On the anniversary of the June 28 military coup, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Tegucigalpa to demand a new constitution for the country. (Toussaint Losier photo)
|A volunteer collects signatures for the convening of a Constitutional Assembly at a march held on the one-year anniversary of the military coup in Honduras. (Toussaint Losier photo)|
|Miriam Miranda, president of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, smiles during an interview. (Toussaint Losier photo)|
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS —“One of the most important things to focus on,” begins Miriam Miranda, “is that the Garifuna communities have been very affected by the coup because those who created the coup d’etat, who planned it and have sustained it, they are the same ones with interests in the Garifuna community.”
Miranda turns slightly in her chair, perhaps to make sure her point is clearly understood.
“We are talking about the business people, the big business people in this country.”
As the president of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH in Spanish), a representative body with members in all 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras, Miranda is well placed to make these observations. OFRANEH, which continues to play a key role in the mass mobilizations against the 2009 ouster of President Manuel Zeyela, had long been at the forefront of a web of local struggles that have repeatedly been in conflict with the interests of this country’s economic elite.
From narco-trafficking to large-scale development projects, these conflicts have primarily centered on that which serves as the foundation of Garifuna identity: their land.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, we have been in a strategic zone of the country, the Atlantic coast of Honduras,” Miranda explains. “So when we talk about the respect for sovereignty of nature, about the vulnerability of the coast, they say ‘Oh, OFRANEH is against development.’ For us, living on the coast is a privilege, but it’s also a risk because it comes with these conflicts.”
With its calm Caribbean waters and pristine white sand beaches, the area in and around the Bahia de Tela has been one site of conflict. In the early 1990s, residents of the Triunfo de la Cruz settlement successfully halted efforts by the Marbella tourist company and other foreign investors, along with the support of local authorities and military personnel, to gain control of the residents communal land titles.
More recently, Bahia de Tela Touristic Development Society (DTBT), a private consortium with a list of investors that includes the country’s business elite, has pushed forward with a $161 million mega-development project covering at least two miles of local beachfront. Plans for the Los Micos Beach and Golf Resort include 600 hotel rooms, a convention center, a marina, an equestrian center, a shopping plaza, 400 private villas and an 18-hole golf course.
In addition to displacing four Garifuna settlements, this mega-tourism project will also require the filling of more than 215 acres of the ecologically sensitive Micos Lagoon, located within the limits of the Jeanette Kawas National Park, one of the largest national parks in Central America. Though the DTBT has been successful in buying up several communal land titles, the 117 families of Barra Vieja remain in opposition to the project and their firm opposition to being moved makes them an obstacle to its completion.
The Resistance joins OFRANEH
Although OFRANEH has decidedly been in opposition to the Honduran state for its development projects, the organization took a clear position against the military coup that violently removed Zeyela on the morning of June 28, 2009.
Launched by the U.S. — trained Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, and backed by country’s main political parties, the coup was carried out the same day Hondurans were to vote in a controversial, but non-binding referendum on whether the convening of a National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution should be put to vote in the next election.
Along with other indigenous organizations, OFRANEH had long been calling for a new constitution since early 2009 with the goal of securing greater participation in decision-making.
For three months, Miranda and other members of OFRANEH relocated to the capitol to add their voices to the nearly daily demonstrations calling for Zeyela’s return and a new constitution. With their resources stretched thin, members of OFRANEH even walked the nearly 50 miles to the Nicaraguan border in late July when Zeyela briefly re-entered the country.
On the one-year anniversary of coup, Hondurans staged strikes, sit-ins, and the typically Latin American pot-and-pan banging demonstrations under the broad banner of the “Resistance.” In Tegucigalpa, a mass march of more than a hundred thousand highlighted broad swaths of Honduran society, with various feminists, student groups, gay rights organizations and peasant contingents.
In addition to denouncing the recently elected administration of President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo for its inclusion of golpistas or coupmakers, including Velasquez as head of the state-owned telecommunications firm Hondutel, march organizers also used the anniversary date to install a “True Commission” to investigate the human rights abuses that have occurred since the coup.
With a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and various international delegates, this commission, stands in stark contrast to the government-supported “Truth and National Reconciliation Commission.”
Members of the Resistance claim that it is necessary for them to set up their own commission because the other is too close to the Lobo administration, won’t investigate abuses carried out since the elections, and won’t release sensitive testimony for 10 years.
