“They captured me for defending our collective rights.”
Inside the efforts of Honduras’s Garifuna people to protect their ancestral lands from tourism development
Last February, I traveled to Honduras with photographer Mónica González Islas to report on the murder of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres for Sierra. Before going to Intibucá—the territory of the indigenous Lenca people, where Cáceres’s organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), is based—Mónica and I traveled along the Honduran Atlantic coast visiting COPINH’s closest ally in its many years of struggle, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, or OFRANEH.
OFRANEH began in 1978 as a grassroots group struggling against racism in the banana industry. It has since grown into an organization that continues to battle racism while also defending the cultural, spiritual, and territorial rights of Honduras’s Afro-Indigenous communities. The Garifuna descend from Africans who escaped from slave traders in the Caribbean and then formed alliances with the region’s indigenous societies. In Honduras, there are at least 46 Garifuna communities in four departments along the Atlantic coast. There are also Garifuna communities in Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Like many indigenous peoples across Central America and Mexico, a large number of Garifuna migrated to cities in Honduras and the United States looking for work in the 1980s and 1990s. In the wake of this out-migration, foreign, mostly Canadian, businesspeople began to purchase Garifuna lands along Honduras’s Caribbean coast and to set up various tourist enterprises—vacation homes, cruise-ship ports, luxury resorts, and restaurants. Many of those purchases were illegal. The Garifuna’s ancestral claim to the lands stretches back at least 200 years, and their legal claim to the lands dates to the communal land titles granted to them in 1901.
In recent years, under OFRANEH’s guidance, the Garifuna have been challenging the land sales in court, arguing that the titles used to sell parcels of land were falsified. At the same time, the Garifuna have engaged in direct action to reclaim their lands. OFRANEH has helped organize land reoccupations during which Garifuna families build adobe homes by hand and replant fields to re-establish their claims to the land. These largely subsistence communities stand in sharp contrast to the cruise-ship terminals, expensive hotels, and restaurants that serve international tourists.
The Garifuna’s struggle to secure their land rights has led to repression. Garifuna communities are routinely subject to police raids during which community members are sometimes arrested and charged with trespassing. Often the police and other armed men act with violence; OFRANEH members have been beaten and kidnapped.
An attempt to secure land rights to a property near the town of Guadalupe, in the department of Colon, offers a glimpse into the difficulties the Garifuna face in trying to reclaim their territories.
In the predawn hours of October 12, 2016, some 20 young men and women entered an unoccupied parcel of land adjacent to a small vacation-home enclave of eight houses that is owned by a Canadian company called Alta Vista. The group had already consulted with OFRANEH’s lawyers to begin the legal work of securing the land title; in the meantime, they would try to recuperate the abandoned property themselves.
When they arrived, around 4:30 A.M., no one was on the property, which was overgrown with weeds. Some people began working in the dark with machetes to open up the land. Others performed spiritual ceremonies to honor their ancestors. “The spiritual part of the struggle” is incredibly important, Medeline David, an OFRANEH activist, said. David was born in Guadalupe, but then left the area to study in the city of San Pedro Sula. She returned to Guadalupe in 2015 after graduating from university because city life left her “anxious and depressed.” She told me, “We took the initiative to recuperate this land, which lies within the ancestral titles of our community.”
David told me that women from Guadalupe used the contested property from about 2003 to 2009 as a rest and relaxation area. After two men were murdered on the nearby beach, women in the community were afraid to spend time there. Garifuna community members hired a local man to look after the property, but the custodian then sold the land (illegally, according to OFRANEH attorneys) to a Canadian investor in 2010 with forged land titles drawn up with a local judge.
“The first days here were hard,” David said. “There was nowhere to sleep at night. The first weeks were all hard work. But the system excludes us as young Garifuna so we are building our own communities with our own resources.”
It took less than a month for the authorities to attempt to push the Garifuna off the land. On November 10, at around 4:50 P.M., some of the land-rights activists were at the site looking for firewood when one of them got a call warning that the police were on their way. “We didn’t worry, because the police had come by several times,” David said. On that day, however, “they came on the land as if they were going to capture Chapo Guzmán [the notorious Mexican drug trafficker].” The police entered the property with their faces masked and their rifles aimed at David and the other OFRANEH members.
“They grabbed me,” David said, “and Antoin [her young son] screamed. That scream set me off and I struggled. The police started clubbing people. It took three of them to handcuff me. They took four of us to jail. But I never lost hope. I never got scared. I’m not a criminal; I’m not a narco.”
Three OFRANEH members were released after a few minutes, but David was held in custody for 24 hours. The police accused her of trespassing. “Imagine that,” she said, “trespassing. How am I going to trespass in my own community if I’m from here? They didn’t capture me for drug trafficking or any other criminal activity. They captured me for defending our collective rights.”
Mónica and I visited several other OFRANEH land recuperation sites. Speaking with OFRANEH members, we routinely heard anger about the sharp inequities between the posh tourism development and their own struggles to survive.
“Those boats that come here, they don’t benefit us,” Carmen Álvarez told me as we stood on a Garifuna-claimed beach on the outskirts of the coastal town of Trujillo. In May 2012, Álvarez was one of some 500 Garifuna who occupied the site and fought in court to restore the community’s formal title.
“Their cruise-ship docks out in the ocean—speedboats pick up the tourists and take them to a bus that takes them around the center of Trujillo and then to Banana Coast, and they stay there,” Álvarez said. “None of that benefits the Garifuna peoples at all. In no way. If someone has a restaurant near the beach, they benefit more from local or national tourism than from international tourism. Randy bought three restaurants on the beach. The whole network is only for him. This whole region has the same problem.”
