Nahun Lalin belongs to the Garifuna people and is an activist for the defence of community rights. His struggle began at the end of 2001 and was influenced by an activist mother who was part of the community’s organised groups. “As a child, I used to listen to her telling what was going on in the meetings she attended. As he grew older, Nahun Lalin began to accompany her to these spaces, until he found himself fully involved in the communities.
Nahun Lalin is part of the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH), an organisation that represents the Garifuna people and fights for their social, economic, cultural and territorial rights. Its aim is to eradicate historical injustice and loss of heritage, and to recover and strengthen the cultural identity of these communities. It was born in 1978 -as the Federation of the Garifuna People of Honduras- with the premise of fighting against the racism suffered by the black population working in the banana plantations, and since then, although its functions have changed, it has maintained its objective: to defend the most vulnerable communities through different actions, projects and tools It is important to highlight that OFRANEH was the first grassroots organisation of indigenous peoples in Honduras.
The Garifuna communities arrived on the Atlantic coast of Central America in the 18th century. Spread throughout Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala, they are the result of the crossbreeding of groups from Africa and the Caribbean.
The Garifuna language, which belongs to the Arawak language family, along with dance and music, was proclaimed Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. For years, however, the Garifuna way of life, traditions and culture have been persecuted and threatened. And, in fact, they continue to be so for different reasons.
The proliferation of African palm cultivation -Honduras is the third largest producer and exporter of African palm oil in Latin America and the eighth largest in the world, according to data from the Central Bank of Honduras- and the projection of luxury tourism megaprojects are two of them. Areas such as Triunfo de la Cruz Bay, Barravieja or Ensenada,where Garifuna communities have inhabited the territory for more than a hundred years, are now threatened by ‘development’ megaprojects that destroy natural resources and the communities’ environments. Expropriation and forced displacement are the daily reality for the Garifuna. Those who fight to defend the territory and the community, those who are committed to win-win sustainable development, are criminalised, kidnapped and killed. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activism. In a report published by this organisation in 2017, 120 Honduran environmental activists were killed from 2010 to 2017.
To this must be added the vulnerability of Garifuna communities to climate change -the country has suffered several natural disasters in recent years and this has caused many people to emigrate, especially to the United States-, deterritorialisation and acculturation. In this context, the priority for the inhabitants of these communities is the conservation of their ancestral territory and the preservation of their way of life, identity, traditions and culture.
Because of its work, its commitment and the work it carries out in different areas (Land and Territories, Environment, Identity and Culture, Human Rights, Health, Gender and Political Advocacy), OFRANEH has become a reference organisation in the Afro-indigenous struggle and in the defence of ancestral territory. OFRANEH accompanies communities, defends them legally and strengthens them through projects and different tools. One of the best known projects is the network of Garífuna community radio stations,which works to combat the narrative of the country’s traditional media and to fight against cultural homogenisation. There are currently five Garifuna community radio stations working to counteract the official narrative and promote the involvement of young people in the Garifuna cause.
Throughout all these years of work, OFRANEH has received important awards, such as the “Nota Sol” prize in 2016, which recognises the work of strengthening the culture and development of indigenous peoples; or the “Carlos Escaleras” environmental prize (2016), awarded to Miriam Miranda, coordinator of OFRANEH. Because of her work and her struggle, Miranda has been targeted for years by companies that want to take over the territory and has been threatened on several occasions. She was awarded the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Human Rights Prize in 2019. She claims that“there is a genocide plan against the Garífuna people by the Honduran state“.
Criminalisation, forced disappearances and assassinations of defenders of territory and Garifuna rights are a reality in Honduras. Repression against leaders of Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples is systematic. At the time of writing, the president of the Patronato de la comunidad Garifuna de Triunfo de la Cruz, Albert Snaider Centeno Thomas, is missing.. Also three young community activists: Milton Joel Martínez Álvarez, Suami Aparicio Mejía García and Gerardo Misael Trochez Calix. They disappeared in an operation in the early hours of 18 July 2020, in the middle of a curfew. The Honduran state continues to remain silent on this issue.
Since the state does not investigate these disappearances, it is the Garifuna themselves who are doing so. “We are investigating it ourselves through SUNLA [Committee for the Investigation and Search for the Disappeared of Triunfo de la Cruz, SUNLA for its initials in Garifuna]. This organisation was created with the aim of generating processes of investigation from our own spaces to find the whereabouts and find out what happened to these four people who were kidnapped and those who have already been murdered”, explains Nahun Lalin, an OFRANEH activist.
Honduras is one of the most insecure countries for human rights defenders, as constitutional guarantees are not respected and institutional and police corruption is a reality. Political instability has plunged the country into a deep crisis. The violation of the rights of the Garifuna communities is widely known:on 28 April 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures for the community of Triunfo de la Cruz and asked the Honduran government to adopt the necessary measures to protect this community’s right to ownership of their land. On 8 October 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz and found the Honduran state guilty of violating the community’s right to collective property.
What are the main demands of OFRANEH?
