Undermining Garífuna land rights in Honduras

The Garífuna are descended from the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean islands and escaped Africans who were trafficked into slavery. They are indigenous to Honduras because they arrived on its northern coast before the country gained its independence from Spain in the 1800s, but various individuals, organisations and communities refuse to acknowledge them as being indigenous to Honduras.

The Garífuna have maintained communal land ownership structures in which the patronatos (political representatives of Garífuna communities) hold the communal land titles. “These titles grant the community rights to a given area in perpetuity. They may not sell the land or transfer its ownership outside the community. Improvements, such as houses and other buildings, can be bought and sold within the community, but the land remains inalienable.”[1]

The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have legal instruments and policies with provision for group land rights, and the Garífuna have sought to use these to further their land claims within Honduras. At the same time, however, the World Bank has provided Honduras with a loan for coastal and tourism development whose investors require land ownership for their developments. One such example is the granting of $35 million from the IDB for development of the Los Micos tourism development close to the town of Tela.[2]

In 2004, with encouragement from the World Bank, the government of Honduras passed a new Property Law which could bring about the dissolution of community titles and allow third party ownership of land within communally held areas. The law was passed without consultation with any of the indigenous groups of Honduras, thereby contravening the ILO Convention 169 which Honduras had ratified nine years earlier.

The Property Law was later used as the legal framework for the European Union’s Land Programme and the Land Administration Programme of Honduras – PATH by its Spanish initials. The PATH was financed by the World Bank and its aim was essentially that of individualising Garífuna territories so that they could be entered onto the real estate market.[3]

[1] Eva T. Thorne (September/October 2004) ‘Land Rights and Garífuna Identity’, NACLA Report, Vol.38, No.2, North American Congress on Latin America, New York, p.24.
[2] Martin Mowforth, Clive Charlton and Ian Munt (2008) Tourism and Responsibility: Perspectives from Latin America and the Caribbean, Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
[3] Thomas Viehweider (7 October 2007) ‘Bahía de Tela: Honduras y el avance del Plan Puebla Panamá’, Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC), Honduras.