The Garifuna people are being dispossessed of their lands to the extent that they do not even have enough lands to cultivate food
The age-long severe oppression of descendants of West African slaves in the South American nation of Honduras has yet to receive wide attention. The Garifuna African people in Honduras are increasingly being denied their lands and livelihoods by the Honduran government and the multilateral institutions of the Global North. The plight of the Garifuna African people and their fight to restore their lands and livelihoods should no longer be left only to them to face, especially considering their small-sized population of about 300,000. Continental Africans and those in the diaspora should raise awareness about the case. The Garifuna people are a part of Africa, as the African Union defines the African Diaspora as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality…” Accordingly, the African Union, too, and concerned African institutions and agencies need to become involved in demanding that the ancestral lands of the Garifuna people should be returned to them by the Honduran government.
A history of the Garifuna African people
Present-day Garifuna people are descendants of West African slaves who were taken ashore on the Caribbean Islands of St. Vincents about the year 1635. There are varying theories on how the West African slaves arrived on the Island. One theory says slaves were ship-wrecked on the Islands of St. Vincents on their way from West Africa to the New World to work in plantations and mines. A second account insists that these slaves escaped from the Caribbean Islands of Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada and made their way to the Island of St. Vincents. Yet a third explanation opines that both shipwrecked West Africans, as well as “maroons escaping slavery from on Caribbean islands” intermarried with the indigenous Carib population to form the Garifuna community.
Despite these divergent accounts, what seems unanimously agreed is that while in St. Vincents, the West African slaves intermarried with the indigenous Carib peoples, which helped to make their population grow exponentially. Over time, this community of people became known as the “Black Caribs.” The Garifuna people became a strong military force that fought fiercely against European settler colonialism and the takeover of St. Vincents. After years of being defeated by the Garifuna, both the French and the British recognized St. Vincent as one of several unoccupied “neutral” Islands.
By 1796, however, Britain, having acquired improved weapons of warfare, took over the Island of St. Vincent. St. Vincent Island was too small, beautiful and much coveted to be shared with free, enterprising Africans. The Garifuna had to accept either annihilation or exile. Choosing the latter, the British forcefully packed the Black Caribs into ships and carried them off to Roatan, an Island in the Caribbean Sea regarded as a part of the Honduras Bay Islands.
On arrival in Roatan, the Garifuna, dramatically turned the island into a home for their community. They began to engage in intensive agriculture and grew several staple foods, with cassava topping the list. The Garifuna branched out from Roatan to another Caribbean mainland in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, forming one strong nation of mostly fishing communities.
Garifuna culture is still very much rooted in West Africa despite hundreds of years of absence from the Motherland. Culturally, the Garifuna stand out by a combination of West African and Amerindian practices, such as communal land ownership, subsistence agriculture, artisanal fisheries, the Punta dance, and the Garifuna language.
In 2001, the Garifuna language, dance, and music were recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The Garifuna diet reflects a typical West African plate, with plantain fufu, soup and protein being the nation’s major cuisine. In their communities, women did farm work, while men engaged in fishing and artisanal pursuits and traded their produce along the coast of Central America. In Honduras where the Garifuna people occupy the North Coast, the people were able to maintain their language and other cultural practices on the relatively isolated coast for years, until very recently when they began to cave in to the forces of globalisation.
Due to their spread, the Garifuna nation borders many other South American countries. Prior to the beginning of this millennium, the beautiful, pristine beaches in the North Coast area of Honduras, the lands of the Garifuna were protected from foreign ownership because the government of Honduras considered it a security threat to cede the land to foreigners. As a result, land was owned by the government and couldn’t be sold to people who aren’t Garifuna. Land use rights rested on inheritance, residency, and ethnicity. But this has now changed.
Tourism investors have long been interested in the pristine beaches and fertile lands of the about 46 Garifuna settlements located along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and on the isle of Roatán. They had put Honduras under pressure to sell the Garifuna land. The government caved in to pressure and embarked on massive efforts to “improve” the country’s development profile by promoting foreign ownership of coastal land.
In November 1998, Honduras officially overturned the constitutional provision that protected Garifuna lands from foreign acquisition. For more than 25 years since the overturning of the constitutional provision that protected Garifuna lands from being sold to foreigners, successive governments in Honduras have embarked on a race to completely sell off the ancestral lands of the Garifuna people to foreign investors.
The government began to enter into land purchase agreements with developers and oil palm plantation prospectors. These land purchase agreements are strongly supported by the World Bank, IMF and other such agencies that frequently neglect international and constitutional recognition of communal land tenure as held by the Garifuna African peoples. These agencies insist that the projects will lead to the economic growth of Honduras by creating jobs and increasing Foreign Direct Investment that will lead to a wealthier country. Yet, these policies have worked against the advancement of the Garifuna community, their livelihoods and their heritage.
The Garifuna people are being dispossessed of their lands to the extent that they do not even have enough lands to cultivate food. As a result, the community is now threatened by impending food insecurity as they become more dependent on imports for their sustenance.
Meanwhile, Garifuna lands are sold off to foreigners for the expansion of the tourist business and the agro-industrial sector, in particular the cultivation of African palm trees. The areas targeted for these so-called infrastructural developments are the natural, breathtakingly beautiful beaches and fertile lands that belong to the Garifuna African people. There are reports that the oil palm plantations utilize huge volumes of water, toxic fertilizers and pesticides – a situation which is increasingly threatening the region with drought, diseases and diverse environmental degradation. Worse still, in some parts of the Garifuna community, serious air, water and land pollution are being caused by the procession of palm oil into hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in the production of junk foods.
Other forms of disadvantageous Foreign Direct Investment that have plagued the Garifuna include the construction of gated retirement communities for wealthy retirees from North America, financed by financial institutions from the United States and Canada. Other projects that are destabilizing the biological and social ecosystems of the Garifuna include mining and hydroelectric projects.
Studies indicate that the major reason for the wanton, unchecked dispossession of the Garifuna African people of their land is because they are black. Were the lands in question belonging to other ethnicities in Honduras, it is highly unlikely that the Honduran government and the abetting multilateral neo-liberal global agencies would not have acted differently.
Garifuna people have been trying to fight against the dispossession of their lands, but are being met with stiff resistance by the government. Killings, kidnapping, abuse, propaganda campaigns and bribing are hallmarks of the relationship between the government and the Garifuna people.
In line with the African Union’s Diaspora Division’s task of “rebuilding the global African family in the service of the development and integration agenda of the continent”, there is a need for mass mobilization to lend support to the voices of the Garifuna African people. African and International NGOs, individuals and corporations should engage in lawsuits and judicial activism, peaceful marches, boycotts of companies involved in the Garifuna crime,media-based activism and other forms of activism in support of the Garifuna people. As we build the idea of Pan-Africanism among continental and diaspora Africans, speaking up against injustices meted out to the weakest part of our unity could be one of our strongest binding links.
Dr Chika Ezeanya Esiobu is the Principal of Julani Varsity and author of Indigenous Knowledge and Education in Africa (Springer: 2019).