Walls, Security and Extraction – Exploring the Root Causes of Honduran Migration
written by Alejandro Artiga-Purcell
Root Causes of Migration Delegation with The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)
The Rio Blanco community has resisted the construction of a hydroelectric dam for three years
Alejandro Artiga-Purcell, author, serves as an international observer at a demonstration against freeway tolls in Honduras
Members of COPINH fighting to protect the Rio Gualcarque
The Migration Crisis
Walls, security and extraction—these have become the pillars of US foreign policy on Central American immigration this past decade. Purportedly designed to stem the tide of immigration, current US policy exacerbates and actively creates situations that force immigration. The extractivist model of development prioritizes the privatization of more and more public resources—energy, minerals, water, land—leading to the consolidation of wealth for a few and poverty for the many. Security, supposedly justified to combat gang violence and corruption, is also vital to secure corporate access to these valuable resources, and to oppress all those who resist their forced displacement and dispossession. Walls not only serve as financial barriers to further extract wealth (for example, in the form of tolls on privatized highways), but also provide physical hurdles to the movement of those displaced and dispossessed people.
Mainstream explanations in media, government and international institutions like the United Nations point to the vicious cycle of economic underdevelopment and gang violence as the primary drivers of immigration. The “Alliance for Prosperity Plan,” implemented as a response to the migration spike in 2014, reflects this perspective. Intended to crack down on gang violence and alleviate poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the $750 million budget approved by the US Congress for 2016 focused primarily on aid for “development assistance” and “security measures” (Iesue, 2016).
However, as a member of a delegation to Honduras seeking to uncover the “root causes” of immigration this past December, quite a different story emerged. Surprisingly, as we met with indigenous communities, farmers, maquila workers, church leaders, human rights activists, and returned deportees, few mentioned gangs or underdevelopment at all. Instead, the recurring themes were the rampant privatization and extraction of public resources, facilitated by political corruption at the highest levels of government, and enforced through the militarization of the country and the criminalization with impunity of all those who dissent.
Vastly disparate communities within Honduras gave strikingly similar testimonies. The Garifuna, a coastal indigenous people, are fighting against a five-star tourist resort seeking to displace them from their home of over 200 years; Lenca indigenous in the Honduran highlands are threatened by hydroelectric dam and mining projects that seek to divert, over consume, and pollute the rivers that sustain their livelihoods; Campesinos in the Bajo Aguan valley face harassment, disappearance and death at the hands of paramilitary and military groups for demanding that African Palm plantation magnates return their illegally stolen land. Furthermore, national protests continue against the privatization of the country’s major highways and the subsequent proliferation of tolls.
In an interview with Karen Spring, a coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, these resorts, dams, mines, palm plantations and privatized highways are concretely linked. Mining, a hugely energy intensive industry, is directly tied to the proliferation of hydroelectric dams. Tourism and resource extraction rely on networks of roads and highways to bring people and goods in and out of zones of production and consumption. All of these industries demand large swaths of land, water and energy—opened up through privatization—to operate at an economically viable scale.
Consequently, these cases represent distinct but connected manifestations of a larger project geared towards an extractivist model of development—the very type of development advanced by the Alliance for Prosperity. Each tells a story of exclusion and extraction through the privatization and consolidation of public resources. The accumulation of wealth for a few political and corporate elites propels the dispossession, displacement and repression of the Honduran people—stripped of their access to clean environments, health, security and livelihoods, often without consent or compensation.
One way out of the predicament is immigration. Thus, in a cruel irony, one of the key remedies prescribed for reducing immigration, namely economic development through large projects that attract foreign and national capital, actually helps produce the conditions of poverty and repression that force Hondurans to flee.
The Myth of Security
The Alliance for Prosperity Plan’s other priority—bolstering security—plays an equally important role in increasing rather than stemming the flow of migrants. In Honduras, larger (often US funded) budgets for the military and police forces as well as increased impunity have been integral to the suppression of public dissent and community organizing. Those who resist development projects, human rights violations and environmental degradation are subject to legal or extralegal persecution. This past year, the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness ranked Honduras as the most dangerous country in which to be an environmental activist (Miroff, 2016). This title gained global recognition with the still unsolved murder of internationally renowned human rights and indigenous leader, Berta Caceres, despite her supposed protection by the Honduran state (NACLA HONDURAS). In an interview with Tomas Gomez, Caceres’ replacement as the director of COPINH, he made it clear that he had faced similar death threats and assassination attempts (Guevara-Rosas, 2016).
