By Yanis Iqbal
Amid the current Covid-19 pandemic, the Garifuna community of Honduras is experiencing state-sponsored violence and regulated repression.
On July 18, 2020, heavily armed personnel of the Police Investigation Department (DPI) barged into the house of Alberth Sneider Centeno, Garifuna president of the land community of El Triunfo de la Cruz, and abducted him. Later, the same armed group kidnapped Suami Aparicio Mejía García, Gerardo Mizael Rochez Cálix and Milton Joel Martínez Álvarez, members of the OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras), and a fifth person, Junior Rafael Juárez Mejía. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) has issued a statement saying “that the kidnapping of these people is motivated by the activity of the Garifuna people in defense of their ancestral lands and the rights of Afro-indigenous and indigenous people in these territories.”
The Honduran Solidarity Network (HSN) has similarly stated that “There are powerful people and businesses that have every interest in terrorizing the Garifuna communities in Tela Bay including Triunfo de la Cruz. Snider Centeno was an outspoken leader fighting against the global tourist industry allied with powerful and wealthy families in Honduras. Centeno was defending his community’s collective and ancestral land rights. An investigation into the Honduran government’s role in not only the kidnapping but also the context in which the kidnappings occurred, is absolutely necessary and important. The Honduran government has violated the Garifuna’s land rights for decades.”
From the statements issued by CGT and HSN, it is clear that the kidnapping is not a regionally restricted event. Rather, it is an act involving myriad actors, both national and international. For example, DPI, the armed group responsible for the kidnapping, is a police force which is economically supported by the US State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. With American assistance, the DPI has enormously expanded and by 2022, it is expected to have 3,000 personnel or 12% of the entire Honduran force.
Furthermore, the authoritarian alacrity with which the state has suppressed protests against the kidnappings betokens that there is something deeper of which the government is afraid. These peaceful protests were carried out by the residents of El Triunfo de la Cruz, Sambo Creek, Nueva Armenia and Corozal on Highway CA-13 and demanded that the 5 Garifuna activists be returned alive. In order to understand the underlying factors which are shaping the dynamics of violence and intimidation against the Garifuna community, we need to take a look at the historical backdrop against which it is occurring and understand the path-dependent nature of present-day happenings.
The Garifuna people are a community who find their existential roots in the soil of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. In 1675, a ship carrying Mokko people, slated to be enslaved, was wrecked near Saint Vincent, an island in the Caribbean. These people settled in the Caribbean island and resolutely resisted colonialist attempts by the French and British. Inspired by the heroic courage of the indigenous people in Saint Vincent, enslaved Africans escaped from the clutches of colonialism and arrived at the Saint Vincent Island. Through the intermixing of enslaved Africans and Caribs-Arawaks, the Garifuna subjectivity was produced which moored its identity in a revolutionary fight against the savagery of slavery and cruelty of colonialism.
While the Treaty of Paris of 1763 granted to Britain the Saint Vincent Island, the Garifuna people fought against colonialism for 34 long years. It was only in 1797 that the British were able to colonize the island of Saint Vincent, segregate the intermixed population and deport the darker colored Mokko to the island of Roatan, off the Northern coast of Honduras. Initially, the Garifuna community faced a lot of xenophobia and Ramon de Anguiano, the intendant governor of Honduras, had suggested that “all this coast be left clean of blacks…before they multiply further…in order to remove them from this Kingdom a people only good for itself [and] useless for our works”.
Later, it dawned on the Spanish officials that they could exploit the expendable bodies of black workers for mahogany tree cultivation and banana production. The Spanish considered the Garifuna as “diligent in agriculture, incessant in the work of cutting exquisite woods, like ‘fish in the water’ for fishing, skillful sailors, and brave soldiers. By virtue of their physical constitution they are strong and robust; for them, these climes are healthy, and they multiply in great numbers—wherefore they are very suitable for populating the immense wastelands of this coast with benefit to the state, and for forming settlements along the roads, which are so sorely lacking.”
Despite the evident exploitation of Garifuna workers by colonial trade, the community’s territory remained protected. The low population density of the coastal territories ensured that Garifuna people continued to cultivate their ancestral lands at least till the late twentieth century. But beginning in the 1990s, Garifuna land ownership got jeopardized as private investments in activities such as coastal tourism, housing and palm oil production became dominant. Dressed in development, these trade activities pulled to pieces the indigenous culture of the Garifuna people.
While the Garifuna people are present in four different countries (Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala), Honduras has the largest Garifuna population at an estimated 250,000 people located primarily within 48 coastal and island communities. For money-grubbing barons, this meant that “development” required enhanced efforts in Honduras where stronger and sterner techniques would have to be used to subjugate such a large population and conquer their large territory. This type of development was initiated in the 1990s, the age of neoliberalism and Washington Consensus, and the Garifuna labeled it as la maldición – the curse.
In 1992, the government passed the 1992 Law for the Modernization and Development of the Agricultural Sector (LMA) which “promoted foreign and domestic investment in agriculture by accelerating land titling and enabling land cooperative members to break up their holdings into small plots to be sold as private lands.” The Congressional Decree 90-90 supplemented LMA by making foreigners eligible for purchasing coastal lands for tourism.
