Photo credit: Diana Bermudez

What comes to mind when you hear the term Indigenous Peoples?

Is it thoughts of long-vanished, ancient cultures? Perhaps the kind of civilizations that you can only read about in history books or study the remnants of at museums?

Or does the phrase bring to the surface feelings of admiration and empathy? Maybe it even activates treasured memories of experiences with living, breathing, persevering human beings with a rich heritage and wealth of wisdom.

If you’ve been tuning into our social media over the previous few months, we hope your answer to that question is closer to the latter.

On the heels of a tsunami of knowledge spread on Indigenous People’s Day (and magnified by Native American Heritage Month in November), we’ve sought to raise awareness about the issues faced by the descendants of those who survived massacres and the scourge of colonization. By amplifying their knowledge and experiences, we’ve been allies in shedding light on crucial social issues such as: the epidemic of missing/murdered Indigenous women, land theft, and cultural genocide through whitewashing and appropriation.

Now, in this new year of opportunity, it’s a great time to reconnect with the Native causes closest to our hearts and create a plan of action for allyship. Here’s a recap of 3 things everyone should know about Indigenous Peoples.

1. “We’re Still Here"

How would you feel if people spoke as though you no longer existed?

Especially while you were living, working, and fighting for all the world to see.

Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Indigenous African tribes and other Indigenous Peoples..they’re not mythical relics of a bygone era. They all continue to live and persevere despite all that’s been done to them over the centuries.

Photo credit: The Meraki Story

For example, here are some staggering stats from The Meraki Story:

  • Indigenous women face murder rates that are 10 times the national average

  • In 2018, there were 5,712 known incidents of missing Indigenous women but only 116 registered with the DOJ

  • Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for Indigenous women

  • Suicide rates for Native American women in 2019 were up 139% (USA Today)

  • Native Americans are three times more likely to have diabetes and having a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than the US average ( US Department of Health)

And yet, the knowledge of their traditions and awareness of their struggles for basic human rights has continued to progress. In spite of generational trauma, the destruction of their homes, theft of their land, pollution of their water, and the continued killings - they persist. Their distinct cuisines, customs, music, dance, art and stories have a worldwide reach.

2. Thanksgiving Is A Colonizer Holiday

There’s a familiar saying: “History is written by the victors.”

But can we agree that there’s no victory in a series of massacres? No honor in the theft of lives, land, and natural resources? No gratitude in the cleansing and burying of entire histories and traditions? Because that’s what Thanksgiving was and is a continuation of in the eyes of First Nations.

Thanksgiving wasn’t the genesis of unity between settlers and the Wampanoag people. Nor was it the focus of some mutually beneficial cooperation between the invaders and natives. In fact, some Native American tribes consider it an official Day of Mourning. A reminder of either a celebrated genocide or evidence of the willful indifference to the truth of those times.

Indigenous voices say it best. Project Native Hope shared this quote from the United American Indians of New England:

"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

Lastly, giving thanks (regularly, spontaneously and w/o obligation) is a central tenet of many older civilizations. It is a decidedly more sustainable and rewarding tradition than a whitewashed and commercialized Thanksgiving holiday.

3. Land Loss & Land Defenders

How much land has been stolen from your family? From your people, country, or even you individually? For First Peoples the world over, being dispossessed is a common (even expected) narrative. Generations of their children are born into this fight and are raised to continue reaching for what’s rightfully theirs as stipulated by numerous treaties.

This struggle to reclaim what was taken and hold on to what remains affects all of us. Why? Because the deeply ingrained lifestyle of harmonious, balanced living with the environment makes them among the best stewards of the natural world. From the Amazon Rainforest to Native reservations across the United States, communities organize to keep both countries and corporations from extracting resources from the land in a way that harms our habitats for the worse.

Mind-altering fact: One-third of the world’s remaining intact forests are found in Indigenous regions, according to Amazon Frontlines. So, as true defenders, they have a vested interest in preserving the land itself along with their legal rights to it. Those efforts protect us all during a time when our planet is facing a climate crisis. The original inhabitants are defending land and helping the world avert environmental disaster.

What Now? From Awareness To Action

Change is happening.

Battles are being fought on countless social and environmental fronts.

How can we be silent now that we know the scope of what’s at stake and how many lives are tied to these causes? In closing, here are a few guidelines on how to get started:

  • Be more aware of the history of your home, the land it’s on, the people who were there before.

  • Find out (directly from Indigenous sources) what’s specifically being advocated for in your area and how you can help.

  • Listen to those who live everyday with the fallout from centuries of heinous, unrectified wrongs that are continuing on a daily basis.

  • Let’s use our power of privilege. In our homes, at work, and through socio-political organizations in order to affect real change. Speak up and be an active ally.

Join in solidarity with Native causes. Through education, empathy, understanding, and actions we can transform their struggle into our fight.

“Speaking for myself, travel has changed me as a person. It’s made me more aware of my privilege and how to utilize it.”