The Randy she’s talking about is Randy Jorgensen, a Canadian businessman who made millions selling pornography before moving to Honduras and buying large parcels of land—illegally according to OFRANEH—on the Atlantic coast. My attempts to contact Jorgensen were unsuccessful. In an interview with a reporter from the China Global Television Network, however, Jorgensen said that the Garifuna were “foreigners, immigrants in Honduras” and that buying their land was perfectly legal because it “benefits” the Garifuna. When the reporter pushed him on OFRANEH’s claims, Jorgensen said, “If you are on a witch hunt, you need to go someplace else and look for a witch. Are we done now?”
“Before Randy showed up, international tourists used to come and enjoy the beach, but with Randy that doesn’t happen anymore,” Álvarez said. “Randy came here about 20 or so years ago. And about 10 years ago he started buying up land. They said it would benefit us, bring development. There is no benefit for us. All he does is create private property.”
“The titles to these lands are ancestral titles,” she continued. “The lands belong to us as Garifuna peoples. Sadly, we lost a lot of land, and we are struggling to recuperate it. I was arrested in 2014 for fighting for this land. Since we know they are our lands, we keep fighting. And we’ve recuperated this land here. We won this battle. Last year, they came twice to try and kick us off the land. . . . We didn’t let that happen.”
“You used to be able to walk the entire length of this beach. Not anymore,” Álvarez said. If you walk to Banana Coast, Banana Beach, that is private property. You can’t walk on the beach there. There are guards with huge dogs patrolling there. They want to dispossess us. They’re trying to force us off. If we grow weak, they’ll stay here. But if we stay strong, they’ll be the ones to leave.”
At one land encampment literally across the road from Jorgensen’s Banana Beach Resort, two brothers, Noel and Nilfor Flores, showed us around the Wani Leé recuperation camp, speaking with excitement about the coconut, banana, and mango trees they have planted, the many varieties of chilies as well as yucca, beans, avocado, and sweet potatoes.
“The struggle is hard,” Noel Flores told me after hours working in the communal orchards. “The investors are coming at us hard, and the government supports them. They are trying to take away our future and our children and grandchildren’s future.”
Since reclaiming this property, the Flores brothers and another 60 people have built their homes by hand and worked the land. Last September, police stormed the land site and burned seven cabins.
“Our lives were in danger that day,” Noel Flores said. “They came in here violently and started burning the cabins without asking us a single question, without asking whether or not there were women and children inside the cabins.”
“We know that this land is ours,” Noel Flores continued as we walked around. “All the documents saying that these people are buying land, they are false. And they’re suing us now. They flipped the whole thing and are suing us now. They should be suing the government for lying to them. But they’re suing the community of Sante Fe because we’re claiming our land back.”
The Garifuna’s strategy of using people-powered nonviolent direct action to reclaim their lands has been guided by OFRANEH’s charismatic leader, Miriam Miranda. Born in the Honduran coastal community of Sante Fe, Miranda was raised in a banana work camp where her father had migrated. She then went to university in Tegucigalpa. “While studying, I got involved in social movements and I never graduated,” she told me, remembering her 1980s-era student activism against the U.S. military’s cold war presence in Honduras, which was used as a base to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua’s civil war. Miranda then started working with a women’s organization in the poorer neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa. “It made a major impact on me to see the way that women lived in those barrios. With one bucket of water, they would have to do all the day’s work: cooking, dishes, laundry.” The machismo was heavy there. “I would give women copies of a magazine we published and the women would have to hide it from their husbands,” she said.
Miranda emphasized to me that OFRANEH’s advocacy is cultural and spiritual as much as it is political and legal. The efforts to recuperate illegally appropriated lands are just one piece of a larger struggle that includes reclaiming—and being proud of—the Garifuna’s unique history. OFRANEH promotes instruction in the Garifuna language— a Arawakan language that also includes words from English, Spanish, and French—as well as activities such as traditional drumming. ““We need to strengthen our identity,” she said. “We are an Afro-Indigenous mixture. The state denies our indigeneity, and migration puts our indigeneity at risk. People who do not know their identity are more manageable.”
The movement is also grounded in feminist ideals. “The Garifuna are matrilineal peoples,” she said, emphasizing OFRANEH’s work with women and youth. “Women are leading many of the processes of struggle.”
Since the 2009 coup that removed from office president Manuel Zelaya, OFRANEH’s advocacy has had to grow to challenge the expansion of extractive industries like logging and mining. “They treat Honduras like some kind of private plantation,” she said, referring to multinational corporations that are conducting operations there. But the organization remains focused on reclaiming the Garifuna’s ancestral lands. “We don’t believe in projects; we believe in processes,” she said. “You have to defend what you are. That is terrible. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Such resistance has been dangerous for Miranda, just as it has been dangerous for OFRANEH’s rank-and-file members. In July 2014, Miranda and other Garifuna were abducted by heavily armed men as they traveled to visit an OFRANEH community where a few years prior drug traffickers had built an illegal airstrip. OFRANEH had demanded that the airstrip be destroyed and had traveled out to make sure it had been when they were abducted. Quick action by local community members—along with swift national and international condemnation of the kidnapping—forced the release of Miranda and her colleagues.
Given the political violence and impunity that pervades Honduras, I asked Miranda about what steps she and OFRANEH have taken to protect themselves. She told me, “Protection must be collective. There is no individual protection. The struggles have their roots, their reasons for being, and they must be supported. Otherwise, you can’t protect a single person.”