINH community of Rio Blanco. The dam was slated to be built by the Chinese company SINOHYDRO, the largest global builder of dams, with financing provided by the World Bank and political backing from the Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), the Honduran energy company. Even in the face of such powerful opposition Berta spoke of hearing the river cry for help and that the call had to be answered. With this “call”, Berta and COPINH confronted these global giants with the shear force of their integrity, communal organization, and courage. The community of Rio Blanco formed a human barricade to block the construction. Everyone participated, the elderly, the young, nursing mothers and men. The blockade lasted an entire year until finally the dam builder and their backers withdrew (Watson 2015; Bird 2013, 7). When the government reinitiated the project with construction across the river from Rio Blanco the protests were renewed and the threats against Berta, her family, and members of COPINH intensified. Berta stated: “I have received direct death threats, threats of kidnapping or disappearance, of lynching, of pummeling the vehicle I use, threats of kidnapping my daughter, persecution, surveillance, sexual harassment, and also campaigns in the national media of powerful sectors.” She identified the threats as coming from various state and corporate agents including Blue Energy, a Canadian transnational corporation, also seeking to partner with the dam construction project at Rio Blanco (La Nueva Televisión Del Sur C.A. 2016).

In spite of efforts by Honduran authorities to pin the blame for Berta’s assassination on leaders of COPINH claiming it was a crime of passion, thus far those arrested include a military officer and two retired military officers as further confirmation of military complicity and state sanctioned violence in collusion with international financial and political interests in Berta’s murder (Lakhani 2018). However, given the atrocious record of the Honduran justice system (with a 90 percent failure rate in criminal case convictions) there is not much hope for a just resolution to Berta’s case, especially now that it has been compounded by the theft of the case files by armed assailants who stole the materials from the car of a judge who claimed she was taking the files home “to study”! For this reason Berta’s family and friends have called for an international investigation into her murder which the Honduran government has refused to do. In August 2016,the UN special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michael Forst, visited Honduras and declared: “Honduras is one of the most hostile and dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.” He attributes this to an atmosphere of impunity (UNHR Office of the High Commissioner 2019). Additional UN officials warn that the impunity is turning Honduras into “a lawless killing zone” (UNHR Office of the High Commissioner 2016).

Berta’s assassination must be set within the context of the political violence of Honduras; the violence directed toward those who defend land and water in Honduras; the escalating global violence against environmental activists as previously cited; and the particular violence directed against female defenders of the environment and sacred Indigenous spaces.

Honduras is ranked as the most violent country in the world with 96 homicides for each 100,000 inhabitants (Kennedy 2012). While this is often attributed to gang and drug related violence, a major factor is the state sanctioned violence against human rights activists and Indigenous leaders defending their land. The spike in killings occurred following the 2009 military coup that ousted democratically elected Manuel Zelaya. He became unacceptable to the oligarchy and certain foreign powers after he announced his plans to make significant changes in Honduras. The government would: no longer renew mining contracts with Canadian corporations; convert the large U.S. military airbase into an international civilian airport; join the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) that promotes trade and social programs for Latin America; double the minimum wage; and revise the Honduran constitution (Escalera-Flexhaug 2014; Mejía 2009; 2008; Ham 2015, 6; Palencia and Frank 2009). The last proposal was the one used against him to claim that his primary objective was to amend the constitution so that he could serve another term in office. This was blatantly false since even if that change were made it could not have applied to him. Besides, the major reason for the constitutional reform was to protect the natural resources of Honduras, especially from foreign interests, because the constitution had been written back in the days when Honduras was considered a “banana republic” at the mercy of corporations like the United Fruit Company.

The women of Honduras also had a stake in the constitutional reform as a means of advancing their rights and place within Honduran society. Berta spoke of this hope for change: “For the first time we would be able to establish a precedent for the emancipation of women, to begin to break these forms of domination. The current constitution never mentions women, not once, so to establish our human rights, our reproductive, sexual, political, social and economic rights as women would be to really confront this system of domination” (Carlsen 2011). Not surprisingly some of the first to take to the streets in protest of the coup were female activists who spontaneously organized themselves into a movement called Feminists in Resistance. In addition to the beatings by police and security forces that all protestors suffered, the women were also subjected to rape and sexual harassment.

