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Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Honduras

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Honduras, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Honduras Facts
Area:    112,090 sq. km.
Capital:    Tegucigalpa
Total Population:    5,862,000 (source: various, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The indigenous of Honduras, in particular the Miskitos, have experienced a substantially improved living situation since the repatriation of Nicaraguan Miskitos in the late 1980s. Prior to the repatriation of the Nicaraguan Miskitos, Honduran Miskitos experienced severe suppression and military occupation. Since then, the government has somewhat improved their living conditions through social programs and improved infrastructure, which in turn has created better employment opportunities (ECOSTR99 = 5). However, the improvements in living conditions have been marginal. They have not been enough to stem the poor economic and social conditions facing the indigenous in Honduras and many indigenous grievances remain. In general, the small communities of indigenous people have little recourse to affect decisions regarding their lands, cultures, traditions, and the use of their natural resources. Over the past decade, indigenous groups have become more persistent and better organized, leading to the possibility of increased conflict. While some protests occasionally degrade into violence, the record of the past few years suggests that future violence depends on the nature of the government's response to vociferous, though otherwise peaceful, protests.

Analytic Summary

The majority of indigenous people in Honduras are Miskito Indigenous, who live in the southeastern section of Honduras (GROUPCON = 3). Other groups include the Xicaques, Torrupan, Lenca, Chorti, and the indigenous of El Paraiso, which reside in the higher elevations of western Honduras. The Paya and Sumu live in the same region as the Miskitos; some of their

tribes have integrated with the Miskitos. Major Miskito, Sumu, and Paya settlements are located on the Caribbean coast from Rio Platono to Gracias a Dios. These groups have experienced the most isolation of all the indigenous groups in Honduras.

Miskito indigenous speak the Miskito language (LANG = 1) and English (due to the influence of British settlers); they are predominantly Protestant (RELIGS1 = 3). Miskitos often work as migratory or agricultural laborers; Miskito men generally travel away from home for seasonal work. Residing along the coast, Miskitos also fish as a form of employment. The Miskitos are the poorest sector of society (ECDIS03 = 3) and still rely upon inadequate health care and educational facilities (DMSICK01-03 = 3). Additionally, drought and failed economic policies caused major food shortages and hunger in recent years (DMENV01-03 = 3). While other indigenous have integrated into urban sectors of Honduras, the Miskitos have remained primarily coastal and rural, lacking an urban center in Gracias a Dios, the majority indigenous department founded in 1957.

Following the 1979 Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua, the Honduran Miskitos' isolation dissipated. After the Sandanistas destroyed many Miskito villages on the Nicaraguan side of the Rio Coco, over 10,000 Nicaraguan Miskito Indigenous fled to Honduras. These refugees were placed in UNHCR camps along the border of both countries. By February 1983, the Nicaraguan Miskito refugees had settled (through UNHCR aid) in three Honduran towns: the Rio Mocoron, the Rio Warunta, and the Rio Patuca. In 1985 the UNHCR reported 18,000 refugees in Honduras; by 1986 the number had increased by 10,500. The majority were Miskitos, with approximately 3,000 Sumu Indigenous also living in the refugee communities. By June 1987, the UNHCR was routinely repatriating refugees from the Honduran Mosquitia to the Nicaraguan Mosquitia. In 1989, approximately 35,000 Miskito and Sumu refugees were repatriated to Nicaragua. By the late 1990s, this process appeared to have been completed (MIGSTR99 = 0).

In 1997, after a month of nationwide protests by indigenous organizations that included a hunger strike, the government signed a 22-point agreement with representatives of various groups that made available 9 initial land grants of about 22,000 acres each to different tribes, granted some contested land titles outright to indigenous petitioners, and set aside government funds for indigenous housing. The Congress also created a commission to study indigenous land claims, which often conflict with the claims of small farmers, but the commission was largely inactive. Since 1997 the government has distributed tens of thousands of legal titles encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres of land to indigenous persons. During the year, the National Agrarian Reform Institute transferred 40,000 hectares (98,840 acres) of land to Afro-Caribbean and indigenous groups who had ancestral rights to a large share of disputed land. However, indigenous groups continue to charge that the government had failed to fulfill its commitments under the 1997 agreement.

