Central America / Inequality
The Fishermen Who Defend the Land
Carlos Barrera

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Carlos Barrera

 

Edición en español

The Garifuna nation encompasses 65 communities spanning the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Fifty-two of them live in Honduras, subsisting mostly on small-scale fishing and the harvesting of plantains and coconuts. Among them is the village Nueva Armenia, 25 miles east of La Ceiba, the capital of the department of Atlántida.

These communities ardently defend the land and the sea, a primary source of sustenance. In 2003 they went to international court to denounce the plundering of land by the Honduran state and private companies looking to build tourism hubs or plant African palm.

The fishing village Nueva Armenia encapsulates the problems facing the Garifuna nation in Honduras. The community is surrounded by palm plantations, the delta of the Papaloteca River, and the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea. Established in the municipality of Jutiapa since 1900, it inherited its name from the colonial settlement Armenia. Local elders say the community was displaced to the river delta when the Standard Fruit Company seized Garifuna ancestral land.

Ancestral Garifuna territory in Nueva Armenia spans 4,000 acres, now mostly in the hands of palm plantation owners and foreigners, according to the local Land Defense Committee. The theft of the land has devastated the community, compounded by mining, unemployment, and authorities’ prohibition of fishing near the archipelago Cayos Cochinos, under the argument of environmental conservation. Leaders of the centuries-old community face persecution and harassment for defending what has been theirs for generations: the land.

 

 

When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, the Papaloteca River delta expanded and swallowed the Garifuna fishing village Nueva Armenia. The community is surrounded by Mestizo settlements whose inhabitants the Garifuna call “Ladinos.” Residents of Nueva Armenia subsist on fishing and agriculture, trades made increasingly difficult due to global climate change.
 
When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, the Papaloteca River delta expanded and swallowed the Garifuna fishing village Nueva Armenia. The community is surrounded by Mestizo settlements whose inhabitants the Garifuna call “Ladinos.” Residents of Nueva Armenia subsist on fishing and agriculture, trades made increasingly difficult due to global climate change.

 

 

Nueva Armenia’s Land Defense Committee leads the community, distributing recovered ancestral lands. Every plot is given a name and each resident is assigned a space to build a home. The Committee holds that the land belongs to all and neighbors resolve space disputes among themselves. Abandoned by the Honduran state, the Committee has built health clinics using ancestral medicine.
 
Nueva Armenia’s Land Defense Committee leads the community, distributing recovered ancestral lands. Every plot is given a name and each resident is assigned a space to build a home. The Committee holds that the land belongs to all and neighbors resolve space disputes among themselves. Abandoned by the Honduran state, the Committee has built health clinics using ancestral medicine.

 

 

Clenny David, 34, wades through swampland in a patch of Garifuna ancestral land called Africa, where men and women from Nueva Armenia gather wood from fallen trees to build ancestral health clinics. Soaked in the humid heat, the men chop wood while the women carry it to rafts to be transported to the community.
 
Clenny David, 34, wades through swampland in a patch of Garifuna ancestral land called Africa, where men and women from Nueva Armenia gather wood from fallen trees to build ancestral health clinics. Soaked in the humid heat, the men chop wood while the women carry it to rafts to be transported to the community.

 

 

Santos Yanes oversees harvests on an African palm plantation. He dislikes his job — not because of the physical strain, but because he is keenly aware that palm crops leave the land infertile. “I have a family to feed,” he says. “I lost everything in last year’s hurricanes, so I have no choice but to serve the plantation owners. I have to take care of my children.”
 
Santos Yanes oversees harvests on an African palm plantation. He dislikes his job — not because of the physical strain, but because he is keenly aware that palm crops leave the land infertile. “I have a family to feed,” he says. “I lost everything in last year’s hurricanes, so I have no choice but to serve the plantation owners. I have to take care of my children.”

 

 

Justa Robledo (middle), María Robledo, and Víctor Sacasa take a break on the beach known as Africa in Nueva Armenia during the community’s morning labors to gather wood. Communal work has galvanized the Garifuna locals, helping them recover land stolen from them in the 1990s. “There is still more territory left to recover,” says Justa.
 
Justa Robledo (middle), María Robledo, and Víctor Sacasa take a break on the beach known as Africa in Nueva Armenia during the community’s morning labors to gather wood. Communal work has galvanized the Garifuna locals, helping them recover land stolen from them in the 1990s. “There is still more territory left to recover,” says Justa.

