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CENTRAL AMERICA: Garifunas Set Sights on Ecotourism

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

TEGUCIGALPA, Dec 23 2006 (IPS) - The Garífuna communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America are placing their bets on ecological tourism as a means to escape poverty, which they say has been worsened by free trade policies.

The Garífunas are descendants of escaped African slaves who mixed with indigenous Caribs on St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean Sea. Their language combines words and grammar of West Africa with the Caribbean’s Arauak dialect, and some French, English and Spanish.

An estimated four million Afro-descendants live in Central America – around 10 percent of the region’s total population of 38.7 million.

“The vortex of free trade has entrapped us and leaves us smaller and smaller spaces for inclusion and cultural preservation,” Celeo Alvarez Casildo, president of the Black Central American Organisation (ONECA), told Tierramérica.

“They tell us that free trade will boost tourism. But what we see is a fight for land and the displacement of ecological tourism by other businesses, which includes privatising public beaches, isolating the tourist from the rich Garífuna culture,” said Alvarez.

ONECA held its 12th annual assembly in recent weeks, and the priority on the agenda was the challenges posed by free trade agreements and discrimination.

The Central American black delegates agreed to manage and promote environmentally friendly tourism projects that would allow them to obtain land titles, higher-quality education, growth of micro-enterprise and preservation of their culture.

“The Garífuna culture is not a predator of the environment. We believe that a mechanism to survive the free trade treaties with dignity is to train our people in ecotourism,” Alvarez said.

Although in Honduras the privatisation of beaches is not legal, in practice, it is nearly impossible for Honduran tourists to enjoy the public ones – most are utilised by hotel complexes.

In Central America, tourism generates 4.2 billion dollars annually, according to the Honduran Institute of Tourism. The country with highest tourism revenues is Costa Rica, at more than 1.34 billion dollars. In the rest of the region: El Salvador, 425 million dollars; Guatemala 770 million; Honduras, 410 million; Nicaragua, 167 million; and Panama, 906 million dollars.

Costa Rica is also the one that has the most developed ecotourism sector. In Honduras, over the past two years the World Bank has supported a Sustainable Coastal Tourism project, particularly in the department of Atlántida, where the black population is most heavily concentrated.

Since 1797, amidst disputes with the French, the British deported the Garífuna to the uninhabited island of St. Vincent. From there, they rapidly spread out along Central America’s Atlantic coast, where they still live today.

In general they work in the fishing industry, food sales, tourism and as sailors on ships. Their human development indices are among the region’s most precarious.

The Honduran National Institute of Statistics reports that the Garífuna and black English-speaking communities have relatively high rates of literacy, with four to nine percent being illiterate.

In Nicaragua, of the population of 5.3 million, around 300,000 are Garífuna who live in the most isolated areas of the Atlantic coast, where four to 17 percent of households have electricity, compared to the national average of 49 percent, according to World Bank figures.

“It is urgent to ensure the land ownership of the Garífunas, given that there are communities who have had to sell their land on the beaches at low cost, as a result of ignorance and discrimination,” said community attorney Gautama Fonseca.

“Gradually, some speculators appropriate the Garífuna lands, paying ridiculously low prices, and then turn the land into vast wealth by selling it to the investors, to the foreign hotel chains,” said Fonseca.

Miriam Miranda, of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organisation, said the Central American Garífunas should participate actively “in the trade treaties within the alternative tourism policies, to avoid being marginalised, like they are now.”

“In many Central America countries the political participation of Afro-descendants is extremely low,” Miranda told Tierramérica.

In Costa Rica, for example, this year there were no Garífuna representatives in the national Legislative Assembly, unlike in previous terms, according to ONECA. Meanwhile, in Honduras, for the first time in a half-century there are five Garífunas in Parliament.

Of the seven million people in Honduras, more than 300,000 are Garífunas, considered one of the country’s seven native ethnic groups.

They are concentrated primarily in the Caribbean coastal departments of Atlántida, Cortés and Colón. Although 98 percent of the Garífuna population has completed primary school, just 17 percent have completed secondary school, and only three percent of those go on to university, according to official figures.

(*Thelma Mejía is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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