- Catarina Rivera, Co-Founder

With a deep passion for exploring the less Instagram-able path, co-founders Catarina Rivera and her partner Remi Oguntoye recognized a crucial need for a more meaningful approach to travel that addresses sustainability and social justice. The end result: ExplorEquity. Eden Flaherty of Catalyst took the opportunity to interview Catarina in spring 2020 as part of the CATALYST Travel and Purpose podcast series, which interviews global travelers who have had social impact experiences.

Since that time, the pandemic has brought our signature small group trips to a pause. On top of that, the vast destruction wrought in Honduras by Hurricane Eta has cost many lives and left hundreds of thousands without the basic essentials. We hope this interview feeds your wanderlust for Honduras while also reminding us all of how critical our support is at this very moment!

We’ve included a link to the audio and some top highlights from our interview which shed insider insights on ExplorEquity’s mission, our personal journey in Honduras, and how we can all be a part of this enriching movement as we adventure.

Interview Highlights:

Eden Flaherty: How did you choose Honduras both as a country to visit and as the site for your next trip?

Catarina Rivera: The exciting thing about that is - we were contacted by a company called Choose Honduras (CH). They reached out to us because they saw a trip we’d done in Puerto Rico (2018) and they loved our model! They invited us to come and check out Honduras – a country which hadn’t even been on our travel radar. But, my partner and I decided to go on a research trip there, partner up with CH, and see what they were doing regarding sustainable travel.

Long Story Short: We absolutely loved it! Discovering so many different parts of the country, authentically connecting with the locals, and learning all their stories was amazing!

EF: You’d mentioned CH reaching out to you because of (EE) business model. Could you tell us more about your company and its approach to social issues while on trips?

CR: EE creates authentic experiences that support local communities while connecting travelers to REAL social justice issues like food sovereignty, climate change, and sustainability. But, what’s really special about our mission is – we’re building on a theme with each and every trip as we center the experience on substantial conversations with local people and indigenous cultures.

To have that built into an itinerary is a rare find because you need to do a lot of personal research, curation, and building face-to-face relationships. For example, in Puerto Rico, we spent many months building a network with like-minded natives who ultimately hosted our travel adventures. We noticed and were fulfilled by the fact that it was normal for conversations with them to be lengthy and in-depth. All of us would group together, truly engage and ask questions. There was gradual depth of learning throughout the week. Especially regarding shared values.

On the flip side, ExplorEquity’s purpose also includes high expectations for our travelers to enter the process being conscious of their own privilege. Coming to learn… Focusing on listening… And most certainly recognizing the locals as the experts they are. This is everything to us.

We’re not trying to create photo-ops or pretty (but superficial) opportunities. Depth, authenticity, and doing something unique – those are our central directives/pillars. We know we can’t cause radical change overnight or in a brief explorer experience. However, by focusing on social and environmental causes we can awaken an awareness that leaves travelers with a better understanding of a place and its people.

EF: Earlier, you said that Honduras had not been on your radar; which I’m sure that’s the case for many of us. Could you enlighten our listeners a bit about the country as a whole? Culture, landscape, history…

CR: It’s the 2nd largest country in Central America. Honduras is bordered by Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It touches the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. There are lots of mountains with peaks above 9,000 feet and interestingly, it’s the only country in Central America w/o active volcanoes.

There are connections to the Mayan civilization and many other Indigenous people. Many of which have a strong presence and impact to this very day!

The land was under Spanish rule for a long time like many Central and South American countries. A part of that colonization involved forced Catholicism – which is still evident today in this majority Roman Catholic populace.

EF: Which parts of the country did you visit?

CR: We initially landed in San Pedro Sula, then ventured south to an area called Lake Yojoa which had a wonderful community that built their lives around it. This is one of those small town places that reminds us of the wealth of knowledge and joy to be gained from connecting with the local community. It was great to experience how they work to preserve their culture and also generate new streams of income through community-wide cooperation. They’ve got cabins for ecotourism, nature walks, and hiking trails dedicated to educating their young about the environment. There’s also coffee farming and other local food production.

After that we went further south to La Esperanza. It’s a must-visit small city where cultural roots are strong. Then further south to Marcala – a place well known for their one-of-a-kind coffee and proprietary preparation methods.

As much as coffee is loved for its flavor, texture, and other benefits…it’s actually a solid starting point for important conversations. That’s why it has been a privilege to shed light on their particular blend and how it ties into social equity issues. (Check out the podcast for more!)

EF: Taking things from a broader perspective, I understand that homicides are a major problem in this country. Could you tell us more about that and how it affects prospects of bringing groups of travelers into Honduras?

CR: [Our partner Choose Honduras provided us with the following information.] As is the case in every country, there are homicides. Honduras is suffering from a bad PR issue. Any lingering reputation this country has regarding the murder of tourists is undeserved, unfair, and inaccurate. Look at the data…

It’ll tell us that the majority of victims are citizens, not foreigners. The State Department keeps track of these things. Over a 12 month period (July 2018 – June 2019) far more Americans were killed in Mexico (60) than Honduras (3). Jamaica and Colombia are major tourist destinations and they also recorded 3 Americans murdered but don’t carry the same stigma.

