Interviewees: Aurelia Arzú, vice-President of OFRANEH (the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: The Tattershall Castle, a boat on the River Thames in London
Date: 25 September 2017
Key Words: OFRANEH; Garífuna people; indigenous peoples; the ‘commons’; ILO Convention 169; human rights defending; criminalisation; land titles; threats; tourism developments; coconut oil; African palm oil.
The interview was conducted on the Tattershall Castle, a boat on the River Thames in London, just before the start of an event entitled ‘Defending Rights Defenders’. Because various items were being set up around us, there were numerous breaks in the interview along with interruptions from other people. The event was organised by the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) and Peace Brigades International (PBI).
Martin Mowforth (MM): So, Aurelia, to start with can you give us your name, your role in OFRANEH and a short description of what OFRANEH does; and then the problems which the people of OFRANEH face in Honduras.
Aurelia Arzú (AA): Well, good afternoon. My name is Aurelia Arzú; I am from Honduras and I represent the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras, OFRANEH. My role is as vice-president, vice-coordinator of OFRANEH. Well, we are here in this country seeking support.
AA: Because really we need it. Right now OFRANEH is facing many problems as an organisation, of colleagues being driven apart. We are constantly being persecuted because of the simple fact that we are defending what are public goods.
MM: OK, thanks. One moment please ….
Interruption …. new recording
MM: To continue …., can you tell me a little about the battles that the people of OFRANEH face? Is it solely in the coast area or not?
AA: Yes, it’s more specifically there because that’s where the Garífuna communities are. As an organisation there we’re in a difficult struggle because we’re up against various entities – principally the Government of Honduras, the narcotraffickers, and the business community. So as you can see, it’s an unequal struggle because these are monsters, so it’s very unequal.
Why? Because as an organisation we’re fighting for our commons, that is to say, the water, the sea, our lands and our territory. So we have a government which sees whatever it wants to see and which takes advantage of our common goods and doesn’t give us the right to fight against it. If we lodge a claim, we are taken to court. If we protest, we are also taken to court. Right now in Honduras a law has been established to deny us the right to protest.
Also, they’ve created a ‘law of tourism’. It wants to say that when a foreigner arrives in our country they can develop tourism freely on our lands and we have no right to protest, and so they can take us to court. Also, our comrades are being criminalised and they are throwing them into prison and arresting them. The thing is that those of us who live in our country and act as simple defenders [of our commons] face real difficulties because we don’t know when we can carry on with our lives or when we are going to lose it. Also, the organisation has to struggle because our rights have been established. Despite having an agreement, that is [ILO] Convention 169, it’s not complied with by the Government of Honduras. So we don’t know if we are protected as the Convention is not respected for us in that we can’t support the fascist Government and its dictator.
MM: So the Government protects the investors rather than the people of Honduras?
AA: Yes, to such an extent that the Government of Honduras has actually told us that we are not Honduran as Garífuna people, and that it doesn’t recognise us as a people. But yes to the investors it’s opened the door to them all for them to make their investments at our cost. They’ve never consulted us, there’s never been any prior consultation or information. It does things in its own way, giving priority to the investors because what interests it most is the money. It doesn’t matter that it may endanger the rivers or the sea. When they want to make a tourism investment, for example along the beach, we are prohibited from going there. And the Garífuna depend on the sea because we live from it, from fishing and agriculture. Also when we get to various areas in the mountains for instance, they also close the tracks to us. For example, when we get to a particular site, there are already guards there who tell us that we can’t go through. So, they prevent us from moving and close all ways to us whether it’s by sea, by river or through the mountains.
So, the crime then is, as defenders, to protect our commons. And for the simple deed of protecting our commons, we are prosecuted.
MM: And the industries?
MM: Yes. Which industries are invading?
AA: The mining industry; extractive projects such as african palm. Did I mention the mining? There are loads of them.
AA: Tourism too.
MM: Do you have an example of where tourism is affecting the rights of the Garífuna?
AA: Yes, we have two bays which have been affected: Tela Bay and the Bay of Trujillo. How has the Bay of Trujillo been affected? In the Bay of Trujillo a dock has been constructed for tourist boats.