Earlier, the Honduran constitution had restricted such a free-flowing movement of foreign capital through article 107 which had enunciated that “The land of the Republic, municipal, communal and private property situated on the border zones with neighboring states and on the shores of both oceans for 40 kilometers inland, and the islands, cays, reefs, cliffs, and sand banks, may only be acquired and possessed by Hondurans by birth or corporations made up of only Honduran stockholders and by state institutions, punishable by annulment of the respective title or contract.” Now, any foreign capital seeking to build tourism project is allowed to purchase lands within 40 kilometers of the coast.
Impact of Tourism on the Garifuna People
The Honduran government, apart from instituting the Congressional Decree 90-90, has also passed the Tourism Incentives Law in 2017 which has given a number of benefits to tourism in Honduras: touristic initiatives are exempt from taxes on profits for 15 years, taxes on construction-related activities for 5 years and are provided with the freedom to not pay custom duties and tariffs tax for 10 years. These incentives are paying off as international tourism spending increased from $685 million in 2016 to more than $700 million in 2017. While the pockets of select-few Honduran elites and foreign businessmen get filled to the brim, the unsavory side of tourism is being delicately obscured: As European and American “recreational investors” visit Honduras, the Garifuna people get whipped by the scourge of suppression.
According to Christopher A. Loperena, “Tourism, like mining, is an export-based industry, since the products (e.g. hotel stays, package tours, air and ground transportation) are mostly marketed to, and consumed by, foreigners….Touted as sustainable development, the “industry without smoke” entails the intense commodification of natural and cultural resources, giving rise to recurrent conflicts between subsistence based producers and elite investors.” In Honduras, a number of tourism-related conflicts have arisen between the Garifuna collectivity and politically powerful capitalists and international organizations.
In 2007, for example, “Garifuna land between San Martin and Santa Fe was sold by Omar Laredo, president of the Garifuna community, to a local businessman. There was a community consultation in which it was agreed that about 20 hectares would be sold. The businessman paid $5000 to the president of the Garifuna community and then immediately sold the land for US$20,000 to Randy Jorgensen [a Canadian investor]. Without community consultation, however, the amount of land sold had increased to 53 hectares. According to INA [National Agrarian Institute] surveys done later, Jorgensen then actually fenced-in 62 hectares.” In a similarly shoddy manner, lands belonging to the villages of Cristales and Guadalupe were usurped by Canadian investors and the entire village of Rio Negro was evicted to make way for the construction of “Banana Coast” cruise ship port, a project of the Life Vision Properties, a company owned by Randy Jorgen.
John Thompson, a close friend of Randy Jorgensen, while arguing for the benefits of the cruise terminal in Rio Negro, said that “This cruise ship terminal is vitally important to this entire town . . . all these people are going to lose everything that they could possibly have here because of this. Because he’s [referring to Jorgensen] about to give up and go home. And then we’ll be left on our own, with no money, no cruise ships, no passengers, no airport. Nothing. That’s it. So these people are killing the golden goose.” No one apparently knows what else was left for the Garifuna to lose. With the loss of ancestral territories, Garifuna lose everything and according to Miriam Miranda, the coordinator of OFRANEH, “Without our lands, we cease to be a people. Our lands and identities are critical to our lives, our waters, our forests, our culture, our global commons, our territories. For us, the struggle for our territories and our commons and our natural resources is of primary importance to preserve ourselves as a people.”
Eco-tourism, a sub-category of tourism related to the visiting of fragile and endangered ecosystems, is a “green” way of dispossessing Garifuna people and attracting tourists to sanitized places, purged of little impurities called “indigenous people”. The Honduras Caribbean Biological Corridor (HCBC), part of the larger Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), is one such example of eco-tourism which uses “neoliberal conservation” to build purified (cleansed of indigenous people) eco-tourist destinations. The Jeanette Kawas National Park, present with the HCBC, covers over 70,000 hectares in Tela Bay and houses the Garifuna communities of Miami, Barra Vieja, Tornabe and San Juan. In this national park, intermittent bans are constantly placed on fishing and the areas of cultivation have also been reduced. In the Cayos Cochinos Marine Protected Area (MPA), similar restrictions have been placed on the extraction of marine life, leading to clashes between the inhabitants of Chachahuate, a Garífuna fishing village, and the state security forces.
In both the instances, the “environmentally conscious” policies of the government have undermined the Garifuna’s primary subsistence strategy i.e. fishing. Apart from being the economic foundation of the Garifuna group, fishing is the main protein source for the Garifuna living in the Tela Bay. Moreover, the limiting of land cultivation in the JKNP shows how indifferent capitalists are to the exceptionally viable agricultural practices of the Garifuna people. According to a local Garifuna individual, “We don’t use fertilizers because we don’t want to offend the earth. What do we do? There is a model of working, it’s called Barbecho. We work five years in one area, then we let it ferment and fertilize, and then we occupy another space. This is why our property is collectively owned. Because we need this space, which relates to our functional habitat … so the cultural and ancestral life we are accustomed to can continue. Rights are collective; there is no private property in our way of thinking.” In order to utterly uproot this anti-capitalist idea of land ownership and use, imperialists are effectuating “green grabs” i.e. the violent dispossession of lands in the name of sustainable development and environmental conservation. Instead of overtly and barbarously displacing Garifuna people from their lands, a green grab strategy uses the ideological integument of nature conservation to viably and ecologically expel them from their lands.
