In what many indigenous people call a "second coming of Columbus," globalization and its twin offspring of resource exploitation and mega development threaten the survival of indigenous and small-farming communities all over our world. But as widespread as the threat is the response by organized peoples. The strategies for stopping the destruction of their land, claiming their rights to it, and protecting their way of life are diverse - land occupations, protests, and legal claims. Though movements are challenged at every step and are still on the defensive, victories in their own communities dot the world map. Meanwhile, they are gathering strength through cross-border alliances.
In Honduras, 300 leaders of the Afro-Indigenous Garífuna people are saying, "Not on our land." On Monday, they and their allies around the world launched the Land Recovery Campaign in the village of Vallecito which, with 2,500 acres, is the largest single landholding of the Garífuna people. There, they are occupying land that has been taken from them to build mega-tourism projects.
"In strength, the Garífuna community in Honduras fought to defend the country against invasion and, in strength, the Garífuna community fights today to defend our land," says Carla Garcia, a human rights organizer with the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras, OFRANEH.
In 2009, the Honduran elite backed a military coup d'état in an effort to suppress the strengthening grassroots movements for land reform and indigenous sovereignty. The US government went on to tacitly support the coup regime even though WikiLeak documents show it knew the coup was illegal and unconstitutional. Since the coup, developers have been emboldened to take land from small-farming and indigenous communities. When communities have peacefully resisted these land grabs, they've faced intimidation and assassinations. Just this month, the Garífuna community of Trujillo awakened one morning to find their fresh-water lagoon – their main water source – poisoned, with all the life of the lagoon floating dead at the surface.
Just this morning OFRANEH wrote to their international allies about the ongoing intimidation in Vallecito,where their Defense of the Land campaign is underway. "Another long night of machine gun fire and armed men entering the Garífuna camp in Vallecito... Despite owning titles to six cooperatives, the Garifunas is unable to exercise their right to this property..."
For 215 years we have lived in harmony with the environment. We know that without land we have no future.
We've taken care of our surroundings and now our region is really desirable. Economically powerful men and women want to build [what we call] 'industry without smokestacks,' the tourist industry, here. Our titles say that Garífuna land is nontransferable because it is common land. It doesn't belong to any one person. So through deceit and fraud, [developers have] acquired Garífuna land for tourism development, but it's not development that's benefiting the surrounding community.
OFRANEH has been working principally with land issues for more than 30 years. Today we're well-organized. We struggle, we fight, we write letters and try to tell people about our struggle. Even during the coup d'état, OFRANEH never stopped protesting.
But the coup taught us a big lesson. It taught us to fear. If they could do that to the president, what could they do to us? But we also learned that fear won't get us anywhere, and now people are back to protesting, fighting for their rights, stronger than ever.
But there is so much maneuvering... They [the government and developers] try to weaken us from one side and then the other but we're going to keep fighting.
We have a problem with the Charter City, which is going to be inside Garífuna land. They say that region is sparsely populated, but there are about 20,000 of us living there. Twenty thousand Garífunas would have to leave and find somewhere else to live, only coming back when the Charter City is built to see if they can work there. There is one community with many elderly people who wouldn't be able to work in the Charter City.
There was a project to build a dock for cruise ships supported by the government. The president even came to inaugurate it. They chose to develop in Rio Negro, where the land was titled individually. The people were pressured to sell their plots, told that if they didn't, tourism and development would never come to their community. They were paid a small amount for their land and promised jobs and 10% of the profits of the dock after it was built. [Then, the developers] fenced off the beach and wouldn't let the community of Rio Negro access it. For a community that lives off fishing and the ocean, not having access to the beach is a huge problem in terms of basic subsistence. Today, the dock project hasn't even started. This is an example of problems the whole Garífuna community is facing.
The government is also taking away our right to be Garífunas. It's a great way for the government to keep taking our land, by making us disappear as a people with a culture. They want to categorize us as "African-descent." We reject the term because we have our indigenous mother. We're Afro-Indigenous. We're Garífuna.
Nobody is going to give up here. In each community we have Defense of the Land Committees. And through community radio, people can now open their eyes and see what's happening in their communities. Through the radio we're saying, "We're against those that sell their land, we're against those that buy land. We are starting international proceedings [against those taking our land]." Before it was very difficult to communicate this to everyone.
Last year we started legal proceedings against Randy Jorgensen [one of the major developers on Garífuna land] because his purchase of Garífuna lands has no legal basis. We're also prosecuting the Garífuna people and community leaders that sell their land. We don't want them to go to jail, but we do want them to learn their lesson and for our children and young people to learn that we have to take care of our land.
But we have many deficiencies because we don't have enough money to do everything. Our poverty marks the difference between us and our aggressors. We are forced to struggle precisely because we're poor. The government has money, foreign investors have money. We have our mission: we're from the people, with the people, for the people and any organization that doesn't have that mission is not one with whom we relate.
Well, we know the people of the United States have the same cultural value that we do: open doors, where everyone can live in communion and solidarity. However, just like we have people in our communities that are undesirable, so too does the US. There are people there with a lot of money, to whom destroying a community or a way of life matters very little. And we know, even as we go to the US to make international demands against Washington, that the people of the US can help us. We need you to tell people that we're having problems. And not just us; this is happening to all the African and Indigenous communities of Latin America. Don't stay quiet.
The Garífuna community is very strong, always. In strength, [indigenous] men and women left [their original land in] Orinoco because of fights with other tribes and went to San Vicente [where the Garífuna people originated] to survive. In strength, our African men escaped from their slave ships and came to San Vicente. In strength, the Garífuna community fought the French and the English. In strength, the Garífuna community in Honduras fought to defend the country against invasion and, in strength, the Garífuna community fights today to defend our land.
Many thanks to Tim Burke for volunteering his time to transcribe and translate this and many other interviews.