 

 

Cousins Martina Martínez, 94, Calixta Martínez, 85, and Teófila Martínez, 92, were born and raised in Nueva Armenia. They say that the problems facing the community are reminiscent of the days of the United Fruit Company. “Back then we lived in poverty due to the corruption of those in power, like today. Look how things turned out for the narco Juan Orlando [Hernández].” says Martina. She learned English when she was young, while working in the home of a family from the United States. All three of the women speak their native Garifuna language, as well as Spanish.
 
Cousins Martina Martínez, 94, Calixta Martínez, 85, and Teófila Martínez, 92, were born and raised in Nueva Armenia. They say that the problems facing the community are reminiscent of the days of the United Fruit Company. “Back then we lived in poverty due to the corruption of those in power, like today. Look how things turned out for the narco Juan Orlando [Hernández].” says Martina. She learned English when she was young, while working in the home of a family from the United States. All three of the women speak their native Garifuna language, as well as Spanish.

 

 

Like most Garifuna men, Jesús Flores, 63, has spent his whole life fishing and diving for lobsters. Twenty-one years ago, on January 27, 2001, as he was fishing near the Cayos Cochinos, a boat of three soldiers drew near. Without asking questions, they shot him in the arm. “I still remember the sound of the bullet striking the wood of my canoe. Then I felt heat and saw blood spilling out,” he says, his eyes glossing over. His fingers never worked again, and those responsible for the attack were never arrested.
 
Like most Garifuna men, Jesús Flores, 63, has spent his whole life fishing and diving for lobsters. Twenty-one years ago, on January 27, 2001, as he was fishing near the Cayos Cochinos, a boat of three soldiers drew near. Without asking questions, they shot him in the arm. “I still remember the sound of the bullet striking the wood of my canoe. Then I felt heat and saw blood spilling out,” he says, his eyes glossing over. His fingers never worked again, and those responsible for the attack were never arrested.

 

 

Divers scour the nine miles of ocean separating Cayo Chachahuate from the mainland village Nueva Armenia for lobsters, a key economic boon for local Garifuna communities. They often work at night, when the crustaceans are most active and they can avoid the Coast Guard. The cays also offer refuge for fishermen when storms roll in. Cayo Bolaño is the most popular spot for resting and taking shelter, but harassment from the military often prevents fishermen from landing there.
 
Divers scour the nine miles of ocean separating Cayo Chachahuate from the mainland village Nueva Armenia for lobsters, a key economic boon for local Garifuna communities. They often work at night, when the crustaceans are most active and they can avoid the Coast Guard. The cays also offer refuge for fishermen when storms roll in. Cayo Bolaño is the most popular spot for resting and taking shelter, but harassment from the military often prevents fishermen from landing there.

 

 

Luis Martínez, 19, was deported three times while migrating to the United States. He works as a divers’ assistant, waiting for hours in the solitude of the ocean until his companions surface. Sometimes he naps underneath the midday sun. At first he vomited constantly as he struggled to find his sea legs. “Last time they deported me I was in Monterrey, but for people like me it’s impossible to fly under the radar in other countries,” he says. “I don’t like my job, but I have no other choice.”
 
Luis Martínez, 19, was deported three times while migrating to the United States. He works as a divers’ assistant, waiting for hours in the solitude of the ocean until his companions surface. Sometimes he naps underneath the midday sun. At first he vomited constantly as he struggled to find his sea legs. “Last time they deported me I was in Monterrey, but for people like me it’s impossible to fly under the radar in other countries,” he says. “I don’t like my job, but I have no other choice.”

 

 

In a single day, Garifuna divers can gather up to six pounds of lobster to be sold to a food processing company for a total of $26. Teams share the earnings. Sometimes the Coast Guard confiscates the product, on the argument that it was collected in protected areas of the Cayos Cochinos.
 
In a single day, Garifuna divers can gather up to six pounds of lobster to be sold to a food processing company for a total of $26. Teams share the earnings. Sometimes the Coast Guard confiscates the product, on the argument that it was collected in protected areas of the Cayos Cochinos.

 

 

 

 

Teófilo Alexis Martínez Arzú, 36, goes by Lala. He started fishing when he was 12 and diving at 27. His eyes gloss over and his countenance changes as he recalls multiple encounters with the Coast Guard who, in keeping with the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, prohibits the Garifuna from fishing, a centuries-old ancestral practice. Once he was jailed in La Ceiba for fishing near the cays. On another occasion, he saw guardsmen interrupt a break from work on Cayo Culebra and beat his companions.
 
Teófilo Alexis Martínez Arzú, 36, goes by Lala. He started fishing when he was 12 and diving at 27. His eyes gloss over and his countenance changes as he recalls multiple encounters with the Coast Guard who, in keeping with the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, prohibits the Garifuna from fishing, a centuries-old ancestral practice. Once he was jailed in La Ceiba for fishing near the cays. On another occasion, he saw guardsmen interrupt a break from work on Cayo Culebra and beat his companions.