Through the deliberate destabilization of existential paradigms, eco-tourist projects are excluding Garifuna people from the ecologies in which these indigenous individuals are embedded. CA Loperena calls this “Garifuna Otherness” which is “packaged as a good to further the development of the Caribbean coast as a tourist destination. Garífuna subsistence practices, including fishing, are not contemplated within national development imaginaries, since environmental foundations view these activities as a threat to the touristic potential of protected areas and the sociospatial order pursued by the Honduran government.”
The Violence of Palm Oil
Honduras is the biggest exporter of palm oil in Central America. In the last two decades, its production has increased by 560%, making it the third largest producer in Latin America and eight largest in the world. This productivity increase has been propelled by a favorable global context where both demand and supply are consistently ballooning. From 15 million tonnes in 1995, global palm oil production has increased to 66 million tonnes in 2017. In response to this rising demand for palm oil, Honduras too expanded its production, exporting almost 50% of its palm oil. While countries such as China, India, USA and Netherlands indifferently import palm oil for manufacturing cosmetics, soaps, toothpastes and consumer retail food, the Garifuna community in Honduras is paying a heavy price for the production of these goods.
Vallecito, a Garifuna ancestral land in the municipality of Limón on the north-east coast, is an appropriate example for depicting the dispossession and disruption which has accompanies palm oil production. In this area, “the INA [National Agrarian Institute] handed out new titles to new ‘settlers’ who promptly sold them to the palm oil magnates. In this area alone, the Garifuna communities went from owning 20,000 hectares to 400 within a decade.” An important and strategic player in this chain of dispossession was Miguel Facusse, a Honduran business magnate labeled by locals as “the palm plantation owner of death”.
Between 1970 and 1989, Facusse had expropriated a large number of Garifuna lands to plant African palm, a product necessary to sustain his prosperous company Dinant which sold detergents, soaps and foodstuffs. In 1989, OFRANEH started a land recuperation campaign, aimed at retrieving an ancestral plot of 1600 hectares that 6 Garifuna cooperatives had cultivated. After sporadic and violent clashes between Dinant’s private security forces and Garifuna activists, the land was finally granted to the latter in 1989 by INA. But this gain was soon reversed by the 1992 Agricultural Modernization Law that, in a period of 5 years, planted African palm in 28,000 hectares of Garifuna land. The Vallecito region too experienced the pressures of palm oil predation as Facusse again arrived in the Vallecito cooperatives in 1995 and initiated his palm oil violence. The INA, after much Garifuna activism, chose to extend its administrative sinews and in 1995, restored the stolen lands. Not demoralized by consecutive failures, Facusse came to Vallecito in 1997 and planted African palm on 100 hectares of Garifuna land. OFRANEH, in response to this intrusion, took this land case to the Honduran court and surprisingly, was able to expel Facusse from that piece of land.
The constant cycle of dispossession in Vallecito continues till the present-day, despite the fact that a 2012 INA survey had confirmed Garifuna ownership of specific lands and had asked Facusse to evacuate the region. In 2019, it was found that armed groups carrying high-caliber weapons were patrolling Vallecito, cutting security wires, randomly shooting at community members and raiding the beach everyday with motorcycles.
The Honduran poet Chaco de la Pitoreta’s poem “Ode to the African Palm”, written a few years back, lyrically expresses the current situation in Vallecito:
You came when we least needed you
and remained longer than we expected.
You displaced the ancestral kapok tree that used to
rise upon my fields
and shook off the maize that filled my plains…
Oh, African palm!
neither white, nor black…
red and bloodied.
You are not from the…peasants
nor from Honduras or Central America.
You are of the looters that ruin us,
of Facussé and his killers.
With the kidnapping of Garifuna people in Honduras, the thick mystificatory veil of development is slowly peeling off. For decades, the Honduran Garifuna community has been culturally compressed and tyrannized into accepting development. The current kidnappings belong to that concatenation of development-oriented cold-bloodedness. Miriam Miranda, while delivering a speech in New York during the September 2014 People’s Climate March, said that “The time has arrived to question the model of ‘development’ that has been imposed on us in these last decades. We cannot accept nor perpetuate this supposed development which doesn’t take into account or respect nature and the earth’s natural resources…We act NOW against the culture of death that we are being condemned to by the grand corporations of death and transnational capital.” In the current conjuncture, we can’t remain silent on the development which has kidnapped Garifuna people and depredated the entire community. The time has come to challenge development.
This article was also published at Green Social Thought