Afro-Hondurans violently evicted from their ancestral lands on Honduras’ Caribbean coast

Afro-Hondurans desalojo en comunidad garífuna de Islas de la Bahía Melissa Martinez ofraneh

Last Monday a violent eviction on Honduras’ Caribbean coast left six members of the Garífuna community detained and several injured, according to the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña – OFRANEH). The National Police and Armed Forces carried out the eviction citing complaints against the community for the alleged crime of land usurpation.

Text: Leonardo Aguilar, with support from Celia Pousset and Celeste Maradiaga

Photo: via Twitter – Miriam Miranda, OFRANEH
Translation by Ann Louise Deslandes

Six people were arrested this Monday in a violent eviction carried out by agents of the National Police and the Armed Forces in the Garífuna community of Punta Gorda on Roatán Island. The island is one of six that make up the Islas de la Bahía department in Honduras’ Caribbean region.

Among those detained was OFRANEH member Melissa Martínez. 

Martínez, who is also a member of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, told Contracorriente that she and her colleagues were beaten by members of the Honduran state security forces.

The human rights defender said she had been stripped of her belongings when she was arrested.

From detention, with her telephone momentarily restored to her, Martínez told Contracorriente she could hardly speak.

 “We are six people detained, three male and three female comrades; we have two comrades beaten, one of them seriously, and a female comrade was also assaulted by a policeman,” she said, adding, “I am beaten in the leg and a little in the stomach.”

A video released by OFRANEH coordinator Miriam Miranda shows the moment of Martínez’s arrest. Martínez raises her arms to expose a group of police officers who had placed handcuffs on her hands while she was being taken to a cell.

Also arrested during this eviction were Dorotea Arzú, Richard Armando Martínez, Abot Efrahín Sánchez, Keyden Tishany Gonzales and Augusto Moisés Dolmo.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the detention and the aggressions committed on the day.

“We must remember that this is the first Garífuna community known in Honduras, even before [Honduras’] independence (from Spain),” Carla García, OFRANEH’s international relations coordinator, told Contracorriente.

García explained that, 20 years ago, the Punta Gorda Garífuna community were dispossessed of the territories they inhabited on Roatán Island, with the Government of Honduras arguing that the land had a new owner.

The Garífuna have lived on this territory for more than 200 years, García said. They are currently being besieged by people who believe they have more rights “because they have the money.”

García added that, in the last 30 years, the Garífuna are, little by little, being displaced from their territories. They are threatened with death, murdered and disappeared.

“100 years ago it was said that the zopes (or ‘king vulture’, a scavenger bird), referring (disparagingly) to the Garífuna, could stay on the shore of the beach,” said García. 

“Today, they are pushing us out.”

“100 years ago,” explains García, Punta Gorda “was not interesting, because all this machinery of tourism and drug trafficking that now exists in Honduras was not there.”

“Today, we are in their way. But we are going to continue claiming our right.”

Of the Garífuna who were evicted on Monday, García explains that a group of brothers, who otherwise had nowhere to live, had arrived to Punta Gorda some months ago . 

“They decided to recover a quite small part of the territory, solely and exclusively to build their homes.”

According to García, some residents of Punta Gorda were suspicious of the brothers, but, “when they saw that [the brothers’] only need was to build a home for them and their families they … supported them to stay there.”

Garcia added that the community has heard there is a woman who claims to be the owner of the land currently occupied by the brothers, but they do not know her name. 

OFRANEH understands that the eviction order was issued due to manipulation of the relevant land ownership documents — even though the community had called for dialogue and they had a lawyer traveling to Islas de la Bahía to present arguments.

“Unfortunately, for the Court and the government of Honduras we are [considered to be] invaders,” said Carla García.

“We are denied the right to … territory within the country, while foreigners, those who have the economic power, [enjoy] good faith [under the legal system].”

Notably, Roatán is a site of the neoliberal experiment of Special Employment and Development Zones (Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico – ZEDEs), specifically the private charter city Próspera. As Secretary of Economic Development Pedro Barquero reported last November 3, Próspera is preparing a lawsuit of up to $10.7 billion for damages against the state of Honduras due to the repeal of the law allowing ZEDEs in April this year. The repeal was an election promise of the Castro government and invalidates the standing of the ZEDEs, though notably, the Próspera project has still continued.

