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The Garifuna Fight for their Territory

By Alison Chávez

On April 12, 1797, the Garifuna community settled in Honduras as the descendants of Africans who had previously inhabited the island of St. Vincent. Thus began a process in which a total of 47 Garifuna communities would be established along the northern coast of the country. One of the most pertinent problems that we, the Garifuna, have faced throughout history is the defense and protection of our territory.

As a people, we are constantly fighting in the face of the exclusion of the Afro-Honduran population and communities. Because of this, we have decided to defend our land and livestock, which we inherited from our ancestors. At the root of the daily fight to defend our land is a problematic and difficult situation, as our community leaders face threats and blackmail for not allowing foreigners or outsiders to take over our land and take advantage of our communities’ natural resources and tourism industry. This puts not only the community at risk, but also all of its inhabitants, as many end up relinquishing their holdings and abandoning their community out of fear, which leads to migration and a weakening of the Garifuna identity.

Santa Rosa de Aguán, Colón.

Santa Rosa de Aguán, Colón.

In recent years, various leaders—both men and women from different Garifuna communities—have been assassinated. Those who commit these crimes do it to send a message of power, forcefully convincing us to give in to their demands. In response, a case was presented to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, and the verdict was successful: pressure was put on the government to grant ownership of corresponding lands to the communities under the condition that they not be able to be stolen. However, the State has not responded to this decision, acting with indifference in the face of the abuses suffered by Garifuna leaders.

Article 4 of Part I of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization states:

  1. Special measures shall be adopted as appropriate for safeguarding the persons, institutions, property, labour, cultures and environment of the peoples concerned.
  2. Such special measures shall not be contrary to the freely-expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.
  3. Enjoyment of the general rights of citizenship, without discrimination, shall not be prejudiced in any way by such special measures.

However, this provision is not respected by the government, although it was adopted on June 27 1989, signed by the State of Honduras in 1994, and went into effect in 1995, showing how irrelevant the Garifuna communities are in the eyes of the government. More and more, the situation gets graver. What legacy will remain for our future generations if we give in to the demands of others? It is a sad reality, and organizations that fight for the defense of the different communities are rare.

Alison Sarahí Chavez Arriola

It stands to be highlighted that in light of the government’s limited interest in this issue, the assassinations and kidnappings continue. Community Board President Alberth Sneider Centeno, together with other Garfiuna activist brothers Milton Joel Martinez, Suami Aparecio Mejia and Gerardo Rochez, were kidnapped in Triunfo de la Cruz (Tela) in August 2020. According to their families, individuals entered and forcefully took them away. We are being intimidated over what is rightfully ours. These people want to own something that we have held on to for centuries and we are being killed for defending it. Though many factors are a part of the problem, corruption and greed are the main causes.

There have been protests calling on our government to act, but we are always repressed by the authorities, who label us rebels. The answer to our calls is always silence. Time marches on and our fight continues. We must raise our voices and use media to be heard. We have had enough of being threatened, repressed, and seeing our brothers assassinated for defending our rights.

We do not want to our growing children to inherit this issue. They should not feel as if they do not belong in their own territory nor face violence and prosecution for living on and tending to the land. The order of the Interamerican Court of Human Rights must be complied with so that the lives of Garifuna leaders may be protected and so that the threats cease. Migration is not a solution to the problem, either.

We are reaching a limit. We cannot continue to be silenced by death. Many communities have already hit rock bottom, sacrificing their lives to defend their land. However, I believe that there is strength in unity, and as a young Garifuna I refuse to leave my heritage in the hands of others. I refuse to let the legacy of my ancestors fall into the hands of those who want to harm our communities for their own benefit. I refuse to take on the role of a weak person and fall silent in the face of impunity and evil. I refuse to let us be seen, in the words of Ashanty Crisanto, “like a decorative jewel” because we are a people that laugh, sing, and cry. Through this article I speak out so that others may be called to raise their voices against the injustices that are being committed against the Garifuna communities in Honduras.

–Alison Sarahí Chavez Arriola lives in La Ceiba, Atlántida, and belongs to the Garifuna community of Santa Rosa de Aguan, Colón. Currently, she is in her second year of studies at the Centro Universitario Regional de Litoral Atlántico, studying for a degree in business administration. In 2017, she joined the Organización de Etnias Comunitarias to strengthen love and passion for her Garifuna culture. She has also traveled to Panama and Costa Rica to promote the development and culture of Afro-Centro American communities. She currently aspires to be a community radio host. Her life motto is “may the smile of experience be what shows me how to live.”