Two years after the June 2009 coup d'état in Honduras, African descendant Garifuna as well as indigenous peoples have been attempting to regroup and recover lost socio-economic and political gains, including the ability to teach the Garifuna language in schools and to be informed of and included in land negotiations.
In 2011, a Constitutional Assembly of Afro-Honduran and Indigenous Women was held in the town of Copán Ruinas. According to the female Garifuna leader and coordinator of the Fraternal Organization of Black Hondurans (OFRANEH), the major objectives of the 300 women – representing Lenca, Maya Chortí, Garifuna, Tawaka, Miskito, Pech and Tolopan indigenous groups – was to strengthen alliances to ensure greater inclusion of female voices and experiences at both community and national decision-making levels. They also sought to examine a number of their specific gender concerns such as ethno-cultural and institutional invisibility, which they argue go mostly unaddressed within the international women's rights movement. Of special overall concern were issues related to community autonomy, resource extraction and territorial loss. The dispossession of communal lands of African descendant Garifuna, Miskitu and indigenous peoples – to establish tourist enclaves and especially to enlarge palm oil plantations – has advanced very rapidly over the past decade. These groups have not only been deprived of territory but also excluded from any benefits. Garifuna have been killed, threatened and economically pressured to give up their territory according to OFRANEH.
Only 20 per cent of Honduras land area is arable. Approximately half of that is located in the Caribbean Coast departments of Atlántida and Colón – an area where Afro-indigenous Garifuna have traditionally established communities and farmed on communally held territory dating back to 1797. Garifuna organizations point out that approximately 95 per cent of the 300,000 Garifuna who reside in Honduras live in the communities within these two departments. Wealthy and powerful commercial and political elites in Honduras now desire this coastal property and are aided considerably by policies of international financing institutions and global investors.
Since passage of the 1992 Agricultural Modernization Law which prioritized profitability, the Honduran government has supported the removal of 'backward' Garifuna and small farmers from what are deemed 'unproductive' lands to install capital-intensive export-oriented oil palm plantations and also tourism projects. The US Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service (USDA-FAS) reported in 2009 that 1,150 square km – half the cultivable land in Honduras – is devoted to oil palm.
Consequently in 2011, Garifuna in Honduras continued to see the major portion of their lands overwhelmed by vast mono-crop oil palm plantations, further limiting their access to productive soil and fishing sites. In Garifuna society, women are the main cultivators and traditionally land is passed along matrilineal lines, so land dispossession has dealt a particularly strong and direct blow to women.
Adding to the land loss, during 2011 the Honduran National Congress approved plans to establish separate development regions with model 'charter' cities on Garifuna communal lands. These special new zones would in effect be an independent territory – virtual city-states within the country, each with its own governor, its own laws courts, private security forces, independent international trade relations, authorized inhabitants and manufacturing complexes under the complete control of foreign corporations.
Garifuna have resisted through highly visible pre- and post-coup political demonstrations and protests, as well as via their bilingual community radio station Faluma Bimetu, which suffered an arson attack in 2010. This and other radio stations created the Honduran Community Radio Network in 2010, to enhance their activities. The fact that their broadcasts regularly denounce the seizure of ancestral lands, and the related harassment and murders by armed paramilitary groups puts them at special risk. And in 2011, Congress considered suspending the granting of frequency permits and licences for low-power stations – citing airwave over-saturation.
Meanwhile, those involved in palm oil production in Honduras face weak oversight mechanisms. In July 2011, the UN Clean Development Mechanism Board (CDM) approved a palm oil biogas project of the Honduran company Grupo Dinant. This company has been involved in land conflicts in the Aguan Valley, which indigenous and other activists have linked to serious human rights abuses, including some 50 killings. In August 2011, one month after the CDM Board decision, Biofuelwatch.org reported that 12 more people were killed in land disputes in the Aguan area. Six of the murders reportedly took place on oil palm plantations. Over 900 Honduran Armed Forces personnel were sent to guard the plantation zone, where heavily armed palm oil company security forces were already deployed.
Consequently, at the end of 2011, affected indigenous and Afro-Honduran populations found little reason for optimism. Given the long-standing land-based nature of their societies, continued massive land loss will create enormous challenges to the ability of Garifuna communities to retain their distinctive way of life and culture, which UNESCO has listed as one of the World's Intangible Cultural Heritages.
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