They left San Vicente searching for a peaceful place to live, free of the oppressive British colonial powers. Three thousand women, men and children sailing atop the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea were thirsty and hungry. The sun over their heads was abrasive. Many perished before reaching the island of Roatan, Honduras, their new home. Today, many of their Garifuna heirs, an Afro-descendant population in the Caribbean coast of Central America, are still struggling for days of peace, like their ancestors envisioned some 213 years ago.
Hassling to find work in Central America, the large Garifuna community has survived all those years because they refuse to separate themselves from their land and culture. Even those forced to migrate to a different country to find work and a better life still cultivate their roots. Many still dream of one day returning home to the flat coastal lands of Honduras and Guatemala, where Garifunas have rebuilt their lives by the ocean.
For the Garifunas, culture is originated (and nourished) through language, and the daily connection with the land and ocean – which provides both food and energy. This strong connection motivates the Garifuna people to continue fighting to keep their land. Cultural resistance is the backbone of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), a new Grassroots partner. Created in 1981, OFRANEH is a grassroots organization that provides support to local initiatives of education and organizing, as well as coordination between the 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras. For over forty years, the organization has worked to defend Garifunas’ ancestral territory from land grabs. Due to the constant harassment by those wishing to profit off of their land, OFRANEH’s work is critical to the survival of the Garifuna culture.
Foreigners’ property fence: land grabbing in the Garifuna territory
Like many indigenous communities, the Garifuna hold a collective model of territory. Land is communal, and the territory belongs to the whole. Such a system seems incomprehensible to foreign investors, intent on dividing up and buying the land.
A few years ago, women from the Garifuna community of El Triunfo de la Cruz, affiliated with OFRANEH, raised enough funds to build summer bungalows to rent to tourists. After a year of lobbying to get the mayor to bring electricity to the area, a tropical storm destroyed the bungalows and washed away what they thought would be a good income source.
In the wake of the failed enterprise stepped investors who wanted to capitalize on the tourist model. Entitled by money and political connections, powerful businessmen decided to build a wall, grabbing the same land where the local women worked tirelessly. They built a wall to fence in a sea front area of three hectares.
Faced with this new situation, the Garifuna women knew they had to act. As a people The raising of a developer’s fence would have kept them from their culture and livelihood, as taken as an act of war and it had to go.
The women’s group spent nearly three months talking about how to reclaim their community’s land. They were concerned about potential violence from the police and private security forces who were aligned with the businessmen. With support from relatives, the women took action. They knocked down the wall as a hired security guard observed. He couldn’t do anything besides telling his bosses.
Their territory is wanted
In the “Garifuna Bay” of Central America, the beaches are flat and the waters are calm. Every year, the Garifuna territory attracts thousands of tourists who are embraced by the community because they are an important source of income. But there are many outsiders who literally want a piece of the paradise.
Wealthy people are building fences and houses in the ancestral Garifuna territory, disregarding Garifuna culture and territorial rights. The outsiders’ harassment of Garifuna communities is so intense that according to local families it feels that there is not a single day where they don't have to fight and expel poachers.
The challenges vary. One day, the mayor trie to grab a piece of Garifuna territory by eminent domain. The next day, drug traffickers want space to build pathways to transport drug to the US. All this happens under the watch of a government that inherited power from a coup d’etat in 2010. Now the same government is supporting the creation of ”Charter Cities” in the Garifuna territory, that could be governed by foreign elite. According to local community organizers, the name of California’s ex-Governor Schwarzenegger has been mentioned as a potential leader of a Honduras Charter City. In the government plans, the new city will have an independent government. According a New York Times article, the idea of a charter city is rooted in a perspective that social and economic problems can be solved with the redesign of urban centers through “modern cities”. Garifuna communities know that this is a false solution, and will only exacerbate social and economic injustice and thus refuses to give up their land rights.
The government’s political allies also want land to plant African palm, pineapple and other export-oriented crops that leave little or no wealth to the local communities, and that degrade the land through monocropping and other industrial agriculture techniques. And those agribusinesses want to expand further into Garifuna territory.
Due the local resistance, land grabbing in the Garifuna territory demands a complex operation that increasingly involves militarization under the guise of ending terrorism. It also involves using ‘divide and conquer’ tactics in the Garifuna community to make them weak and vulnerable.
A Garifuna dance of resistance
Punta, the Garifuna traditional dance, symbolizes the community’s strengthen and resistance. In Punta, a man and a woman dance to the drums’ three to four dominant musical notes. They move in circles without touching each other. Eventually, one of them moves the hips in a slow motion – usually to great applause. Besides rhythm, one needs to have strong legs to dance Punta.
Punta is the dance of cultural resistance. In any Garifuna community, there will be drums. If there are drums, there will be a group of people celebrating their culture and community. Like their ancestors, who travelled by boat for days and faced innumerable challenges to reach their new home, the current Garifuna generation dances, and resists.
Teresa Reyes, a Garifuna leader, says that women and men have put themselves in dangerous situations. “We have many [land] conflicts. There are people who want to take our land to build large tourism projects,” she says.
The Garifunas are using a range of strategies and tools to keep foreigners off their land, including legal cases. They have a pending case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington, DC against the Honduran government, citing the government’s negligence to protect Garifunas’ human rights to their land.
Teresa also added that her community is “in this daily struggle here and we won’t let people build walls in our territory and to keep us from our ancestral land”.
Taking back the land
In the beginning of 2012, the community of El Triunfo de la Cruz recuperated 22 hectares of land that the mayor (of a nearby town) “distributed” among city councilors in total disregard to the Garifunas’ territorial rights and self-governance. The El Triunfo group decided to take the land back and dispel the invaders. In place, they offered the land to young Garifuna couples who were still living with their parents.
Remembering the incident, Mercedes Guillen, one of the Garifuna women, denounced the actions of those acting on behalf of the businessmen, who stole what Garifuna communities had built and threatened them. She added, “But they won’t defeat us. They have not been able to remove us. We are going to continue fight for our land. We survive from this land. And we need help [to continue fighting for it].”
This week, Garifuna families are recuperating 2,500 hectares of land taken by agribusinesses. The action in the community of Vallecito, Honduras is one of the largest Garifuna land-recovering actions. The action comes as the Honduran government plans to build a charter city on Garifuna land.
Grassroots International is proud to have OFRANEH as a partner. We look forward to sharing updates on these historic land recuperations, and all of OFRANEH’s work.