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Honduras: Government-supported tourism pushes Garifuna maroons off their land of 200 years

December 30, 2016

by Diana Bohn, member of the ‘Root Causes of Migration’ Pilgrimage to Honduras

In the Honduran Garifuna community of Barra Vieja, an eloquent spokesperson educates the “Root Causes of Migration” group as one member of the delegation records and another takes notes. – Photo: Root Causes Delegation

In the early 1800s, the government of Honduras awarded 2,500 acres of ancestral land to the Garifuna, descendants of shipwrecked and/or escaped African slaves. The land titles given to the Garifuna communities on the coast of Honduras state that the collective lands cannot be transferred to an outsider, but many Garifuna territories suffer from multiple ownership claims. The Garifuna are struggling to maintain their land.

Canadian millionaire is developing a tourist paradise on Garifuna land

Randy Jorgensen, the “Canadian porn king” because he made a fortune with his chain of adult video stores in Canada, moved to Trujillo, Honduras, heart of Garifuna land, in 2007 to develop tourism in Trujillo. He began buying land for real estate development in gated communities that include beach club amenities and with the intention of building a cruise ship port, oceanfront commercial center and park with a zoo.

The Organizacion Fraternal Negra de Honduras (OFRANEH) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Garifuna communities in 2011. The case is continuing and was taken up again in May 2016.

Jorgensen has partnered with people who were close to the post-military coup administration of Porfirio Lobo and has enjoyed the unconditional support of the authorities of Trujillo Bay to commit a series of abuses in regard to the ownership of the communal lands. “Violence and physical force have been constantly used to threaten the livelihood of the Honduran Garifuna communities,” concluded a 2016 report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Current President Juan Orlando Hernandez took office with the slogan: “Honduras is open for business.”

Barra Vieja community is fighting to retain their beautiful land on the coast of Honduras

Seeing is believing why a resort developer would want to steal this Garden of Eden from its rightful owners, the Garifuna, formerly enslaved Africans who have lived there for 200 years.

Well east of Triunfo, near Tela, the Barra Vieja community is struggling to stay on the remainder of their land. Community members told our “Root Causes of Migration” delegation that this would be the third displacement for them as a people.

First, they were displaced from Africa as slaves. Next, they were expelled from St. Vincent, where they had tried to settle after escaping from slavery. Now, they face expulsion from the Honduran coast.

The Barra Vieja community has rights to their land under three provisions:

  1. Honduran law provides that after the community lives on the land for 10 years, they have the right to stay. The Garifuna have been on the land for 200 years but are called land invaders.
  2. The area is designated as a National Park, and the provision of a National Park designation is the people traditionally using the land have the right to remain on the land.
  3. The U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights protects them.

Barra Vieja community leaders tell the Root Causes of Migration delegation how tourism development is forcing many of their people off their ancestral lands to venture onto the long, dangerous trek north to the U.S. The delegation visited Honduras Dec. 9-19, 2016. – Photo: Root Causes Delegation

Nevertheless, the government took a large portion of Barra Vieja land and awarded it to developers for the construction of the 60-room Indura Beach and Golf Resort, part of the “Curio Collection” by Hilton. Now they want all the rest of the community land, including access to the beautiful, pristine lagoon.

The government of Honduras is using various means to force the people of Barra Vieja off their land

To force the Garifuna off their land, the Honduran government is not providing any basic services that are usually provided to communities. In Barra Vieja, their school was closed and torn down. The community can’t get a teacher for the school they themselves built.

This home on the beach in Barra Vieja reflects the traditions of the people indigenous to the Honduran north coast combined with those of the Africans known as the Garifuna who were brought there in chains, then given the land in the early 1800s. Now the government prohibits the people from cutting forest materials to build their homes. – Photo: Root Causes Delegation

Their road is not being maintained. There is no access to health care, no water, no electricity and no sources of employment. For example, a community member attended all the trainings for promised jobs at the Indura Hotel, which is on land taken from their community, but no employment was given. Jobs are, instead, given to Guatemalan and Salvadoran workers.

The government is putting restrictions on fishing so the community cannot fish in their traditional fishing areas, and fishing is their survival. The government is forbidding Barra Vieja residents from cutting forest materials to build their homes.

The government is forbidding them from using the bay and the lagoon for their own tourism. The Honduran government used government resources to build an airport for helicopters and small planes, but only the resort is using this resource.

The inhabitants of the area protect the environment. They do not over-fish. Sustainable “eco” tourism, the kind of tourism that the community wants to establish, could easily be supported in the area, but the government is freezing the people out in favor of environmentally destructive international tourism.

First, the whole community of 80 people, then the board of directors was legally charged as land invaders. The community won those battles in court, but the Honduran government doesn’t honor those decisions.

Two years ago, there were 130 families in Barra Vieja. Now there are only 75. Others have been forced out. The community of California was totally wiped out by the resort. Some of these displaced people will have no choice but to go north.

The ‘Alliance for Prosperity’ will help the rich get richer and the poor and Indigenous peoples get poorer and, in several important instances, loose their ancestral land

Watter Suaso, 32, a Garifuna migrant who risked his life on La Bestia, returned home to the Garifuna community of Tornabé, now works with the youth who have not headed north at a community center. “La Bestia” (“The Beast”) is the dangerous freight train that carries migrants, who jump onto the roof, “on a grueling 1,500-mile journey from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the US. The trip is marked by extortion, violence and sexual assault. Human traffickers who control the route charge an impuesto de guerra (a war tax) to ride the train. Migrants who fail to pay are shot or thrown from La Bestia’s roof,” writes Tim Smyth in HonduPrensa.

The U.S. “Alliance for Prosperity Plan” is the response to the humanitarian migratory crisis that ushered in an influx of more than 40,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) to the southern border of the U.S. The plan allocates military aid and funds for development to the government of Honduras.

Unfortunately, militarization of the police does not provide greater security on the streets, nor does providing “development” funds to international tourist businesses.

The Indura Hotel was the site of the first meeting of the heads of state for the Alliance for Prosperity thus showing that even the though Alliance for Prosperity is essentially a military aid plan modeled on “Plan Colombia.” Multinational tourism is definitely part of the plan!

How you can help

Readers are asked to call on their Congressional representatives to co-sponsor H.R.5474, the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act bill, which prohibits funds from being made available to Honduras for the police and military – including for equipment and training – and directs the Department of the Treasury to vote against multilateral loans to Honduras for its police and military until the Department of State certifies that the government of Honduras has:

  • prosecuted members of the military and police for human rights violations and ensured that such violations have ceased;
  • established the rule of law and guaranteed a judicial system capable of bringing to justice members of the police and military who have committed human rights abuses;
  • established that it protects the rights of trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders, government critics and civil society activists to operate without interference;
  • withdrawn the military from domestic policing; and
  • brought to trial and obtained verdicts against those who ordered and carried out the attack on Felix Molina and the killings of Berta Caceres, Joel Palacios Lino, Elvis Armando Garcia, and over 100 small-farmer activists in the Aguan Valley.

To contact your congressional representatives, visit these sites: U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives.

Evicting the Garifuna from Barra Vieja has not been easy despite the David vs. Goliath disparity between the government, working on behalf of the land-greedy tourism developers, and the people. Here, on Sept. 29, 2014, the community succeeded in barring a large police and military force bent on eviction. – Photo: Honduras Accompaniment Project

Diana Bohn is a member of the Root Causes of Migration delegation, a long time Berkeley resident, member of the City of Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, board member of the Marin Task force on the Americas, co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Center for Community Action; member of the Bay Area Latin America Solidarity Coalition. She can be reached at nicca@igc.org.

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