EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Centuries after the European conquest, indigenous people in the Americas are still being displaced from their communities and witnessing the exploitation of their environment, a panel of activists said.

From land grabs by investors in Guatemala intent on planting cash-crops ion Maya lands to government collusion with multinational mining and energy corporations in Central America, this displacement often leads to more unplanned migration to the United States, the activists said.

“Our communities endured the genocide of the 1980s and 90s. But (discrimination) and environmental destruction continue from those in power that make the rich richer and the poor poorer,” said Francisco Chavez, a human rights defender who fled death threats in Guatemala two years ago.

Speaking on a Zoom conference to commemorate Indigenous People Day, he and others said unbridled exploitation of natural resources on Indigenous lands and government corruption that facilitates violence against resistant tribes that led to the recent murders of dozens of activists in Guatemala and prompted thousands to migrate.

“We are concerned that indigenous people are still being discriminated and pushed aside. The murders continue,” said Maya Ixil activist Gaspar Cobo. “We will defend what little we have left – the land, the mountains, the water.”

Indigenous Peoples Day is a national holiday that either replaces or is commemorated alongside Columbus Day. President Biden last week issued a proclamation honoring America’s first inhabitants and the tribal nations that survive them.

Activists say forced migration happens in Central America when large-scale farmers or mining operations expand and buy out or shoo-off Indigenous people who practice natural farming. Expropriation to make way for massive hydroelectric projects also disrupts Maya villagers’ way of life.

Indigenous tribes in Mexico suffer violence and displacement as well, said Salvador Gonzalez, of the nonprofit Madre Nuestra Inc., in El Paso.

He talked about the murder of Tarahumara Indian activists like Julian Carrillo, whose family spoke out against illegal logging and clandestine drug farms near Guadalupe y Calvo, Chihuahua. Carrillo’s son was murdered in 2016, his home burned, and then he was shot to death in 2018 in the town of Coloradas de la Virgen.

Carrillo is one of 17 Tarahumaras killed in recent years for defending his land, Gonzalez said.

“The easy way to get their land is to eliminate (tribal) leaders,” Gonzalez said. He lamented how society often honors indigenous people in word but not deed.

“They have important lessons of wisdom to teach us. […] They have a better sense of community, solidarity for each other and respect for nature, for Mother Earth, than those who call ourselves ‘civilized,’” he said.