 

 

 

Fishermen and divers meet every afternoon near the dock to play table games as they await their turn to work. Most prefer to take care of business in the morning, but on slow days they often work twice as long to make ends meet. Those who set off for work at 6 p.m. do not return until morning.
 
Fishermen and divers meet every afternoon near the dock to play table games as they await their turn to work. Most prefer to take care of business in the morning, but on slow days they often work twice as long to make ends meet. Those who set off for work at 6 p.m. do not return until morning.

 

 

In 1998 Hurricane Mitch changed the lay of the land in Nueva Armenia as tributaries of the Papaloteca River sliced through parts of the communities. Every winter the community continues to reel from the disaster as flooding threatens to swallow homes.
 
In 1998 Hurricane Mitch changed the lay of the land in Nueva Armenia as tributaries of the Papaloteca River sliced through parts of the communities. Every winter the community continues to reel from the disaster as flooding threatens to swallow homes.

 

 

Left to right: Joel, Elvin, Nixon, Jaicol, David, and Dylan. Amid the pandemic they attend class part-time in Nueva Armenia and play youth soccer on the Club Deportivo Garinagu Wagia, known as “We The Garifunas.” Local teacher Iván Figueroa founded the club to keep children occupied during the pandemic after the school closed. The club also passes on traditions like the Garifuna language and music and instills discipline and respect.
 
Left to right: Joel, Elvin, Nixon, Jaicol, David, and Dylan. Amid the pandemic they attend class part-time in Nueva Armenia and play youth soccer on the Club Deportivo Garinagu Wagia, known as “We The Garifunas.” Local teacher Iván Figueroa founded the club to keep children occupied during the pandemic after the school closed. The club also passes on traditions like the Garifuna language and music and instills discipline and respect.

 

 

 

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, sisters Daisy and Janira halted their studies in Nueva Armenia to help their mother sell casabe, traditional Garifuna cassava tortillas. Honduran authorities say 40 percent of the nation’s children dropped out of school during the pandemic. Access to education in Garifuna communities, as in the rest of Honduras, is precarious at best. Due to family hardships, many children have not returned to hybrid online and in-person classes.
 
When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, sisters Daisy and Janira halted their studies in Nueva Armenia to help their mother sell casabe, traditional Garifuna cassava tortillas. Honduran authorities say 40 percent of the nation’s children dropped out of school during the pandemic. Access to education in Garifuna communities, as in the rest of Honduras, is precarious at best. Due to family hardships, many children have not returned to hybrid online and in-person classes.

 

 

The Papaloteca River cuts through the municipality of Jutiapa, meanders through palm fields, and flows into the ocean at Nueva Armenia, providing potable water to local communities. Private businesses look to extract sand and rocks for construction projects, leading the river to overflow in the winter and flood small plantain and cassava fields. Many families have been unable to replant their crops since the Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Honduras in November 2020.
 
The Papaloteca River cuts through the municipality of Jutiapa, meanders through palm fields, and flows into the ocean at Nueva Armenia, providing potable water to local communities. Private businesses look to extract sand and rocks for construction projects, leading the river to overflow in the winter and flood small plantain and cassava fields. Many families have been unable to replant their crops since the Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Honduras in November 2020.

 

 

Mabel Robledo, 34, is the leader of the Nueva Armenia Land Defense Committee. She organizes the construction of ancestral health clinics and actions to defend the land. She resigned from the Honduran National Police after facing workplace harassment for her activism. Now she runs a business selling santería products and is attending law school. “We must defend our land out of love,” she says. “We’re carrying on with our ancestors’ struggle. Many sacrificed their lives, and if we have to, we will, too.”
 
Mabel Robledo, 34, is the leader of the Nueva Armenia Land Defense Committee. She organizes the construction of ancestral health clinics and actions to defend the land. She resigned from the Honduran National Police after facing workplace harassment for her activism. Now she runs a business selling santería products and is attending law school. “We must defend our land out of love,” she says. “We’re carrying on with our ancestors’ struggle. Many sacrificed their lives, and if we have to, we will, too.”

 

 

According to the Land Defense Committee, Atlántida palm company plantations span more than 270 acres surrounding Nueva Armenia, some of them on Garifuna land. The leaders of the committee say that the voracious palm crops leave the soil barren.
 
According to the Land Defense Committee, Atlántida palm company plantations span more than 270 acres surrounding Nueva Armenia, some of them on Garifuna land. The leaders of the committee say that the voracious palm crops leave the soil barren.

 

*Translated by Roman Gressier

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