The Garífuna of Honduras and Belize

In northern Honduras, where the country’s Caribbean beaches are a major attraction for tourists, development projects clash violently with indigenous land rights issues. Since the early 1980s the Honduran government has made consistent efforts to attract both tourists and foreign investors in the industry, to the point (before the 2009 coup d’état) where the tourism industry was the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner.[1]

The Caribbean coastline of Honduras is home to many Garífuna communities which have ancestral title to their land, and the coastal town of Tela is surrounded by a number of Garífuna villages. The Garífuna have lived in the area for over 200 years, and are descended from the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean islands and escaped African slaves. They have maintained communal land ownership structures, and their land title in the Tela Bay area was established in 1992. Developments in the area, including a luxury tourism development started in 1994, which now lies empty, have brought the Garífuna into conflict with the national government and municipal councils over land rights. In 1997, the national government “conveniently lost” documents relating to Garífuna title to the land.[2]

The communally-held titles grant the Garífuna communities rights to their area in perpetuity, and land may not be sold or transferred to owners outside the community. Not all of the Garífuna land titles, however, are recognised by the Honduran government, which in 1998 reformed the Constitution to permit foreigners to acquire land less than forty km. from the coast, an entitlement previously prohibited. The constitutional change prompted Garífuna fears that big hotel investors would push the Garífuna out of their homes. In 2004 Eva Thorne reported that in some cases these fears had been well-grounded:

the tourism boom of recent years and the consequent demand for valuable beachfront property has created incentives for land invasions and intimidation, as well as bribery and outright violence against Garífuna communities. … Some community members have responded by illegally selling their land to outsiders, often fearing they will lose their land without financial compensation if they refuse to sell.[3]

The Garífuna have also questioned the environmental impacts of the Los Micos project and have rejected an Environmental Impact Assessment that predicted benefits for the area. They claim that the Los Micos site will increase pesticide use and eutrophication of lagoons due to fertilisers used on golf courses, as well as put pressure on the area’s water resources.[4] Fundación Prolansate is an environmental organisation local to the Tela area which has numerous disagreements with OFRANEH, the organisation which represents Garífuna people. But Eduardo Zavala, Fundación Prolansate’s director, also recognises the conflicts caused by the Los Micos project, especially “because it causes people to speculate on land values and prompts an invasion of the areas near to the project.”[5]

The challenges to Garífuna land rights are part of a wider pattern of land rights abuses. International institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation seek to shift communal land rights, as practiced by many indigenous peoples in Central America, to systems of individual rights which are easier for international economic players to purchase. Communal land rights have been key to indigenous resistance to developments such as mining and tourism in Central American countries.

The World Bank funds the Programme for the Administration of Lands in Honduras (PATH). Local organisations are afraid that this programme is encouraging individual ownership of land at the expense of traditional communal land ownership practiced by groups such as the Garífuna.[6]

Photo-journalist James Rodríguez explains, “Such a strategy of dividing and buying has already worked in Miami [a Garífuna village near Tela]. The communal land lot was divided in one square block per family, and most of the residents ended up selling out to the DTBT [the Tela Bay Touristic Development Society].”[7] OFRANEH leader Alfredo López bemoans, “The community hardly exists now. It’s a tragedy – they tricked the people into signing over their deeds, and now the community is destroyed.”[8]

The Garífuna of Tela Bay have also suffered direct human rights abuses aimed at forcing them to relinquish their rights to land such as that slated for the development of the Los Micos Beach and Golf Resort. According to a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in October 2006 by US NGO Human Rights First, several major incidents of human rights abuses of the Garífuna have occurred. Some specific abuses are listed in Box 8.3, including death threats, shootings, false imprisonment and house burnings. The evidence associated with some of these points clearly to the Los Micos development and forces associated with it as the origin of these abuses. Activists involved in the land rights campaign at Tela Bay have also alleged corruption by the Honduran government and local authorities. Yani Rosenthal Hidalgo, a recently-appointed minister to the Honduran government, is the son of the owner of PROMOTUR (described as both a development corporation and real estate agency) and a shareholder in the Los Micos project.[9]

[Readers are referred to the interview conducted with OFRANEH leader Alfredo López conducted on 16th August 2010. It is available in the Interviews section of this website.]

[1] This example draws upon Sarah Irving’s work, published in Mowforth, M., Charlton, C. and Munt, I. (2008) Tourism and Responsibility: Perspectives from Latin America and the Caribbean, London: Routledge.
[2] Sandra Cuffe (February 2006) ‘Nature Conservation or Territorial Control and Profits?’
[3] Eva Thorne (September/October 2004) ‘Land Rights and Garífuna Identity’, NACLA Report, 38 (2).
[4] Op.cit. (Cuffe).
[5] Eduardo Zavala (August 2010) in interview, Tela, Honduras.
[6] Human Rights First (November 2005) ‘Garífuna Activists Under Attack in Honduras’.
[7] James Rodríguez (2008) ‘Garífuna Resistance Against Mega-Tourism in Tela Bay’, NACLA,
[8] Alfredo López, quoted in ibid.
[9] Op.cit. (Cuffe).