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Bearing Witness: In Honduras, Garifuna women fight climate change & state violence

Ed. note: This post is part of a series, “Bearing Witness,” highlighting indigenous women fighting for climate justice in the Americas. Read the rest of the series here.

When children in the United States learn about the transatlantic slave trade, they rarely hear stories of revolt or resilience in the face of violence and cultural erasure. The Garifuna are such a people.

The Garifuna are a recognized Afro-indigenous people living on the coast of Belize, Nicaragua, and Honduras, descended from enslaved and shipwrecked Africans and the Carib indigenous people they mixed with. Doubly marginalized as Black and indigenous, they resisted slavery and have faced violence and discrimination from all angles.

And they’re still fighting today — for land, resources, and their own safety —  in spite of state violence, climate disasters, development and resource extraction projects.

Since 2009, the Honduran government has issued an unprecedented number of natural resource concessions, selling off its resources in order to pay off massive debts. But in most cases, the government has not consulted indigenous people living on the affected land. For example, in 2013 the British multinational corporation BG Group was given the rights to drill off the coast of Moskitia without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Garifuna and other indigenous peoples who have lived their for years. The Garifuna and Miskitu only saw the contract months after it had been signed.

When their land isn’t being threatened by oil drilling, the Garifuna are fighting off Canadian touristic development, ranchers, and even nature conservancies who would protect Honduras’ world-renowned coral reefs at the expense of the people who live off these ecosystems. The irony is that at the same time that certain Garifuna communities are being violently banned from their traditional fishing practices in order to protect natural capital for the tourist industry, others are forced to challenge oil exploration they fear could damage coral reefs and kill the sea life they live off of. These competing forces have lead to an increasingly militarized presence along the coasts: it’s not uncommon for Garifuna fisher people to go out in a boat and never come back.

Garifuna_PullQuoteIn response, the Garifuna (often led by women) have set up camps and occupations on land which multinational corporations, government forces, and drug cartels are trying to appropriate from them. Miriam Miranda, director of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (known by its Spanish acronym, OFRANEH) works with Garifuna communities who are fighting displacement. In an interview with Upside Down World, she talks about Triunfo de la Cruz, a coastal community from which the Garifuna are being displaced. “The marvelous women comrades in Triunfo de la Cruz, Garífuna women, many of them elders, have incredible strength. They participate in meetings, in actions, tearing down walls that are built on the beach. They’re sustaining the Garífuna youth so that they know who they are, without shame. They’re producing the cassava that is our staple food.”

Even Garifuna communities that have been able to hold on to their land already feel the impact of environmental change. Their subsistence culture is being threatened by development and oil drilling as biomarine life in the coral reefs is destroyed and the coconut trees disappear. This deforestation leads to erosion, which hurts local fisheries and increases the frequency and strength of climate disasters, making it almost impossible to grow cassava.

These storms make it difficult for anything to survive on the coast — crop or human. As it stands, six Garifuna communities are at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of climate disasters. According to a report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Honduras is one of the countries most at-risk when it comes to climate change-related deaths, and the Garifuna traditionally live in some of the most risky areas: 28 out of the 47 Garifuna communities are found in protected zones. Many communities are finding it more and more difficult to stay, and are forced to relocate to regions that are even more isolated, with fewer resources available.

Because of the increasing poverty, food scarcity, and climate disasters, Garifuna men have begun leaving to seek work in the cities, and many have joined the mass exodus of Central Americans making the dangerous trip north to the United States. The task of feeding and caring for the remaining community members then falls on women, who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change on their communities. Living quite literally on the frontlines of the crisis, they have been some of the first to respond, by replanting coconut trees and mangrove forests to fight erosion along the rivers and create natural barriers against rising sea levels and encroaching sand dunes.

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Miriam Miranda, director of OFRANEH, is a leader in the Garifuna’s fight for climate justice. (Photo by Felipe Canova.)

“Women [everywhere are] defending life, culture, and territories, opposing a model of death that grows stronger each day. We are at the front of the avalanche of attacks,” says Miranda. “We’re at the front not only with our bodies but also with our force, our ideas, our proposals. We don’t only birth children, but ideas and actions as well.”

In matrifocal societies like the Garifuna, women are in charge of passing on and protecting ancestral lands, a responsibility which has become increasingly important as their lands are threatened by disasters, drug cartels, and land barons. Women have become experts in organizing their people, cultivating family networks and community alliances to stand up to government powers and multinational companies.

But their activism comes at a violent cost and many Garifuna activists have been threatened, kidnapped, or hurt for their activism. As women’s leadership has increased, so has gender-based violence: in 2012 an Arms Survey Report named Honduras as the country with the seventh highest femicide rate in the world. Miranda herself has been kidnapped and organizers live in constant fear of violence from land barons, drug traffickers, extractive industries, local businessmen, and state officials with financial ties to traffickers or corporations.

Garifuna women are fighting to protect their culture and communities but it’s only enough to slightly delay the effects of development, resource extraction, and climate change. The work to permanently stop those processes in their tracks — well, that’s on us. That’s on those of us living in countries with the highest rates of consumption per capita in the world, the countries that have contributed disproportionate amounts of carbon to the atmosphere yet refuse to make meaningfully efforts to curb their fossil fuel industries. It’s up to those of us with financial resources to use petitions, protests, sit-ins, and Twitter bombs to demand that global leaders at this month’s climate talks stop allowing multinational corporations to put their profits before the people of the Global South.

Header image by Felipe Canova

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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