Palm trees, lush green vegetation and deliciously warm seawater characterize the Caribbean coast of Honduras. In years past, tourists have frequented the beach town of Tela and its surrounding communities to take in the sun, gentle waves and laid-back vibe. The land struggles of the Garifuna people whose ancestral lands line the shore, however, are conveniently obscured from the visitor’s sight.
The Garifuna are distinct in the Americas, born of a melding of two cultures, African and Native American, when would-be slaves who escaped a sinking ship landed on the island of St. Vincent and integrated themselves in the culture of the locals, creating a new language and people in the process. For over 100 years, this mestizo community was able to resist efforts to subjugate by the European colonizing powers until the British finally defeated the Garifuna and expelled those who survived to Trujillo, Honduras, in 1797. From there, the Garifuna have spread to lands along the coasts of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. (A more extensive history can be found in this excellent article by Ramor Ryan).
Corporations and organizations ranging from wealthy individuals to the Honduran government have asserted claims to land held legally and historically by the Garifuna in order to create a lucrative, hotel-strewn coast that would aspire to be Honduras’ version of Mexico’s Cancun resorts, accessible only to wealthy tourists. The fabricated (better described as predatory) claims to Garifuna land by the government and enterprising individuals have been brutally enforced by government officials, hired vigilantes with assault rifles, and the Honduran military. These claims are backed by legal documents of dubious origin which are legitimized by the corrupt national legal system.
The casualties of these coordinated attacks include individuals whose land was obtained through illegitimate methods, like those in the tiny Garifuna community of Miami, Honduras. They were led to believe that they were getting titles to their homes situated on choice plots between the Caribbean and Laguna Los Micos when, in actuality, they were granted titles to uninhabitable parcels of sand in a distant location. In addition to forced removal and threats of injury and imprisonment, activists involved in efforts to protect and conserve communal lands and wild spaces have been murdered, like Jeannette Kawas in 1995 and Oscar Bregal and Jesus Alvarez in 1997. The logic of capitalism dictates that the combination of an insatiable hunger for prime real estate by developers and the reigning impunity in Honduras will produce a growing number of casualties.
San Juan de Tela (Durugübuti in the Garifuna language) is one of the communities that has resisted efforts by outsiders to violate their inherent rights to the land and continues to confront attacks today. The aldea (village) of San Juan is a 15-minute bus ride away from Tela’s city center. Geographically, it’s a stone’s throw from the tourist hub, however it’s miles away from the paved roads and comparatively well-equipped schools that Tela enjoys.
A large section of land overgrown with weeds sat on the periphery of San Juan for many years. It is described as a site that was home to poisonous snakes as well as a notorious hiding place for men looking to assault and rape women who passed through. Early this summer, a group of youth that included long-time friends Erlan, Josue and Luis came up with a plan to reclaim and transform the land for personal and community use. The very day after they devised the plan, they put it into action by gathering a diverse group of community members who were interested in reclaiming the area. The group collectively decided on: clearing the land, dividing it into equal parcels, distributing the parcels to each participant and reserving a significant portion for community use. For three weeks, the group went about the grueling task of clearing out what years of neglect had created. The result was the creation of over 100 plots in the 9 manzanas (about 15 acres) of land. The new neighborhood was dubbed Icery Garabaly (Nuevos Aires or New Breezes in Garifuna). Once the land was cleared, the participants in the project decided that weekly community assemblies would be necessary in order for information to be distributed, plans to be discussed and decisions to be made. These meetings will continue to take place until the land recuperation is complete and secure.
Three days after the area was cleared, Erlan relates that a car pulled up and a man claiming to be a representative of the rightful owner informed those present that this land was not in fact available (even though it had gone unused for more than 20 years). Of course, before leaving, he made sure to imply that there would be…consequences for those who did not stop working the area. Later, a document was presented that purportedly demonstrated that the legal owner is a powerful individual from Honduras’ interior, result of a transaction by a community member who passed away long ago. After doing some investigation, Josue discovered that the land is legally Garifuna patrimonial land (land that belongs collectively to the Garifuna community). As with all Garifuna patrimonial land, plots cannot be sold without the consent of the governing council of Garifuna known as the Patronato. The Patronato did not consent to the sale therefore this person is laying false claim to the land. Community members report sighting unmarked vehicles and police cars passing through Icery Garabaly occasionally. Sometimes they drive by slowly with the windows down and sometimes they get out and take photos; regardless, these random drive-bys are clearly an intimidation tactic. Instead of bending to the tactics, community members laugh and continue working the land. The question that they all have now is: when will threats and intimidation ratchet up to a full-scale attack or ultimatum?
Motivations range and overlap but certain themes repeat. In San Juan, there is a glaring lack of parcels of land available for young families. Of the original 1765 hectares of land (about 7 square miles) validated by the National Agrarian Institute in 1984, only 53 hectares (only .2 square miles, a few blocks) are currently recognized by the Honduran government as communal land. Some youth continue to live in childhood homes that house parents and siblings. Every participant in the land reclamation is now the owner of a parcel of land. Parcels can only be inherited. If a landholder wants to sell the land, the entire community must approve the transaction. This measure has been crafted in an effort to prevent the divide-and-conquer strategy that both corporations and the government have successfully employed to remove Garifuna from their land in areas like Miami.
A second layer of motivation lies in the use of the land for much needed public space. There is already a functional futbol (soccer) field. Plans are in the works for a basketball court and a two-story community center that would house Durugu Buty, the community radio station. Previously, there was a break-in at Radio Durugu Buty and the equipment was robbed, forcing the station off the air indefinitely. Josue, a local teacher, member of the reclamation and the radio station, stated that the new location will be a safer space for the community radio station as it will be in a more populated area.
This reclamation is much more than a yard clean-up or demonstration of unity – it is an expression of autonomy and direct action. The community is doing everything in its power to meet collective needs; needs that have been systematically ignored by the state with the exception of the week before elections when months-old potholes that bottom out cars are suddenly filled in. They have transformed an area that was synonymous with fear (especially for women and children) into one that is synonymous with power, struggle and self-sufficiency.
Women’s cooperative restaurant and cabañas
If you go to San Juan, Tela, there are cabañas and the Vista del Mar restaurant on the beach run by a women’s cooperative (in stark contrast to other properties in the area owned by foreigners and corporations). They were started with the help of the CARITAS Catholic charity. To stay at the cabañas, call Benita Diego at (504) 3271-4652 or Esmeralda Arzú at (504) 3378-2723 or email Oscar at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Last Rebels of the Caribbean: Garifuna Fighting Their Lives in Honduras by Ramor Ryan, Upside Down World, March 27, 2008
Garifuna Resistance against Mega-Tourism in Tela Bay by James Rodriguez, MiMundo.org, July 31, 2008
Community Under Threat, Amnesty International