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  • Children from Garifuna community in Roatan, Honduras, play on the beach, March 17, 2009.

    Children from Garifuna community in Roatan, Honduras, play on the beach, March 17, 2009. | Photo: EFE

Published 23 February 2017

Garifuna communities face discrimination and land exploitation in Honduras, but when they reach the U.S., another set of problems arises.

The white sand beaches and humid, 80 degree weather in Trujillo, Honduras, on the country’s northern Caribbean coast, is what Jose Francisco Avila calls a “million-dollar view.” But this paradise for the foreigners now flooding Honduras’ coastline tells a different story for Garifuna communities from Trujillo, including Avila’s family.

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As Hondurans of African descent, Garifunas have faced discrimination within Honduran society for centuries. Now, real estate developers are infringing on their homes along the pristine coastline, hoping to evict them to cash in on the country’s growing tourism industry. This land exploitation, along with historic marginalization and growing insecurity in Honduras, is causing a Garifuna exodus, particularly among youth and mothers with children.

“What are tourists looking for? Sand and sun. Where is that located? In the Caribbean, right in the heart of the Garifuna community,” said Avila, chairman for the board of the Garifuna Coalition USA in New York.

Avila migrated to Boston with his family in the 1960s looking for better opportunities. Once there, he struggled to fit in with his Black friends who didn’t understand why his last name was Avila and Latino friends who saw him differently because of the color of his skin.

Now, another wave of Garifuna migrants are arriving in the U.S. Again, their struggles are being erased as they are lumped into larger regional security and immigration trends.

In recent years, there has been a focus on migration from Central America, particularly minors and women with children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, who are fleeing gang violence. Many from Garifuna communities in Honduras, also youth and women with children, are fleeing their homeland as well, but their experiences differ in a few key ways.

These communities, which already face historic discrimination, are being increasingly threatened by drug traffickers and tourism developers, both looking to cash in on their land in sought-after, remote locations.

“(Migration) has to do with where we are located geographically in the northern coast and also with the problem of drug trafficking,” said Zulma Valencia de Suazo of the Organization of Ethnic Community Development, known as ODECO. “When foreigners come and buy land and build hotels and development projects, the local communities don’t benefit. In the drug trafficking corridor, families are threatened and they try to coopt the young people so that they serve them in their illicit operations.”

Garifuna communities arrived in Honduras hundreds of years ago, first settling in Roatan Island in the 18th century after a group of slaves either escaped from nearby Caribbean Islands or was shipwrecked. From there, these communities eventually moved to the Honduran mainland, settling on the Caribbean coast.

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As tourism increases in Honduras, the relatively untouched coastline where Garifuna communities live has skyrocketed in value. Developers want to get their hands on Garifuna land at all costs, without any respect for the centuries-long traditions of these Afro-Honduran communities.

One example is the Barra Vieja community on Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast, where a recent luxury tourism complex is working to kick out 157 Garifuna families, which they refer to as “illegal squatters.” According to a Global Witness report, the Barra Vieja community has been the victim of forced evictions and threats, carried out with the support of former Minister of Tourism Ricardo Martinez Castañeda.

It’s just not hotel developers that are threatening these communities. Land in the area is also highly-coveted for the expansion of private African oil palm plantations, which threaten to displace Garfiuna and campesino communities. And as drug trafficking networks in Colombia have been cut off, drug traffickers have had to find new routes, and they’ve chosen Central America, particularly Honduras.

Garifuna land is prime real estate to carry out their operations since they are often in remote areas with little government presence. This has increased security problems in Garifuna communities and made youth particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation, according to Valencia de Suazo.

This danger and exploitation — along with lack of development resources for services such as education and health allocated to Garifuna communities by the Honduran government — is enough to make the risky journey to the U.S. seem like a more appealing option than staying in Honduras.

“We have always been discriminated against and made invisible in the development process of Honduras,” said Valencia de Suazo of ODECO. “More mothers with children and youth (are now migrating) because of the lack of opportunities.”

Garifuna people, such as Avila, have migrated to the U.S. for decades, likely as far back as the 1930s. As Black immigrants in the U.S, Garifuna confront different challenges than other Latino migrants often face.

Avila’s family arrived in Boston during a tense time for race-relations. Soon after he arrived, the city rolled out a controversial school desegregation plan that led to riots. As white families began to move outside of the city to avoid sending their children to public schools, all the houses on his block gradually filled up with other Black families.

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But this didn’t make Avila feel more welcome in the U.S., where both Black and Latino communities considered him an outsider. When Garifuna migrants flee to the U.S., they again face discrimination after they are ostracized by both Black and Latino communities.

“We (Garifuna immigrants) have difficulties blending in with the African-Americans and we have difficulties blending in with the Latinos,” Avila said. “That experience has become more complicated now for the new immigrants, especially when they come undocumented, because they still have to deal with the racial and language issues, but now there is the complexity of not having documents.”

Now, through the Garifuna Coalition USA, Avila works with youth from Garifuna communities who arrive in the U.S. at about the same age as when he arrived decades ago. He sees them facing the same issues he faced, remarking with a hint of cynicism that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

For Garifuna communities in Honduras, the fight against discrimination and land exploitation continues. Through ODECO, Valencia de Suazo continues to advocate for development and social programs for Garifuna communities so that they can stay on their lands while enjoying a decent quality of life.

“People look for a better quality of life. That’s why they migrate, with whole families risking death on the journey and paying thousands of dollars to be able to move,” said Valencia de Suazo. “If people had a source of employment and basic services like health and education, they wouldn’t have to migrate.”

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