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Garifuna – Honduras

The Garífuna are descendants of Africans and native Caribe and Arawak Indians and they represent a sizeable percentage of Central America's coastal inhabitants.  For over 200 years, the Garífuna have managed to maintain a strong collective identity, including a distinct language, traditions, and a communal way of life, even though they have endured constant discrimination, lack of adequate education, and entrenched poverty.

For generations, the Afro-Honduran Garífuna community has resided along the northern coast of Honduras and in La Mosquitia in the east. Many of the core Garífuna religious and cultural practices are inextricably linked to the land, including their collective claim to certain territories.  However, because the Garífuna live on a prime section of coastal territory, the growth of the tourism industry threatens their way of life and encroaches on what they regard as their ancestral lands.

Powerful business interests have employed tactics from land invasion to intimidation and violence to secure possession of lands that they can then sell for a considerable profit. The growth of tourism has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in the number and intensity of threats to Garífuna leaders who seek to ensure that the rights of their community are protected. In particular, the real estate company Promociones y Turismo (PROMOTUR), a wealthy and politically well-connected corporation that has long been engaged in a land dispute with the local Garífuna community of San Juan, is believed by Garífuna activists and their supporters to be behind much of the intimidation and threats aimed at community leaders.

International financial organizations are also playing a role in this conflict. The Inter-American Development Bank partly funds a planned massive hotel complex, the Los Micos Beach & Golf Resort in the Tela Bay region, a controversial project that the Garífuna community believes will have a devastating impact on its land and resources.  The government of Honduras has been complicit through its utter lack of political and legal action to hold the powerful accountable for their political crimes.

Due to the ongoing violations of collective land rights, on May 1, 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Protective Measures for the Triunfo de la Cruz community. These protective measures include orders that the “government adopt the necessary measures to protect and respect property rights to the ancestral lands pertaining to the community of Triunfo de la Cruz.” At the time, it seemed like their long struggle for rights to their ancestral territory were over, but they were wrong.

For years, the municipal government of Tela has been involved in the illegal usurpation of Garífuna community lands. In 1989, the municipality extended the city’s urban limits to include various Garífuna communities and ancestral lands without prior consultation (a violation of international law). In 1992, national government institutions authorized the extension, affecting both San Juan and Triunfo de la Cruz. The municipal government of Tela has used this extension to justify granting illegal land titles within the communal land titles and ancestral lands of San Juan and Triunfo de la Cruz, such as the illegal title to 22 manzanas of land (approximately 38 acres) located within Triunfo de la Cruz’ community land title, which was granted on January 15, 1998 to the municipal workers’ union, in lieu of owed pay.

On August 13, 2006, armed members of the municipal workers’ union invaded the lands, intimidating and provoking Triunfo de la Cruz residents.  Four members of the Garífuna community were murdered, and many more were wounded.

In August of 2007, the Tela municipal government signed an agreement with the IDETRISA and MASERICA companies, which once again invaded Triunfo de la Cruz communal lands in order to continue construction of the MarBella luxury housing complex.  The Garífuna were fighting against this project for years as it was the center of the community’s struggle for their land rights, but they were countered with violent repression, including murders, threats and unjust imprisonment.

There have been many more actions that are blatant violations of the protective measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Far from taking the necessary measures to protect and respect community property rights to the ancestral lands of Triunfo de la Cruz, local government authorities have continued to actively violate these rights.

Another issue addressed by Garífuna community representatives in Tegucigalpa is  the continued violation of ancestral lands rights by the World Bank-financed Honduran Lands Administration Program (PATH). Using the highly contested Property Law of 2004 as its legal framework, the land “regularization” program respects land titles granted to outsiders within communal lands, proposes unconstitutional “settlement  roundtables” to resolve land conflicts, and permits the individualization of community land titles. PATH is being implemented in the regional context of free trade agreements (CAFTA) and trade-friendly infrastructure grids (Plan Puebla Panama), creating the kind of “security” of land tenure needed by foreign investors, at the expense of indigenous and Garífuna communities’ ancestral land rights.

Garífuna communities continue to call for the right to their coastal lands, where they have lived, farmed, and fished for centuries.  However, instead of respecting them, their culture, and their history, the Honduran government and corporations have decided to focus on profit, not human rights.  It is time that we side with the Garífuna and demand their land back.


IRTF urgent action responses to protect and defend the Garífuna people

Over the past decade, IRTF’s Rapid Response Network team has sent more than a dozen letters to officials in Honduras, the US and to international bodies, demanding justice and protection for the political, cultural and land rights of the Garífuna communities on the Atlantic coast of Honduras.

Here are some examples:

06_21_05 Rights Action Honduras letter