The Garífuna are anticipating an on-site visit of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) at the end of this month. The Commission will learn about the Garífuna communities’ situation in relation to conflict over their territory, a situation that, along with Punta Gorda, is also faced by Garífuna in other parts of the country.

In 2015, the Inter-American Court (I/A Court) issued judgments in the case of Garífuna communities of Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra in which the state of Honduras was found responsible for violation of several rights of the Garifuna community. The Court determined that the state had allowed the violation of the right to collective property, established in Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights, in failing to demarcate approximately 380 hectares of territory that had been granted to the Community as collective title in 1950 and in full ownership in 1993.

In April of this year, the Government of Honduras, on the website of the Secretariat of Human Rights, reported that “the state of Honduras [has showed] its interest in beginning to comply with the final judgments issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in October 2015, [when] the body unanimously condemned the state responsible for the violation of the right to collective property to the detriment of the Garífuna communities of Punta Piedra and Triunfo de la Cruz”.

As such, said García, “we are surprised by this eviction [at Punta Gorda].”

“OFRANEH did not expect a reaction of this type towards such a small group of people.” 

To be sure, “we are not talking about people who are dangerous for the country but people who contribute.” 

García continued:

“A few days ago I asked the Government how they can govern without justice, I asked Minister Edmundo Orellana.” 

Orellana is the Honduran Minister with the title of Minister Advisor to the Presidency on Transparency and the Fight against Corruption.

“He told us that they had to choose a good Supreme Court and a good Attorney General” so that the Garífuna would no longer be persecuted.

Further, said García, Minister Orellana recognized that “this type of thing would never happen to the political class and the upper middle class to which they [politicians] belong.” 

OFRANEH has repeatedly demanded that the I/A Court rulings of 2015 be complied with. They have also requested that the disappearances and murders suffered in other Garífuna communities be investigated.

“What is happening in San Juan and what is happening right now in Roatán” is relevant to these judgments,” said García; and “the state will have to respond [regarding] the … violence with which it is treating the Garífuna community.”

OFRANEH says that the people in charge of the eviction only gave them one hour for their lawyer to arrive, before they carried out the operation.

Contracorriente tried to contact lawyer Blanca Izaguirre of the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – CONADEH), but received no response, neither has she issued a statement. We also tried to contact Rafael Alegría, of the National Agrarian Institute, but also received no response. The Ministry of Security, which incorporates the National Police, has not issued a statement either.

Natalie Roque, the head of the State Department for Human Rights Offices (Secretaría de Estado en los Despachos de Derechos Humanos – SEDH), did not answer Contracorriente’s calls but sent a press release by text message.

The message expresses “concern about the forced eviction of the Garífuna community of Punta Gorda, established 225 years ago in that same territory, before Honduras became an independent state, for which they have ancestral rights, which are recognized by the State of Honduras through the ratification of ILO Convention 169″. 

The press release does not condemn police or military brutality, but continues: “the eviction ordered by judicial authorities should have complied with minimum human rights guarantees and standards, which imply respecting the rights of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.”

Further, “we hold the Departmental Court of Roatán, Bay Islands, responsible for acting contrary to international human rights standards and in contraposition to its mandate to represent the interests of society as a whole.”

Carla García, OFRANEH international relations coordinator, concluded that although there seems to be consensus that tourism is being encouraged and foreign investment is being attracted in the Atlantic and Caribbean coastal areas of Honduras, benefiting people like the Garífuna, “the reality is completely different.”

“Our communities have been flooded with drugs and drug dealing [which harms] our youth,” she stressed. 

Overall, “All this causes our spaces to be abandoned little by little, either by death, drug addiction or because our people make the decision to leave the areas simply because they become too conflictive or too dangerous.”

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News editor and reporter at Contracorriente. Lawyer and journalist, having graduated from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Valle de Sula (UNAM-VS). He has worked in radio, for print media, and as a web and investigative journalist. He has worked with environmental organizations and on investigations into forced displacement as a result of violence linked to drug smuggling.

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