The primary organization which represents the interests of the Miskito Indigenous to the Honduran government is the Miskito Asla Takanka (Unity of the Miskito). It represents approximately 200 Miskito villages in Gracias a Dios. The organization was founded in 1976 by a student organization known as OEGAD. Two other groups that represent all indigenous in Honduras are Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares (COPINH—Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organisations) and Consejo Asesor Hondureño para el Desarrollo de las Étnicas Autóctonas (CAHDEA—Honduras Advisory Council for Autonomous Ethnic Development) (ORG03NUM = 2).

Land rights remain the most critical issue facing the indigenous of Honduras. It has been estimated that indigenous groups have claimed historic rights to nearly 35,000 acres in Western Honduras, in addition to land used by the Garifunas. The 1998 repeal of Constitutional Article 107 (which had prevented the sale of coastal lands to foreigners) generated strong protest from coastal groups (though it was seen as a more direct threat to Garifuna interests). Much of the persecution facing Honduran indigenous peoples is directly tied to their land claims and most of the threats against them have come from wealthy Hondurans and private companies, though the government appears reluctant to investigate claims too carefully. In the absence of clear land titles and unequal access to legal recourse, indigenous groups also are vulnerable to frequent usurpation of their property rights by nonindigenous farmers and cattle ranchers (DMEVIC01-03 = 2). Expanded coverage of the national cadastral registry, property titling, and government land registries is reducing this vulnerability. The courts commonly deny legal recourse to indigenous groups and often show bias in favor of nonindigenous parties of means and influence (POLIC301-03 = 1).

The indigenous also demand: environmental land protection (ECOGR501-03 = 1), access to public services (ECOGR201-03 = 1), and cultural awareness programs (COHESX9 = 5). The development of social programs, especially health care and education, have continued as key indigenous demands. Other principal grievances include: that the government stop plans to construct the El Tigre dam along the Honduran-Salvadoran border, which would permanently flood several communities; that the government make good on its promises to relinquish lands in Copan and Ocotepeque; that the government conduct a full investigation of the murders of several leaders in recent years; that indigenous organizations be legally recognized by the government; and that the government in general follow through on the agreements it has reached with indigenous groups.

The indigenous have organized several protests over the past few years, during which security forces reacted with restrained force (REP1801-03 = 1). In 1998, COPINH organized protests against the celebration of Conquest, "trying" Christopher Columbus for genocide and performing a mock execution. In 1999, Conquest protests degenerated into violence, after police used teargas in an attempt to disperse the crowds (PROT99 = 3). Limited violence has also been associated with various squatter protests, such as the attempt by the Chorti at the Copan ruins. In a number of instances, private and public security forces actively dislodged farmers and indigenous groups who claimed ownership of lands based on land reform laws or ancestral titles to property. In May 2001 four farmers in Balfate, Atlantida department, were killed when trying to establish a land claim on property owned by a subsidiary of a multinational company (REP0801 = 1). In November 2001, an indigenous man was killed by police at a demonstration (REP1901 = 1); the murdered protester—a member of the Chorti—was demonstrating against the refusal of the National Agrarian Institute to give legal title to lands the Chorti occupy. At the same protest, 19 protesters were injured, of whom 5 received gunshot wounds. There have been other incidents of violence surrounding the land issue in the past few years: in the Olancho region, where illegal logging and dam construction is reportedly causing environmental damage, three environmental activists have been killed (REP0802 = 1). Several others escaped attempts on their lives and many have received death threats in attempt to stymie their political organizing (POLIC401-03 = 1). The cases have yet to be adequately investigated. Some of those killed and threatened showed up on a list allegedly created by owners of a sawmill in Olancho. The list appeared in June 2003, after a seven-day march of 2,500 by environmental and religious groups. The demonstrators at the march demanded a moratorium on logging in central Honduras until a plan was developed for sustainable use of forest resources. They also alleged that indiscriminate logging has dried up water sources and worsened poverty in the region. Other protests between 2001 and 2003 have been against the privatization of public services (such as a 2003 protest against the privatization of water services); against the imposition of international financial institution laws; and against the Puebla-Plan Panama (because of its plans to privatization and develop heavily, and because it would rob the indigenous of their rights over natural resources) promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) (PROT01 = 2, PROT02-03 = 3).


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