Once Zelaya was removed from power, with the acquiescence of the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the coup leaders even hired a Washington, D.C. law firm to lobby the U.S. Congress on their behalf, the same firm that represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings), trade was again directed toward the north and concessions for mining and access to land for agribusiness were speedily granted (Beckman 2017). When the affected communities resisted, the killings abounded. Between January 2010 and May 2013 there were 120 reported assassinations of peasant leaders in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras which is one of the most fertile regions of the country and especially well suited for the cultivation of African palm oil trees (OXFAM Briefing Note 2016). What was once an area of the country identified as the “capital of land reform” following government sponsored agrarian reform, is now considered the “poster child of land re-concentration” with over 75 percent of the land controlled by a handful of Honduran oligarchs who are cultivating palm oil trees and exporting the palm oil. Palm oil is considered a “flex crop,” meaning that it is suitable for food, fuel, livestock feed, or industrial material, which makes it even more versatile and valuable as a cash crop. As such it also promotes confiscation of land due to a growing global demand and the land area required for cultivation. About 10,000 acres of land are necessary to supply a single palm oil mill (Conant 2014). Here we have a contradiction in the strategies to reduce global warming and an example of why having Big Business “go green” while measuring its success by maximizing “greenbacks” will not save us! A positive step in the reduction of global warming is to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels. Palm oil can be used for biofuel. However in addition to the significant territory required for cultivation, it also thrives in conditions equivalent to that of rainforests. Not only are these precious areas destroyed, the Indigenous people who live there in harmony with the environment are displaced. If they refuse, the companies have their hired guns to intimidate, evict and kill. In a country where private security forces outnumber the police by a 5:1 ratio (Conant 2014), the UN Working Group on Mercenaries condemned the African palm oil producers of Honduras for recruiting former Colombian paramilitaries notorious for assassinations and massacres directed against peasant populations. These political and economic factors make Honduras both the murder capital of the world and according to Global Witness, the most dangerous country for those who defend their land and the environment (Global Witness 2017). Ironically Honduras is also the nation considered most affected by climate change that produces extreme weather. In a report issued by Germanwatch, Honduras is listed as the number one country to be negatively impacted by climate change during a 20 year period from 1994 to 2013 (Kreft et al. 2015).

While violence against defenders of the environment escalates, with Indigenous peoples being the most vulnerable to attack, female activists are considered most at risk. An OXFAM report issued in October, 2016, “The Risk of Defending Human Rights: The Rising Tide of Attacks against Human Rights Activists in Latin America” describes how the cultural context contributes to this higher risk. “The prevalence of the patriarchal culture that is so predominant in Latin America means that women human rights defenders face specific risks and attacks, since their activities involve challenging cultural, religious and social norms. This means that they are victims of stigmatization, hostility, repression and violence more frequently and to a greater extent than men,” (OXFAM Briefing Note 2016). In Berta Cáceres’ own words:

“I am absolutely convinced that if I were a man, this level of aggression wouldn’t be so violent. There are always campaigns against leaders. But as women we’re not only leading campaigns like the fight against the hydroelectric project, but also against the whole militarization culture that’s involved in our defense of the public good, of nature. We are women who are reclaiming our right to the sovereignty of our bodies and thoughts and political beliefs, to our cultural and spiritual rights – of course the aggression is much greater,” (Andrews 2016).

Within this national context of Honduras returning to a “puppet state” to become the most violent nation on earth and the deadliest for environmental activists together with a global context of ever escalating violence against defenders of the environment with Indigenous people and women as the most at risk; Berta Cáceres, an Indigenous Honduran female environmental activist, was killed.

Conclusion

The mounting violence directed toward Mother Earth and her allies appears like the last throes of a global monster that wants to consume and destroy all that it can before its demise. It carries the seeds of its own collapse within itself. A system that is based on unlimited growth with the endless extraction of limited resources is unsustainable for the long haul and therefore doomed to fail. However this does not mean that we are to stand by idly awaiting its downfall. If the monster is in its last throes of life, then Mother Earth is at the beginning of her labor pains to give birth to a new creation. In this birthing process we are called to be midwives, which means:

  • standing alongside those who are on the frontlines of the defense of our lands, air, and water for future generations in defiance of those who exploit any and all resources to reap short term financial gains;
  • cultivating sustainable food systems rather than treating food as a commodity to profit large agribusiness enterprises;
  • designing local economies to meet basic human needs rather than an imposed global economy driven by corporate greed;
  • connecting with renewable energy sources that minimize environmental impact rather than extractive ones that accelerate global warming and contaminate the planet;
  • joining social movements that cross borders and issues to globalize justice rather than the globalization of international financial institution policies to benefit transnational corporations and their investors; and
  • organizing a participative politics of the people rather than a plutocratic rule by the rich.

In 2015 Berta Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of her leadership in defense of her Lenca community and their opposition of the Agua Zarca dam project. In her acceptance speech she issued a call to all of us who continue to walk on this earth which I expect was similar to the call she once heard from the river. “Let us wake up humanity. We’re out of time…Let’s come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits…” (Garcia and Ruiz 2016).In honor of Berta and for the sake our planet and the generations to come we must heed her call.

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  1. “I dedicate this updated version of “Global Capitalism’s Detrimental Impact on Our Sacred Earth and Indigenous Women” to Iris Janet Figueroa Flores, my life companion and wife, a defender of women’s rights whose Indigenous roots sink deep into la Tierra Madre (the Mother Earth) of México. She was torn from my midst much too soon so now we look for a new way to walk together between life on this side and life on the other side to continue our path toward a world of abundant life for all.”

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Global Femicide by Kim Erno is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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