The fight for Vallecito
About five hours southeast of Triunfo de la Cruz, in the department of Colón, a red dirt road cuts through tightly packed rows of tall African palms. Large bunches of the red fruits used to make palm oil, which is exported for the lucrative biofuel industry and a wide variety of consumer products, sporadically dot the roadside.
As the road approaches the Caribbean coast, the expansive plantations finally give way to an open grass clearing. A smattering of mud-brick houses, a communal kitchen and a bumpy soccer field form a rough semicircle around two towering wooden temples with thatched roofs. The temples serve as the centerpiece of the Garifuna community of Vallecito. Behind them, a new wooden structure, which will house Vallecito’s community radio station, is nearing completion.
Like Triunfo de la Cruz, Vallecito is a significant site of Garifuna resistance. In 2012, the Garifuna reclaimed the 980 hectares (2,420 acres) of ancestral lands that comprise the community after almost a decade of struggle against the late palm oil magnate Miguel Facussé, as well as drug-trafficking networks that had infiltrated the area.
According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, Facussé’s company, Dinant, which produces approximately 60 percent of the palm oil in Honduras, was at the center of a “series of bitter and often violent land disputes” in Colón and the neighboring department of Yoro. Between 2009 and 2014, approximately 100 local land activists were murdered.
In an email, Dinant said, “All allegations that Dinant is, or ever has been, engaged in systematic violence against members of communities are without foundation.” The company also said that in recent years it had “invested significantly in modernizing security procedures, environmental practices and community engagement programs.”
But according to Bonta, “enormous environmental and social harm” has arisen from Dinant and other agricultural interests cutting down original forests and replacing them with monocrops that have very low biodiversity. “Like all big projects in Honduras,” Bonta said, these forest conversions “are subject to the worst problem of all: corrupt biologists and scientists who, for large profit, greenwash the environmental impact statements Honduran law requires for projects to be approved.”
Kendra McSweeney, a geography professor at the Ohio State University, has previously stated that drug trafficking has had a similarly detrimental impact to that of big agribusiness in eastern Honduras. “When drug traffickers moved in … they brought ecological devastation with them,” she told Mongabay in 2014. Among other things, the traffickers have cleared large sections of forest to make way for scores of illegal airstrips.
Until recently, one such airstrip existed on the outskirts of Vallecito. “You used to hear the planes landing and taking off almost every night,” Francisca Arreola, who is among approximately 100 residents currently living in Vallecito, told Mongabay.
The clandestine landing strip was destroyed in 2014 after representatives from OFRANEH alerted authorities to its existence. Today, a few deep craters where the Honduran army had planted bombs still mark out the airstrip’s former course. Meanwhile, a cluster of houses beyond the airstrip that Arreola said were once inhabited by traffickers have either been knocked down or taken over by the Garifuna.
In the past few years, OFRANEH has also helped the local community build a secondary school and a large hall for community meetings, as well as the new radio station. Vallecito also boasts an organic vegetable garden and a small coconut plantation. Henry Norales, the community’s head agricultural engineer, believes Vallecito will soon be entirely self-sufficient for all of its nutritional requirements.
Norales added that planting coconut trees and other sustainable crops is also the most effective means of “fighting back” against encroachment on the Garifuna’s land. “Our culture is founded on conservation, on protecting Mother Earth. We need to ensure we can preserve this legacy and pass it on to our children,” he said.
Clinton Martinez, 25, who works for OFRANEH as a youth coach and splits his time between Vallecito and the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, believes that the new radio station will help inculcate this central facet of Garifuna culture in Vallecito’s children. In turn, he hopes this will stem the sizeable tide of young Garifuna who have migrated from small rural communities like Vallecito to Honduras’s major cities, to Mexico and even to the U.S. to escape violence or search for economic opportunity.
“This land is ours,” Martinez said. “We can show our people that it is more than enough. Through the radio, we can encourage them to see that even if they are still afraid of the risks, this land has value and we need to protect it.”
Bonta concurs that fostering a conservationist culture is crucial to the survival of indigenous groups like the Garifuna as well as the well-being of their ancestral lands. “Local communities are the only significant environmental players, period,” he said. “Everything else I’ve seen has failed, except a few private landowners’ projects. Honduras’s communities are still highly autonomous, and this is the saving grace of a failed state where the long arm of corrupt military, law enforcement, and private militaries employed by corporate interests still can’t completely force local communities to submit.”
This story first appeared on Mongabay
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