MM: Cruise ships?
AA: Yes, cruise ships. They got the people to sell their land without problems and they said they would give us work and that they would be affiliates in partnership with the Garífuna. But when the project was done, we had rights to nothing and so we were certainly affected.
MM: One moment please.
Another interruption … new recording.
AA: So, we’re talking about Trujillo Bay. So there in Trujillo Bay we’ve been enormously persecuted because they’ve cut out our freedom, our freedom of expression, freedom of all our commons. They’ve taken control of every part of the beach, they’ve built new buildings, hotels, a dock and they’ve thrown people off their lands. That’s affected us big time in Trujillo Bay.
MM: And in the case of Tela Bay?
AA: It’s the same in Tela Bay. They are building tourist complexes, Marbella, an enormous tourist complex; giving no chance to the Garífuna; likewise, they take our land and leave us no right to get near to these complexes; and we can’t get near to the beach, we’re not allowed to bathe ourselves, we can’t fish. It’s a form of destroying us as a people.
MM: And have various villages been affected in Tela Bay?
AA: Yes numerous.
AA: Yes, there’s Miami, Triunfo de la Cruz, Tornabé, San Juan Tela, Miami, Ensenada, Cienegüita.
MM: We stayed there, in a Garífuna Centre. It was a centre run by the Garífuna in Tornabé.
AA: Ah, in Tornabé? A big centre?
MM: A dormitory of four rooms.
AA: It’s not for the senior citizens, is it?
MM: It was in 2010, 7 years ago. It was very interesting, but we only spent a few days there.
Another interruption … new recording
MM: What about the situation of Madeline [David] right now, because she’s stayed in Honduras because of a court hearing?
AA: I’ll explain it to you. Colleague Madeline, she was going to be the one to come here and to make this trip. Her full name is: Madeline Aurelia David. She couldn’t make the trip because she was being indicted and prosecuted, accused of illegal encroachment on land. Why? Solely for the simple deed of recovering something that is ancestrally ours – these are our lands. So she was prosecuted. By whom? By a foreigner, a Canadian called Randy.
MM: Ah, Jorgenson?
AA: Yes, that’s the surname. What was it?
AA: That we didn’t know. [Laughter]
MM: Jorgenson, the King of porn.
Womens voice: King of porn? [Randy Jorgenson made his fortune from the publication of pornographic magazines in Canada.]
MM: But also Patrick Daniel Forseth?
AA: Him too. So we might ask how is it possible that a foreigner can arrive and accuse a Garífuna of taking the land, a Garífuna who is the owner of the land? That’s something unusual that could only happen in my country. That a foreigner can denounce the owner of the land for owning the land. And she is being prosecuted for it – to such an extreme that she can’t go three meters from her home. Because otherwise she would go to jail. Madeline was studying to be a nurse, but she can’t get on with her studies because she can’t leave home. So we have a situation like this where we can’t do anything, and truly we need help. In our country the laws are not going to favour us, the Garífuna and the indigenous peoples. Because they claim that we are not Honduran, so we don’t have any rights. It’s lamentable.
MM: But he says, or the two of them say, Jorgenson and Forseth, the two say that they’ve bought the land officially with their own money. So what’s the response in that case? I don’t believe it, but ….
AA: No for sure. Look, they offer proof that they’ve bought it legally with their own money. When we the Garífuna have ancestral title to the land, that means that the land can’t be sold and can’t be loaned out. But what they’ve bought is a fake, illegally. Because they make use of a Garífuna, the Garífuna can then buy it and then sells it to him. They use a Garífuna to buy the land and then they pass it on in his name. But it’s not legal because we have only one title.
AA: So, as you say he bought it legally. He knows that’s a lie. But he’s protected by the laws of my country, so he keeps on saying that he bought them legally. Because he’s protected, because from the moment he can take us to court he is protected by the laws of the country. And he has more rights than we do. And that’s unjust.
MM: In the case of African palm, have the Garífuna lost much territory to the plantations?
AA: A lot. A great deal that these extractive plantations – let me tell you a little about it. It has ruined us, destroyed us morally, physically and economically. Why? We the Garífuna have our own gastronomy [staple diet] – that is to say we have our own typical food and meals. We also do our own processing of coconut oil. Coconut oil.
