Honduras: Indigenous Garifuna Use Radio to Fight for Their Land

Featured image: Two recently constructed temples serve as the centerpiece of the Garifuna community of Vallecito. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

by Christopher Clark / Mongabay

  • The Garifuna, an Afro-indigenous ethnic group, have inhabited eastern Honduras since the late 18th century, collectively owning and conserving large tracts of Honduras’s rich coastal ecosystems.
  • In recent decades both their way of life and their ancestral lands have been increasingly threatened by the relentless encroachment of powerful private interests in Honduras’s burgeoning tourism and biofuel industries.
  • The Garifuna have been mounting a resistance, aided in part by a network of community radio stations.
  • In addition to serving up traditional music and shows on health and nutrition, domestic violence, substance abuse, and other topics, the stations have helped raise the profile of people struggling to protect indigenous lands and ways of life and serve as a strong means of mobilization, according to local activists.

LA CEIBA, Honduras — In the small, sky-blue studio at the Faluma Bimetu community radio station, 32-year-old Cesar Benedict reaches for the controls and slowly fades out the fast percussive rhythms and flighty guitar of a well-known Garifuna praise song. He leans his considerable bulk closer to the microphone and delivers a clipped message about the threat of deforestation and global warming in Honduras. Then he adeptly fades the track back in.Located in the rural village of Triunfo de la Cruz, in Honduras’s Atlántida department along the country’s palm-fringed northern Caribbean coast, Faluma Bimetu broadcasts the plight of the Garifuna people. The station’s name means “sweet coconut” in the distinctive Garifuna language.The Garifuna are a unique Afro-indigenous ethnic group descended from mutinous West African slaves and indigenous Carib and Arawak groups that dispersed across parts of South America and the Caribbean. The Garifuna have inhabited this part of Honduras since the late 18thcentury, collectively owning and conserving large tracts of Honduras’s rich coastal ecosystems and sustaining themselves on subsistence agriculture and small-scale fishing.

In recent decades, however, both their way of life and their ancestral lands have been increasingly threatened by the relentless encroachment of powerful private interests in Honduras’s burgeoning tourism and biofuel industries.

According to reports from organizations including Global Witness and Amnesty International, Garifuna communities along the Honduran coast have routinely faced threats, harassment and gross human rights violations. Faluma Bimetu was set up in 1997 in response to the murder of three local land activists.

Cesar Benedict looks out to sea in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.
Cesar Benedict looks out to sea in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Benedict was born here in Triunfo de la Cruz. When he was just 11 years old, he decided it was time to “join the social struggle,” as he puts it, to help protect the Garifuna’s land and culture against what he saw as an onslaught by external forces. He started volunteering at Faluma Bimetu, carrying out various menial tasks after school and picking up a few tricks of the trade from the radio hosts, who included his older brother.

Today, Benedict is Faluma Bimetu’s hardworking director. With no salary and minimal funding, he manages a team of seven radio hosts and oversees a 24-hour schedule that includes shows on health and nutrition, domestic violence and substance abuse, the environment, youth and women’s leadership development, religion and spirituality, and traditional music.

A “strong means of mobilization”

Benedict quickly creates a playlist to cover the next hour of his show, then we duck out for a short tour of Triunfo de la Cruz, a village of approximately 2,000 inhabitants characterized by pastel-colored wooden houses divided by uneven dirt roads. The sound of Benedict’s music selection pours through the open windows of many of the households we pass.

Benedict says that Faluma Bimetu, which broadcasts almost exclusively in Garifuna, plays a pivotal role in both informing and mobilizing the community of Triunfo de la Cruz. “I’d go so far as to say that the radio has saved the life of this community. Without it, I’m not sure we’d still be here,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Benedict cites a 2016 judgment by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an international appeals court in Costa Rica for countries in the Americas. The judgment found the state of Honduras responsible for the violation of collective ownership rights and a lack of judicial protection in Triunfo de la Cruz and the nearby Garifuna community of Punta Piedra, after the municipal government sold off Garifuna land to private developers.

Benedict believes that Faluma Bimetu was crucial in raising awareness of the case and reiterating the importance of conserving ancestral lands. Recordings of on-air discussions that included call-ins from aggrieved local residents were also submitted to the court as evidence.

Miriam Miranda, a prominent Garifuna activist and the general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), sits in her office in the city of La Ceiba. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.
Miriam Miranda, a prominent Garifuna activist and the general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), sits in her office in the city of La Ceiba. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Miriam Miranda is a prominent Garifuna activist and the general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH is its Spanish acronym), a Garifuna advocacy group that finances Faluma Bimetu and facilitates the training of its team. She shares Benedict’s sentiment that the radio station has served as a “very strong means of mobilization” in Triunfo de la Cruz, adding that “it’s also a very cheap one.”