Plus, group travel changes things. Besides the old adage of safety in numbers as a deterrent, you’re exploring with local guides. People who are intimately acquainted with their own communities and neighborhoods. Our trips include custom designed itineraries and routes that negate such concerns. At the end of the day, the community-based tourism of the Honduran people is ready to welcome explorers and deserves much more support from the global community.

EF: As someone with a solid grasp of the travel industry, do you think sustainability and community-driven experiences are areas we’ll see grow in the near future?

CR: Absolutely. The truth is: It has to. It’s the only way forward. Without sustainability as a central pillar of tourism, we’ll eventually have nowhere to go. People are more aware of their cumulative footprint, overtourism, and how it pushes local families out of their homes.

Plus, explorers are actively searching for genuine connection and a better way to travel.

Due to knowledge of tourism leakage spreading worldwide, they value the knowledge of exactly where (and to whom) their money's going.

And most reassuringly, there’s a welcome shift toward trips focused on cultural understanding through community, conversation, and cooperation; not just eco-tourism or volunteer tourism. Travel is evolving.

Picture this: you’ve booked an unbelievably cheap flight to a country in the tropics, with multiple layovers; you’re participating in a packaged deal on a cruise ship where you stop at multiple towns, disembarking en masse for 8 hours and then departing; you are backpacking through a continent, staying in one place each night, doing a whirlwind budget tour. What do these all have in common? They continue to perpetuate a concept called climate debt.

This concept was first developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, where 197 parties participated in the discussion regarding the perpetual worsening of the world’s climate. The climate debt concept states that wealthy countries and companies should be held accountable for their long-term exploitation (Oxfam 2020).

What’s different about this type of debt? Because it’s based on a systemic problem rather than a financial problem, it flips the script on who are the debtors and who are the ones that are owed. This theory operates on the idea that poorer, marginalized countries of the “Global South” are the ones that are owed to by the richer developed, industrialized nations of the “Global North.” Marginalized countries are also typically the ones that bear the weight of budget travel. An influx of citizens from Global North countries descend upon the Global South each year, taking up resources and leaving behind deep scars in tourist-heavy areas. What’s owed to these developing countries is not for their individual gains, but rather for the benefit of humankind and the planet (El Transnational Institute 2010).

The Global South has a myriad of reasons why they are owed from the Global North. According to the Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam, 10% of the richest, most developed countries in the world are responsible for more than 50% of the carbon emissions added into our atmosphere between the years of 1990 to 2015. The results of those emissions disproportionately affect the Global South. For example, the increase in the global temperature of 1°C has resulted in catastrophic cyclones in India and Bangladesh, ruined crops from locust swarms all across the continent of Africa, and incomparable heatwaves and deadly wildfires in Australia.

So how can this debt be paid? Theoretically, the climate debt structure focuses on three main elements: adaptation debt, emissions debt, and reorganization.

Adaptation debt pushes for the developed nations of the world, who are responsible for the majority of climate change to provide compensation to the developing countries that are unequally the victims. According to Dissent Magazine, “compensation would cover not only reparations for the damage already done but also the costs of absorbing and combating impacts in the future,” meaning that both the past and the future deserve to be paid back.

Emissions debt refers to the idea that most of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases has been depleted by the Global North, leaving no space for the developing nations of the world to advance. In today’s world, the Global South is being told to limit their economic growth to be more climate-friendly. This debt would be repaid in the form of developed nations severely cutting their emissions to allow for others to grow.

The final piece of the puzzle lies with the mitigation debt. This debt focuses on the extreme cost of a complete reorganization of societies to produce far fewer greenhouse gases. For developing countries to achieve this level of reorganization, almost every industry would need to be altered. This includes agriculture, global trade, transportation, city development, and many other facets of human life (El Transnational Institute 2010). Every aspect mentioned has a relationship with the travel industry.

We, as travelers, play a huge role in the perpetuation of this climate debt by choosing to travel in an unsustainable way. This type of tourism includes taking multiple flights to reach a destination, city-hopping day-to-day, and not operating under a “leave no trace” policy. Participating in this kind of “fast travel” negatively affects developing nations where it is more prevalent.

So how do we travel more sustainably to help mitigate this harm? Trying your best to take as few flights as possible can drastically reduce your carbon footprint. If you can, purchasing carbon offsets can be even more helpful. Additionally, supporting locally owned and operated businesses directly benefit the people that live in the areas you travel. While traveling, it is important to adopt a slow travel mindset. According to the Independent Traveler, where this concept was first discussed, this type of mindset states that “rather than attempting to squeeze as many sights or cities as possible into each trip, the slow traveler takes the time to explore each destination thoroughly and to experience the local culture.” Finally, acting under “leave no trace” is an excellent way to live and travel. The basic premise is that wherever you go, you leave nothing behind but your footsteps.

Our planet is a magical wondrous place filled with both natural beauty and amazing achievements built by humans. Taking the time to travel in a way that both benefits the Earth and the people in more developing countries can help begin to pay off the climate debt owed.