A woman’s voice: Yes. Oh, you are talking about palm oil.
MM: Yes, but to say ….
AA: Something natural.
MM: To say they have their own gastronomy, their own meals.
AA: Something natural that is very much ours, that we use for our meals, we use it for our hair, and we use it for the body.
Womens voice: It’s very popular here right now. Coconut oil.
AA: And previously it was only the Garífuna who used it, but it spread, and how? When they ….., in industrial medicine. They began to say that coconut oil was harmful to your health, bad for the cholesterol, that it was bad for high blood pressure and for diabetes, and so on. Like they knew that it wasn’t easy to destroy this food, so they began to kill off the coconut palm in Honduras. They began to get a disease called ‘lethal yellowing’ which kills all the coconut palms. But when they began to kill off the palms, they stopped producing. When there was no more coconut oil for the Garífuna people, they began to use African palm oil. And that’s how we began to consume other things.
MM: Yes, why? It’s a different type of oil.
AA: It’s different because it contains chemicals, but the coconut oil that we made is natural.
MM: It is very much a natural product that has been replaced by the African Palm, that it is more chemical oil.
Voice of another woman: Also it is poly-saturated.
MM: OK, another introduction …. [Another person arrived to be introduced to Aurelia.]
Another interruption … new recording.
MM: Another explanation about African Palm.
AA: So, as a result of having to use industrial oil, that’s really affected us in our organisation because as indigenous people we have our own gastronomy. So they’re forcing us to lose that too, so it’s certainly affected us.
But how has African Palm really affected the people in Honduras? In the first place, it’s taken our land, it’s dried up our rivers, it’s contaminated the rivers with chemicals. The palm has a life duration of forty years, and when it dies off the land isn’t returned to us and it’s no longer fertile – you can’t sow anything there. So those are the ways in which we are affected. Moreover, the processing of the palm, making the oil, involves throwing the waste products into the rivers, leading to fish die-offs.
MM: So, the factory also ….
AA: Yes. They’re in very close proximity to the people, so it’s a danger.
MM: So, thanks very much. There are other examples, but one final question, please? [Laughter] Do you have any suggestions on what we can do in this country, from here, many thousands of kilometres from Honduras? What we can do to help your situation, not only of the Garífuna, but also the others
AA: Yes, for us defenders the same arises. When I speak of the Garífuna, I speak of all the indigenous peoples. So because we’re all in the same situation there is support between us and for all the indigenous; because there are other indigenous peoples too; we’re the Garífuna. And we have seen and we appreciate that with the international role we can achieve something.
MM: We can give you solidarity. Normally I suppose that like others we can exert pressure on the ….
AA: Exert pressure, yes, make alliances, use your networks …
MM: On the industries?
AA: Yes, to make noise most on the cases where we really have problems and where we need help urgently. Because what’s happening with our colleagues is that there are six of them who are being prosecuted in Honduras. So instead of things getting better, they’re getting worse; so it seems to us that it’s going to get much worse, because from the moment that the government empowered Randy [Jorgenson] to prosecute us – well, Randy’s not going to stop, he’s going to carry on; but also we aren’t likely to give up either. He’s going to carry on, so what comes afterwards? We don’t want to know what comes afterwards because we’re seeing that something worse is coming, our prosecution. Because they have the money. We don’t.
AA: And when they have money, they buy the authorities – it’s the worst in my country. So it’s chaos for us.
MM: Yes. So Aurelia, very many thanks for your words, your explanations and we’re looking forward to hearing a bit more tonight. Many thanks. Well done with your struggles.
AA: It’s not an easy struggle because everything is against us.
Another interruption … new recording.
AA: We don’t have support. So often we go to international organisations. We can go to the capital to make denunciations, but when we get there they are filed and spend a lot of time without us hearing any response. But the threats are constant; so the replies, the paperwork associated with the denunciations, we have to archive them. But the threats are constant.
MM: We’re sorry that we can’t give you more time, more than five minutes, in the presentation.
AA: We can carry on talking about ….
MM: Good. Thanks.