The Indigenous Speak Out
“The people from the government were astounded when they saw the negotiating capacity and the organizational level of the indigenous communities,” said a priest who accompanied the march to Tegucigalpa by 3000 Honduran Indians.
Six of Honduras' seven original ethnic groups participated in the indigenous pilgrimage that shook Tegucigalpa in July.
The pilgrimage began in different parts of the country, and as it wove towards the capital it awoke the sympathy, curiosity and suspicion of Hondurans along the way. It represents a historical step of unity among the Lenca, Tolupán, Miskito, Tawahka, Pech and Garífuna peoples, to express their reality, needs and proposals for change in a coordinated way to the white and mestizo population and the Honduran government. The 72 demands the indigenous demonstrators brought to Tegucigalpa emerged from specific struggles of each ethnic group.
To assure that their demands were heard, the 3,000 pilgrims camped for a week in the shadow of the Legislative Palace, while a 14 member team of their representatives negotiated their unified proposal with the top level government commission named by President Carlos Roberto Reina to hear the demands.
The pilgrimage took place at a very difficult economic moment for the Reina government. Why hold the march now? "That's what the President asked us," noted Miriam Mirana, a Garífuna participant. "The truth is that the movement responds to historical and current problems in the communities and is a new milestone. We indigenous simply cannot endure any more."
The Lencas SpeakThe impetus for the march began in the west of the country (the departments of Intibucá, La Paz and Lempira), home to the Lencas, some 90,000 people.
The Lencas' situation captured national attention in 1993, when various cases of death from acute malnutrition were diagnosed in Yamaranguila. "We decided to join the pilgrimage because we want to propose long term solutions. We want political changes and participation in decision making. It's not enough that food is donated to us," said a young Lenca leader.
The Lencas demanded the fulfillment of previous accords with the government related to the protection of forests (still only on paper), the creation of a new municipality called San Francisco de Opalaca in the north of Yamaranguila, and the building of schools and roads to connect the areas where the Lencas live to other better connected communities in the Intibucá department.
The Pechs and Tolupans SpeakThe Tolupans, whose 27 tribes are also known as Xicaques live mainly in the northern department of Yoro, came to the capital to demand the investigation of 21 murders and 3 disappearances of men and women from their community. Among those murdered was Vicente Matute, founder of the Federation of Xicaques Tribes of Yoro (FETRIXY), assassinated in 1992 just a few days before the 500 year commemoration, when his organization was trying to defend their communal lands in a zone of conflicts between the indigenous people and big landowners.
The Tolupans demand an immediate and definitive solution to the usurpation of their lands by cattle owners, big landlords and ladino peasants. They want their lands cleared out and resurveyed.
The approximately 2,000 Pech people live in the eastern department of Olancho, and demand the same: recognition of their ancestral claims to the lands.
The Miskitos and Tawahkas SpeakThe Miskitos some 40,000 indigenous people in eastern Honduras also brought up the problem of land titles and in addition demanded labor training and compensation for the dangerous diving young Miskitos do for the fishing companies of the Atlantic. That work has cost the lives of more than 100 young men in the last five years and left 400 permanently disabled. The divers risk their lives by diving into deep waters without the appropriate equipment to earn 45 cents per pound of lobster and other shellfish, later sold in US markets at lucrative prices.
With a population of less than 1,000, the Tawahkas (Sumus in Nicaragua) are the most reduced aboriginal people in Honduras and according to some, are in danger of total extinction. Neighbors of the Miskitos, the Tawahkas demand improvements in education with a plan of professionalization for empirical teachers.
The Garífunas SpeakTogether with the Tawahkas and Miskitos, the 250,000 Garífunas proposed to the government a special budget to be administered in coordination with their communities to protect the Biosphere Reserve on the Platano River, a region considered the "lungs" of the western hemisphere. The area is already protected by law, but, as the Garífunas point out, the constant migration of ladinos and landless peasants to that zone is destroying it.
The Garífunas stated that tourism is a constant threat to their communities. Their lands, located on extremely attractive beaches, have caught the attention of foreign and national investors, who propose tourism as a national economic development alternative. Citing the International Labor Organization's Agreement 169, of which Honduras is a signatory, the Garífunas denounced the usurpation of their beaches for tourist goals without the community's consent. They also oppose the installation of an oil refinery in the city of Trujillo and demand direct participation in the debated Cochino Cay development project.
An Effective ExampleAccording to a Catholic priest who celebrated one of the masses that formed an essential part of the march's mystique, the indigenous movement offers Honduras an example of effective and participatory effort. "The government people were left open mouthed when they saw the negotiating ability and organizational level of these communities," he said.
The pressure of 3,000 people meeting, eating, sleeping, being interviewed by the press, receiving solidarity in the form of food and medicine and organizing traditional dances in the center of Tegucigalpa moved the government to negotiate. President Reina put together an emergency commission, made up of the Minister of Culture, the Director of the National Agrarian Institute and the manager of the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation, among others. A follow up commission was also organized, with representatives from the Ministries of Government and Justice, Public Health, Communications, Public Works and Transport, Culture and Tourism, Natural Resources and Environment.
A Partial SuccessAlthough the President declared that he would concede to everything the indigenous asked for, the action plan prepared by the Emergency Presidential Commission excluded one of the main demands: a 30 year moratorium on access to the forest so the flora and fauna can regenerate. It only declared an "emergency" in the departments of Intibucá, La Paz and Lempira, suspending lumber cutting in that region while a Special Commission investigates the situation. The indigenous had also asked that the governor of Intibucá and the municipal mayor of Yamaranguila by removed from their posts together with Vice President Juan de la Cruz Avelar, whom they accuse of being the main plunderer of the area's forests. This, too, did not happen.
Despite the omissions, the indigenous leaders expressed their satisfaction with the following achievements: accords signed to legalize their community lands, investigate human rights violations, and include indigenous representatives on commissions with policy decision making power and various infrastructure works. For the Lencas, the creation of the new municipality of San Francisco de Opalaca was a significant and concrete achievement.
Only one incident stained the pilgrimage's peaceful character. During the final mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa, patron of Honduras, which the President and First Lady attended, a man attacked the congregation with a machete, injuring seven Lencas. Although the attacker, himself an indigenous participant in the pilgrimage, declared that his violence was due to alcohol, march organizers did not dismiss the possibility of planned sabotage to sully their image. They are no longer invisible.
Many short and long term challenges still remain. The first is fulfillment of the agreements, which will require sustained follow up ability by the aboriginal people and honesty on the part of the Reina government.
Land: A Shared ProblemIt is a fragile balance. Garífuna leader Horacio Martínez recalls that his people have been accused of exhausting natural resources such as fish on the Atlantic Coast, when the business and tourist sectors are really the ones exploiting the sea. Environmental protection, argue the indigenous, should not bring with it the destruction of their communities and their forms of life.
The problem is complex. Peasants in Honduras are always looking for land to plant on, sparking an internal migration that threatens indigenous communal lands. The main organizational challenge to all poor Hondurans, indigenous or not, is to find a shared strategy in the face of the greater problem: concentration of land in the hands of a few.
This challenge will take the movement beyond the needs of the moment and convert specific achievements into pieces of a long term social alternative. The indigenous people offer various elements to the construction of this alternative; multicultural respect, the implementation of new strategies of grassroots participation and the recovery of a voice with roots in its own history.
The presence of the indigenous in Tegucigalpa was a loud knock on everyone's conscience. It broke through the ethnic groups' invisibility and silence in their own country, challenging the notion that the Honduran population is homogenous and demanding that racism and simple sentimental folklorism be overcome.