The Peoples of the World Foundation

Education for and about Indigenous Peoples

Op-Ed November, 2018: Caravans and Politics
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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I didn't accompany this camel caravan on its full journey when I was in Ethiopia this time last year. That journey would have taken me many days. I probably would have died from some combination of heat exposure, dehydration, starvation and disease. I probably wouldn't have died at the hands of bandits had I taken the full journey. Nor did the people driving the caravan — indigenous Afar people.

Safety in numbers has always been the most basic principle by which humans were able to migrate successfully across the Earth. For sure many died doing so, but the majority must have survived or our species wouldn't have made it very far out of the area where this month's photo was taken.

Sometimes, a large body, such as an asteroid, heads in the direction of Earth. During slow news weeks some of the mainstream media award the event a soundbite — always assuring us that there's nothing to worry about. Which is interesting given what we know about such bodies previously hitting Earth.

Our documentary, Peoples of the World: The Maya chronicles how Mesoamerica was first populated via human migration. Last month a large body started heading from Mesoamerica toward the United States. It is also a caravan. But not of asteroids or camels. Of humans. As was the case in some instances of prehistoric human migration, the motivational factors include seeking better opportunities and fleeing persecution and violence. It started early last month, with around two hundred people, in Honduras. That country currently has the highest murder rate per capita in the world. It is also, on a per-capita basis, the most dangerous country in the world to stand up for indigenous peoples' rights. By the time it had crossed through Guatemala, its size had increased to thousands. Its members face the same threats that this Afar camel caravan faced. It was perhaps the most covered story in the mainstream media last month.

It was interesting to watch developments in the political climate last month in tandem with the progress of the Mesoamerican caravan — or "caravan of hope" as it is coming to be dubbed. It is being touted as a national emergency in the US, where the most important political election in two years will take place in a few days. Threats of cutting aid to Guatemala and Honduras were made. Border security is being increased massively and the Mexico-US border may even be closed when the caravan arrives at that border.

There are many uncertainties as the story continues to unfold: how large is the caravan; how many copycat caravans are forming and mobilizing; and when will it reach the US border. But what is in no doubt is that some of its members are descended from ancient, highly successful Mesoamerican societies: Aztec, Maya and Olmec among them. The ignorance of both the ancient and modern history of Mesoamerica that I have seen displayed in some online comments is a far greater threat than the caravan could ever be. We should all be reminded of the lesson that, given enough complacence, any society can collapse.

Learn more about the Afar people.

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