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Indigenous Communities on the Frontline as Two Climate Change-Fueled Hurricanes Slam Central America

StoryNovember 17, 2020
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Hurricane Iota made landfall in Nicaragua Monday as a Category 4 storm, just two weeks after Hurricane Eta devastated communities across Central America and caused widespread destruction. Iota is the strongest November hurricane to ever hit Nicaragua. “It’s caused a lot of damages to the most vulnerable peoples, which tends to be Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and Black communities all across Central America,” says Giovanni Batz, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, who has been in touch with people reeling from Hurricane Eta.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Central America. On Monday, Hurricane Iota made landfall on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast as a Category 4 storm, just two weeks after Hurricane Eta devastated communities across the region, killing at least 140 people, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Hurricane Iota is the strongest November hurricane to ever make landfall in Nicaragua. It left much of the coastal city of Puerto Cabezas without power. Dozens of Indigenous communities in Nicaragua and Honduras were evacuated this weekend. This is a resident of Puerto Cabezas who sought shelter ahead of the storm.

PUERTO CABEZAS RESIDENT: [translated] It was on course to the town, and we could die. That’s why we have to come here to shelter. I’m now sad because over there, in the cape, there is nothing to eat at all. All the plantations have come down.

AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Iota’s devastation comes as much of the Central American region is still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Eta, which impacted more than 3 million people, displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala alone. The back-to-back climate change-fueled hurricanes come amidst the raging coronavirus pandemic.

For more, we’re joined by Giovanni Batz, who has been in touch with people reeling from the hurricanes in Guatemala and has been helping coordinate aid distribution in one of the Indigenous communities impacted by the storm. He’s a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, his forthcoming book tentatively titled The Fourth Invasion: Decolonial Histories, Megaprojects, and Ixil-Maya Resistance in Guatemala. He’s joining us from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Giovanni. Describe what is happening right now.

GIOVANNI BATZ: Hi. Well, first, good morning, everyone. And thank you for having me.

In terms of what’s going on in Central America, unfortunately, the news isn’t great, obviously, with the hurricanes. It’s caused a lot of damages to, obviously, the most vulnerable populations, which tends to be Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and Black communities all across Central America. So, right now as a result of Hurricane Eta, there’s been communities that have been severely impacted. There’s been communities that have experienced mudslides. Roads have been destroyed. Bridges have been destroyed. Some communities don’t have access to the town centers where they can access healthcare or other necessities. So, right now, unfortunately, the reality is grim. On top of that, with the pandemic, the government hasn’t been responding adequately enough, so enough aid isn’t being provided to people. So the situation is extremely concerning, especially now with Iota hitting Central America now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how climate change is connected to this mass devastation.

GIOVANNI BATZ: Sure, yeah. So, Indigenous communities have been warning us that climate change is a real thing, right? And unfortunately, they tend to be — Indigenous communities tend to be heavily impacted by this. So, as a result of deforestation, as a result of increasing droughts, people are finding the conditions a lot more severe, right? So, where I work, in the Ixil region, a lot of people have argued that climate change has really devastated their communities. So, the rains are a little bit heavier. This is causing more mudslides, among other things.

So, you know, it’s not just necessarily just climate change, as well. It’s also the arrival of extractivist industries, like hydroelectric plants and dams and mining, which is actually making the situation a lot more worse. So, I work in a place called the Ixil region. The Ixil region was heavily impacted during the Guatemalan civil war between 1960 and 1996. They experienced 114 massacres. And here in the Ixil region, they’re experiencing the arrival of megaprojects, which they refer to as the new invasion. And one of the reasons why they call it the new invasion is because these are foreign-owned, imposed extractivist industry projects, that, again, create environmental degradation. So, right now one of the things that we’re looking at is that governments will propose hydroelectric projects to reduce CO2. They will propose hydroelectric plants and dams as a form of green energy. But when you look at the local situations, these dams, these megaprojects are actually causing a lot of environmental damage.

So, the hydroelectric plant that I look at in my work and in that forthcoming book is the Palo Viejo hydroelectric plant, which was constructed by an Italian corporation by the name of Enel Green Power. Now, Enel Green Power will say that this plant is reducing CO2, producing green energy and combating climate change. But when you look at the local realities, they’ve actually diverted the rivers through the construction of four diversion dams. They’ve flooded one of the rivers. They’ve actually contaminated the rivers to the point where after the river passes through this hydroelectric plant, the river has been visibly contaminated. The fish have died off. Children who bathe in the river come out with rashes, warts, among other things. These hydroelectric plants, for instance, are viewed as a solution for climate change, but Indigenous communities will tell you that they’re actually causing social division, further militarization and environmental degradation. So, when we think about climate change, we also have to take into consideration these extractivist industries and how they’re only further exasperating an already dire situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei speaking Monday about the impact of climate change and the powerful storms on Guatemala’s economy.

PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI: [translated] Every time there’s a natural disaster as a result of climate change, we acquire debt. And we have come out to knock on the doors of the generous, banks and multilateral organizations, that give us higher financing to achieve a reconstruction. This has brought a vicious cycle, where we get into debt, we reconstruct, it gets destroyed, we get into debt, we rebuild, and it gets destroyed again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the Guatemalan president. Guatemala is also asking, petitioning the Trump administration for temporary protective status — that’s TPS — for Guatemalans in the U.S. due to the destruction of Eta. Can you talk about your thoughts on this? I mean, years ago, after Hurricane Mitch, Hondurans, as well as Nicaraguans, got TPS as a result of the devastation.

