On the second Monday of October every year, millions of Americans living in the United States mark the anniversary of the federally recognized Columbus Day, in honor of the Italian explorer Christoper Columbus. But because his arrival ushered in murder and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, activists have attempted to replace his namesake holiday with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Although Indigenous Peoples’ Day — first created in 1977 at a U.N.- sponsored conference — aims to reframe the heritage narrative in the United States, many indigenous people around the world do not get any recognition.
In Guatemala, some are on the verge of being pushed out of their homeland.
Roughly 60 percent of the population, or 6 million people, are indigenous in Guatemala. But many live in communities within the vast forests and jungles that are at risk of being taken away, or in cities that are falling into organized crime.
Some Quiché community members — Mayan descendants with roots as far back as 2000 BC — live in the highland Ixil Maya municipality of Nebaj, where they are actively protesting logging companies exploiting timber on private lands.
“We went to the government bodies and issued statements asking to cease extending licenses for the exploitation of forests,” Caty Terraza, the communications representative for the Indigenous Authorities of Nebaj, told Waging Nonviolence last month. “They told us that they are sowing new trees, but how long will it take for those trees to grow to the same size as the trees that were there before?”
About 40 percent of Guatemala is covered by forest, making illegal logging a widespread issue that threatens the livelihoods of marginalized people who rely on the forests for their daily lives. By law, loggers are issued permits through the municipal mayors’ offices, and operations cannot exceed 10 cubic meters every year, according to the World Rainforest Movement.
The government has provided about 5.2 million acres of land, or concessions areas for indigenous communities like the Quiché to take care. But the areas controlled by the government undergo the most deforestation. In 2011, Guatemalan environmental police went into the San Miguel forest and counted 50 pickup trucks leaving with logs and wood, roughly equal to 30 medium-sized trees, the EcoLogic Development Fund reported.
Timber companies aren’t the only ones contributing to the deforestation efforts however. Drug traffickers have cleared large swaths of forests to lay down airplane landing strips and roads to haul through drugs. By one estimate, the narco-led deforestation rate in some parts of Guatemala was about 10 percent annually. In neighboring Honduras, the amount of new deforestation between 2007 and 2011 was correlated with a spike of cocaine movements during that same time period.
“In response to the crackdown in Mexico, drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them to the United States,” said Kendra McSweeney, lead author of a 2014 Science article and an associate professor of geography at The Ohio State University.
But while bribes keep government officials looking the other way when it comes to deforestation activities, local activists and indigenous people pay the consequence when they speak up. Both well-known Honduran activists Berta Cáceres and Nelson García were killed for being outspoken environmentalists. Global Witness reported that at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014.
Within the region, kidnappings and extortion also happen to indigenous people who may not have the economic ability to pay up, leaving parents to instead use their finite resources to pay human smugglers to get their children to the United States, away from the crime. That in part helps to explain why large numbers of unaccompanied children began arriving in the United States starting in late 2013.
The number of minors apprehended at the southern U.S. border who are under the age of 12 doubled between 2013 and 2014, Pew Research’s Fact Tank reported in 2014. What’s more, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that about 300 Guatemalans left the country every day in 2013. The latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics revealed that 17,113 unaccompanied Guatemalan minors arrived in the United States in the 2016 fiscal year ending on August 31, the highest since 2014.