Even those not protesting large development projects are under constant attack. Two leaders of the Agrarian Reform movement in the Bajo Aguan valley were killed just a few months before our arrival (Lakhani, 2016). Others in the movement came out of hiding to meet with us and share their experience of criminalization as they faced lawsuits and terrorist charges. In the city, unionized workers at a maquila who wish to remain anonymous for their personal safety, spoke of having to constantly travel in groups as a precaution against kidnap or worse. Demanding only the right to organize for fair wages, safe working conditions and maternity leave, these workers cherish daily activities such as hugging their children goodbye in the morning, because of their painful awareness that they may not return home alive.
Complicating the Rhetoric of Gang Violence
The targeting of strategic leaders in environmental, human rights, agrarian reform, and labor movements belies official efforts to blame these tragedies on random gang violence and crime. In Honduras, corruption scandals are well documented. Police officers have taken their cut of the “war tax” (the price paid to gangs to not be killed), conspired against anti-drug officials, and turned a blind eye to gang and drug related violence, further adding to a culture of impunity (Malkin and Arce, 2016). Currently, Honduran and US intelligence officers are investigating the close ties between narco traffickers and officials at every level of the Honduran government, including police officers, mayors, congress people, and judges (Gagne, 2016).
Highlighting the blurred lines between gang violence and state-sponsored violence in Honduras in no way refutes that gangs and cartels pose serious problems that contribute to everyday insecurity and repression. However, as Karen Spring explains, “Gangs are not autonomous actors. They are enabled by impunity, they are enabled by corruption, and they are enabled by…the mafia government of Honduras.” Consequently, any analysis of immigration that stops with a critique of gangs and their so-called random acts of violence constitutes an overly superficial and misleading representation of a much more complex reality.
Towards a better understanding of Migration’s Root Causes
While recognizing the varied motivations of Hondurans who migrate north, it is critical to attend to the more general political and economic failures that propel poverty, violence, gang activity, and migration. It should not be forgotten, furthermore, that over the past century the United States and “the West” (often embodied in institutions like the World Bank, the Inter Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank) has played a key role in advancing the interests of foreign direct investment-based development in Honduras. Just this century US foreign policy sponsored the 2009 coup d’état and promoted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—both of which have wrought havoc in the country’s political, economic and social arenas.
The Alliance for Prosperity is just the most recent iteration of US imperialism in Honduras. Founded on misleading rhetoric attributing immigration to gang violence and underdevelopment, the Plan not only mis-diagnoses the root causes of immigration, but actually perpetuates the underlying disease. The “development” the Plan promotes is a ruthless extractivist development that prioritizes profit and growth above human rights and environmental well-being. The “security” it emphasizes primarily secures transnational corporations and national elites’ rights to access and extract privatized resources by dispossessing the larger Honduran population.
Calls to Action
The problem of the current migration crisis is complex and steeped within a long history of colonialism, imperialism and failed development policies. No silver bullet solution exists. However, the lack of a simple fix-all policy leaves open the possibility for a plurality of responses. In North America, we bear the responsibility to pressure our heads of state, congress people, and local representatives, to both acknowledge our country’s role in perpetuating forced immigration and also to act on it. One concrete example of such a legislative action is to reintroduce and pass the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act or “Berta Bill” which prohibits US aid to the Honduran police and military until certain human rights measures are met. A next step is not just to cut military and police aid to Honduras, but to redirect that aid to sectors where it can help and empower Hondurans—such as education, healthcare, and other social services.
However, solutions cannot only come from the top down, or from the North to the South. A major theme in the global Women’s March on January 21, 2017 was to stop building walls and start building bridges. Taking this commitment seriously requires that we build solidarity networks between countries, cities and communities. This is necessary now more than ever as the struggles Hondurans have faced for decades—the fight against walls, security and extraction—are also our own. In the age of Trump, we collectively face the wall on the US-Mexico border, the prohibition of Muslim immigrants, attacks on sanctuary cities, the displacement and oppression of indigenous communities at Standing Rock, increased criminalization of African Americans and the policing of women’s bodies and their right to choose, among others.
While these struggles are distinct and manifest in particular localities, they are inherently connected in a global struggle for justice. There may be frictions and contradictions between them, and indeed, no solution is complete. However, as Honduran communities facing threats to land, water, and livelihood continually reminded our delegation, our only option is to struggle for our rights. And our most valuable resources are each other.
Alejandro Artiga-Purcell is a SHARE Advisory Board Member and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz in the Environmental Studies doctorate program. His research interests fall within the overlapping areas of Political Ecology, Enviornmental Justice and Development Studies. Alejandro’s work explores how and why material environments shape and are shaped by socio-political and economic relations of power, in the context of conflicts over gold mining and water governance in El Salvador, and Central America more broadly.
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