All along the march, volunteers fanned out through the crowd, collecting signatures from those in favor of a constitutional assembly. The Resistance already has 630,000 and plans to publicly present 1.25 million by September 15, the country’s independence day.
Dealing with displacement
As musician Dennys Rochez tells it, the Garifuna are a people twice displaced, but are threatened now a third time. The first placement came when Africans kidnapped from the land that now makes up Nigeria were shipwrecked near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635. Numbering only a couple hundred, the survivors found freedom on the island, inter-marrying with Carib inhabitants, adopting their language and many of their cultural practices.
“We are the descendents of those who were never subjected to slavery. We were maroons,” states Rochez, a member of Black Men’s Soul, a musical group, dedicated to preserving and promoting Garifuna culture. This isolation on St. Vincent and nearby Dominica allowed for a blending of cultures, marking Garinagu or Garifuna people, both African and indigenous.
Slaveholders eyed the Garifuna as runaways who might be a threat to slavery and the further colonization of the Caribbean. In 1796, the British waged a brutal military campaign against their stronghold on St. Vincent, ultimately interning them, and then shipping them off to the Honduran coast one year later. Though displaced a second time, the several thousand who survived this campaign were able to return to fishing and farming along the Atlantic coast, establishing small settlements from central Belize to the Miskito coast of western Nicaragua.
It is estimated that here the Garifuna number well over 100,000, with nearly the same number, 90,000 in the United States. Though the second largest of Honduras’ nine indigenous groups, they continue to contend with racism and exclusion from the mainstream of society. Along the coast, the Garifuna are undergoing a third round of displacement.
“Now,” emphasizes Rochez. “The transnationals realize that the coast is where the natural richness is. Just like the colonial era, they don’t come to negotiate, they come to push you out with no conversation.”
A May 2010 study by the Center for International Policy on the Bahia de Tela examined the approval by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) of a $14.5 million government loan in 2005 for the construction of basic infrastructure in the area around Los Micos.
The study contends that although the loan was made to draw in both public and private investment in “sustainable tourism development” along the Atlantic coast, the IDB overlooked the project’s potential environmental and social consequences.
Titled, “Whose Development? IDB Financing, Enclave Tourism, and Garifuna Land Loss in the Bahia de Tela,” the study found that these oversights have not only been grave for the fragile wetlands, but also the displaced Garifuna who depended on the area for a traditional ways of life.
“Despite IDB claims to support local populations through the creation of economic opportunities,” the study contends, “the Los Micos project has had the opposite effect. In fact, the loss of territory has translated into reduced economic productivity for Garifuna communities bordering the project zone, as fishing and agricultural work has nearly halted and tourism emerges as the only viable option. This is a particularly worrisome outcome considering the centrality of economic, social, and cultural activities in the maintenance of Garifuna identity.”
In addition to opposing the privatization of their ancestral lands, Garifuna activists have also been involved in reclaiming them. In the Vallecito area of Colon, activists took back nearly 4,000 acres of land in 1995, ultimately winning legal title from the government.
The land is now managed by six agricultural cooperatives that grow yucca, coconuts, plantains, cassava and other crops. In addition to producing for surrounding Garifuna communities, the farmers also have their own vision of development.
At the Empresa Industrial Coco coop, farmers are in the process of developing a factory for the processing of coconut milk, a staple ingredient in Garifuna food, for local consumption and for export.
After the project received more than $140,000 in government funding during Zeyela’s administration, members of the cooperative also sketched out plans to establish a health clinic and the first Garifuna University on the land.
“I want to say that was the first time that a government, a central government had supported us in this process,” offers Horacio Martinez. “The ones before they had always seen it as not necessary.”
Yet, their efforts have not been without obstacles. One of the largest landowners in Honduras, Miguel Facussé Barjum, has claimed part of their land to grow African palm whose palm oil is sold as a lucrative bio-fuel. Cooperative members allege that Facussé has no title to the land he is using, but that his hired thugs have assassinated coop members and held up the Central Bank’s disbursement of their loan in attempt to intimidate them into abandoning their claim.
At the same time, a suspected narco-trafficker has illegally seized another 1,500 acres of the land, fencing off much of the land around the beach and the ocean.
“We are an organization in permanent struggle,” reiterates OFRANEH’s Miranda. “And a permanent struggle is fundamentally about the organization of land and the territory. The territory is not just for building our houses, it’s also for having a place for our culture, for our identity.”
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