Furthermore, Miranda points out that community radio can still operate with relative freedom in Honduras’s increasingly repressive media environment, where most commercial radio stations and television channels are either state sponsored or forced to self-censor for fear of heavy-handed state reprisal. In small and largely neglected Garifuna communities, independent stations like Faluma Bimetu have a better chance of flying under the government’s radar.

Miranda’s organization helps run a total of six Garifuna community radio stations across Honduras, all of which have close links with other indigenous radio stations and causes. In a country renowned as the most dangerous in the world for environmental rights activists, these stations have helped raise the profile of people on the frontlines of the struggle to protect indigenous lands and ways of life. They also highlight the regular injustices activists face at the hands of the Honduran state.

In November 2016, Radio Lumamali Giriga, a Garifuna community radio station in the coastal town of Santa Fe, 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Triunfo de la Cruz, ran an interview with local Garifuna leader Madeline David Fernandez. The activist had been detained and allegedly tortured by Honduran police in response to her attempts to occupy ancestral Garifuna land that the municipal government had sold to a Canadian company for a large-scale tourism development. Lumamali Giriga was first to pick up this story, then a number of other community radio stations and human rights organizations followed suit.

According to Francesco Diasio, secretary general of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, radio is a particularly powerful and accessible medium in indigenous Latin American communities, which often have low internet connectivity and literacy rates and strong oral traditions.

Persistent threats

However, Diasio cautioned that there is “very little protection and often considerable risk” for journalists and activists working in community radio in Central American countries such as Honduras. “You only have to do a quick Google search to see that the Garifuna community radio stations have faced harassment from the Honduran government,” he adds.

In January 2010, after various incidences of intimidation and theft, Faluma Bimetu was the target of an arson attack that destroyed broadcasting equipment and badly damaged the building. No arrests have ever been made in connection with the incident. Benedict places the blame at the feet of Indura Beach and Golf Resort, a flagship luxury tourism destination near Triunfo de la Cruz that was initiated in 2008 as a joint venture between the Honduran Tourism Institute and a number of the country’s most powerful business figures.

A January 2017 Global Witness report titled “Honduras: the deadliest place to defend the planet,” wrote of Indura that “Beneath the perfect travel brochure surface, is a story of threats, harassment and human rights abuse.” In the months preceding the arson attack, Faluma Bimetu had frequently criticized Indura on air.

The report also claimed that the boundaries of Jeanette Kawas National Park, located just west of Triunfo de la Cruz, were redrawn to allow for the construction of Indura. In addition, Global Witness alleged that in 2014 police and military units tried to forcibly evict 157 Garifuna families from the same area as part of a plan to expand the tourism complex, incorporating two new hotels that would take the total number of rooms to 600.

Playa Escondida Beach Club is one of two luxury tourism developments that have been built on land claimed by the Garifuna in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.
Playa Escondida Beach Club is one of two luxury tourism developments that have been built on land claimed by the Garifuna in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Keri Brondo, an anthropologist with the University of Memphis in Tennessee, U.S., who has written extensively on the Garifuna, testified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2013 for the case brought by Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra. In her testimony she said that creating protected tourism areas that excluded local populations had led to overcrowding and the perpetuation of poverty in places like Triunfo de la Cruz. She added that lack of access to these protected areas had “hindered the community’s ability to maintain its traditional way of life.”

Mark Bonta, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona in Pennsylvania, U.S., who has been working in Honduras for almost 20 years, told Mongabay that coastal tourism development in this region threatens not only local communities’ environmental sustainability, “but also coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, strand, and other marine and coastal ecosystems.”

Bonta added that “local communities themselves, against all odds, if left alone, are able to protect their own resources sustainably, and there are many cases of their doing so.” He believes that community radio can make a “huge difference” in propagating such causes.

Indura Beach and Golf Resort declined to comment for this story, but in a January 2017 press release the resort stated that it had “all legal permits required by law for the development of the project” and that Global Witness had made “several false allegations.” Indura denied any attempt to force out Garifuna and said it had sought to work hand in hand with local communities.

Partially republished with permission of Mongabay.  Read the full article, Honduras: Indigenous Garifuna use radio to fight for their land

Christopher Clark is a British freelance journalist and filmmaker based in South Africa. Follow him on Twitter @ManRambling.

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