We have several. Firstly, we work for a dignified life for the Garifuna people and we look after the wellbeing of the communities of the villages. Our main focus of work is the defence of the territory, because without the territory, the Garifuna people could disappear. At OFRANEH we also work for the rights of LGBTI communities, for women’s rights and to guarantee intercultural bilingual education.
One of the dangers faced by the Garifuna is the monoculture of African palm.
African palm needs a lot of water and leaves the land unusable. A lot of land here has been burned to plant palm and has contributed to deforestation and water pollution. All this has disastrous consequences for the communities. Monoculture has displaced traditional agricultural production; that is why we defend and insist on the need to continue with the ancestral method of planting, because it is the only thing that allows us to preserve the resources. We continue to sue the companies that promote the cultivation of African palm. There are communities where even cemeteries have been used for palm cultivation. Despite the struggle, the companies do not want to give us back the territory that belongs to us. In Vallecito, we claim 1,200 hectares of land. There we have an arduous struggle against drug trafficking.
What is your relationship with other indigenous peoples?
We not only fight for the rights of Garifuna welfare, but we also support the other indigenous peoples of Honduras. Wherever we are needed as an organisation, we bring our struggle and defend each other. We also support civil society and do what we can. Four years ago there was a student strike at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. The students requested that one of the negotiators to be our colleague Miriam Miranda.
What strategies do you follow to internationalise the Garifuna People’s struggle?
We have networks and organisations that are aware of the deaths, criminalisation and impunity in Honduras. We do everything we can to ensure that other countries keep their eyes on us.
One of the tools of struggle are the Garifuna community radio stations. How many are there and how do they work?
At the moment we have five community radios, but due to various factors, some of them are experiencing technical problems and we only have two working. We are trying to recover the others, because they are an essential tool for our population. We cannot rely on the traditional media, at least the national media. For us, radio has played a very important role, because it is through this tool that we can show what is happening in the different spaces and communities.
What is OFRANEH’s contribution to the development of these radios?
OFRANEH organises them and trains the communities so that they have the autonomy to make their problems known. We also train the technical team. We believe that it is fundamental for communities to be autonomous when it comes to generating information. These radios are run by volunteers.
What impact did the global echo of the assassination of Berta Cáceres in March 2016 haveon Garifuna communities? Did it mark a before and after?
The Berta Cáceres case was a shock, both nationally and internationally. All the indigenous organisations suffered a great loss, as she was a great companion and friend. At the same time, it made us very concerned about the integrity of our coordinator Miriam Miranda.. She has become a stone in the shoe of many businessmen and oligarchs who want to expropriate territories. In our case, many of the comrades who have been murdered have been killed for opposing megaprojects.
The Cáceres murder trial recently took place.
There were three months of trial and many organisations approached the Supreme Court of Justice to demand concrete answers after five years of too many questions. The material authors of the murder were brought to trial, but not the intellectual authors, and that does not satisfy us. We must continue investigating, because more people must be brought to justice for the death of Berta Cáceres. Yes, her face will be stamped on the 200 Lempiras,but that is not justice. We want all our colleagues to be respected in the territories and we want concrete answers to our struggles. And, above all, we want an end to the criminalisation of leaders, one of the modus operandi of the previous government, as well as the persecution of defenders. In recent years, we have had several trials in various parts of the country and there were many defenders who were criminalised and prosecuted for defending territory. They were accused of usurpation. Right now we have 32 comrades on trial in the Trujillo area, elderly leaders imprisoned in inhumane conditions for defending themselves.
What about ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples? Is it not respected?
We use this agreement to defend our identity, our rights and our territory. However, the Honduran state, and many of those who impart justice in this country, seem to be unaware of this agreement. We train the members of our communities to know about it. The United Nations gives us autonomy, but the municipalities and Congress violate our rights and put them at risk when they approve large projects that violate the territories and communities.
Tell me about the missing persons.
24 months since Sneider Centeno, tireless fighter and president of the Patronato de la Comunidad de Triunfo de la Cruz, and four other young people, who were defending their ancestral territory and demanding compliance with the sentence in favour of their community, were violently taken from their homes by people wearing clothes belonging to the Dirección de Policía de Investigación (DPI), the State, through the Attorney General’s Office, denies the Garifuna people’s request to investigate the facts from a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Enforced Disappearances, once again violating the human rights of the relatives of the victims of disappearance, of OFRANEH and SUNLA to obtain information and to carry out a real investigation with a strategy of Search with Life as established by the Convention against enforced disappearances, to which Honduras is a signatory. Let us not forget that the State of Honduras is responsible for the forced disappearance of these people.
In January this year, Xiomara Castro of the Libertad y Refundación party became president of Honduras,. the first woman to do so in 200 years. The first woman to do so in 200 years, do you think she will carry out substantial reforms that will improve the living conditions of the Garifuna people and other minorities?
The change of government gives us hope. We do not have full confidence, but we do expect a number of changes. Even so, we remain vigilant. What we do expect from this new government is that it has empathy and can begin to resolve what the Garifuna communities are demanding.
What is the current priority?
We are currently demanding the recognition of SUNLA in order to be able to investigate what happened in the case of our kidnapped comrades and the more than 120 leaders assassinated in our territories and the defence of our territories.