GIOVANNI BATZ: Yeah, absolutely. Any sort of protections for migrants is definitely welcome. TPS obviously isn’t perfect, in the sense that there needs to be a pathway to citizenship. It tends to be a very ambiguous situation, where people live uncertain lives. I mean, Trump is trying to get rid of TPS. And that places people who did receive TPS, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans, among others, in a very precarious situation. So, any legal protections for migrants is definitely welcome.

But the U.S. needs to stop deporting people, first and foremost. Just in the first two weeks of November, for instance, after Eta hit, the U.S. continues to deport folks. There are 740 people who were deported between November 1st and November 12th. Two hundred and eight of those were unaccompanied minors, or, in other words, 28% of those being deported. So, while TPS would be great, it needs to be perfected, in the sense of allowing folks to gain legal citizenship.

We also have to help asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Guatemala itself is morally bankrupt, in the sense that, you know, there is a reason why people flee Guatemala, right? It has to do with structural violence, community leaders who are being persecuted for their activism against megaprojects, among other things. So, Guatemala also has to improve the situation in Guatemala, because there is a reason why people are fleeing.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration has virtually ended asylum. And when you talk about people being deported, a number of them have COVID-19. But also the criminalization of climate refugees, Giovanni?

GIOVANNI BATZ: Yeah, absolutely. Again, when we think about climate refugees, today in Guatemala there’s a lot of people who are being displaced as a result of these natural disasters. But, unfortunately, Indigenous communities and those who rise up to engage in the social justice movement, fight for environmental justice, these are the people who are being persecuted. So, in my work, I also analyze community leaders who are being persecuted, again, by the state, by corporations, among other sources.

I’ll provide one example. There’s two friends here in Ciudad Juárez, less than an hour away from where I’m currently located, in Las Cruces: Francisco Chávez and Gaspar Cobo Corio. They were two activists from the Ixil region of Nebaj who were forced out of their communities due to their activism. So, for instance, Gaspar, who is an anti-mining activist and protested against megaprojects, received death threats. Right? So, now he found himself — now him and Francisco, who was a witness against Ríos Montt during the genocide trial a couple years ago, have sought refuge in Ciudad Juárez. They’ve been there over a year as a result of Trump’s “Stay in Mexico” policy. So, living in Ciudad Juárez isn’t the best scenario for them. Migrants there tend to receive death threats. They’re vulnerable to a lot of criminal activity. So, unfortunately, the Trump administration is responsible for the deaths and the suffering for a lot of migrants here in the U.S.-Mexico border.

AMY GOODMAN: Giovanni, let me ask you about the incoming Biden administration. I mean, under President Obama and Joe Biden as vice president, though their jargon, their language was extremely different when it came to immigrants, when it came to deportations, they deported more immigrants than, I think, most presidents combined in the past — millions and millions and millions of people coming into this country. What do you expect of the incoming Biden-Harris administration?

GIOVANNI BATZ: We have to remember that Biden and Trump are two sides of the same coin, which is U.S. imperialism and intervention, especially in places like in Central America. While personally I was excited that Trump lost, obviously, the Biden administration, we have to be careful. As you mentioned, the Obama administration — Obama is known as the “deporter-in-chief” — right? — as a result of his reputation within the migrant community.

But one of the things that a lot of people aren’t aware of is that during the Obama administration, in order to combat migration coming from Central America, specifically unaccompanied minors, Biden and Obama designed the Alliance for Prosperity, which was initially a $1 billion initiative in order to promote security, good governance and international investment to Central America in order to try to curb migration. Biden spearheaded that, beginning in 2015. And what’s interesting is, once Trump took over, it was one of the few Obama-era initiatives that he actually didn’t get rid of. So, it was a project — again, this is a U.S. interventionist policy. This is where we have the introduction of Central America being portrayed as the “Northern Triangle,” which is an extremely militaristic term. So, I always encourage folks not to use that concept of the “Northern Triangle,” because, again, it’s within this kind of U.S. interventionist logic that Central America needs saving from the U.S.

So, under the Alliance for Prosperity, we’ve seen increased militarization in Central America, aiding very corrupt Central American presidents. The Honduran president right now, Juan Orlando, his brother was convicted of criminal activity with narcotraffickers here in the U.S. He’s also been implicated in that. Former President Jimmy Morales, who was being investigated for corruption by a U.N. watchdog group called CICIG, basically ended CICIG. He kicked them out. He actually used military vehicles donated by the U.S. Department of Defense to intimidate human rights activists and other people who were investigating him for corruption.

So, I think, with Biden, we expect more of the same in terms of U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally — 

GIOVANNI BATZ: And, unfortunately — mm-hmm? Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Giovanni.

GIOVANNI BATZ: Yeah. And when we think about the other — so, with Biden, you know, he’s going to promote neoliberal policies through international investment, which is basically more megaprojects and sweatshops. Looking at the case of Palo Viejo, which I investigate, when we think about these megaprojects, we always have to ask, “Development for who?” In Cotzal, where I do my work, only 37% of the population has access to electricity. This Palo Viejo hydroelectric plant generates about $30 million to $40 million in profits. They only leave less than $300,000 to the municipality, which is less than a percent. So, again, when we think about these megaprojects, which the Biden administration will definitely promote, we always have to ask, “Development for who? Who does it benefit?” It doesn’t benefit Indigenous communities, and it only benefits corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Giovanni Batz, I want to thank you for being with us, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, his upcoming book tentatively titled The Fourth Invasion: Decolonial Histories, Megaprojects, and Ixil-Maya Resistance in Guatemala.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Stay safe. Wear a mask. I’m Amy Goodman.

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