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Gari-News » Garífuna United for Progress: A week after Hurricane Michelle, 3 years after Hurricane Mitch
Nov 07, 2001

When tropical Storm #15 and Hurricane Michelle bloated the Aguan River
last week, Amada Solano called from the Santa Rosa de Aguan to report that,
once again, the town was cut off, areas flooded, the sea had carved away at
the coastline and two houses had fallen into its waves. The raging waters
of the river converted the road into a veritable waterfall, which in its
wake left a gigantic hole — even before one gets to the uncrossable
‘plancha', or the low cement crossing of a river, which remains invisible, under many
feet of the fast moving river.

While the more central towns which, unfortunately, suffered from
flooding, show up in the daily papers and on t.v., there are other communities,
equally affected but more isolated, which fail to receive sufficient
attention and help. According to reports sent into the radio or by
phone, Sangrelaya and Cocalito in the municipality of Iriona had 85 houses
flooded, problems with contaminated water, and the loss of 150 manioc fields, 70
rice fields, 28 corn fields, and 10 cows. Other villages, too, reported
flooded homes: San Jose de la Punta with 45, Tocamacho with 35, Punta Piedra
with 20. The isolated coastal Garífuna villages in the region were
reporting problems in the loss of crops and worries over hunger.

These recent storms only underlined how Aguan, in particular, was left
vulnerable after all the damage done by Hurricane Mitch, 3 years ago.
Secundina Ramos, who lost her house there in the deadly Mitch,
explained how the canoe which was rescuing her from the raging river went under: "I
grabbed a child, swam with one arm, they threw us a rope, and hauled us
to the river's edge. But 9 others, of the 16 who were in the canoe with
me, drowned." One can never fully recover from the loss of life of a
friend, colleague or family member. Nevertheless, some of the material damage
is being addressed, little by little, by a group of Garífunas which formed
in October, 1998. In the aftermath of Mitch, they united to create the
Comité de Emergencia Garífuna de Honduras, a non-profit non-governmental
organization based in Trujillo, Colón. Secundina is one of the Mitch
survivors for whom the Comité built a house.

After Mitch, as after Michelle, the emphasis of the government in
immediate reconstruction focused on the central parts of the country, and left
the Garífuna coast largely to fend for itself. In response to the needs of
the Garífuna communities which weren't receiving sufficient assistance from
national or international sources, the Comité built 13 houses in
Trujillo for people without resources who had lost their homes, assisted in 3
construction projects for housing in Aguan, sent materials to more than
40 schools and kindergartens, provided equipment and medicines for
hospitals, health centers and differently-abled people, repaired cultural centers,
houses, schools, and small businesses, and delivered donations to needy
people. These had to be transported by canoe, horse, mule, on foot,
boat, horsecart or pick-up, to reach these most forgotten villages.

But to just respond in times of crisis with donations and
reconstruction is not enough. The Comité has had to expand its activities to support
sustainable development, to defend the ancestral lands of the Garífuna,
and to help communities strengthen themselves and design their own
solutions to the problems they face. Instead of wallowing in the difficulties left
by Mitch, the Garífuna are struggling to create a better future,
principally through revitalizing the agriculture.

The Garífuna (of African, Carib and Arawak indigenous descent), have
lived for over 200 years in villages along the north coast of the country
which rely primarily on small scale agriculture and fishing for survival.
After Mitch, it was reported that nearly 90 percent of the crops supporting
Garífuna villages were wiped out. This damage was so widespread that a
United Nations Development Program study found that food available in
Honduran farming communities the year after Mitch was decreased by 60

In response, in each of 16 towns, from Guadalupe in the east, to
Cocalito in the west, the Comité began by evaluating the needs of the towns.
Following the ideas expressed by the communities, early this year the
Comité established tool banks in each town, directed by people elected by
their community, that lends tools to farmers. The Comité has provided seeds
of traditional plants, like plantains and manioc root, that were largely
lost in some areas during Mitch. These crops, which are the mainstay of
Garífuna agriculture, were not included in most programs donating seeds after
Mitch, which focused on the Ladino crops of corn and beans. In order to even
find sources in quantity of these cuttings and seedlings after Mitch,
members had to walk an hour and a half up into the mountains, where the crops were
protected somewhat from the winds and flooding that destroyed the
coastal fields. Additionally, the group has initiated a pioneer project in
rescuing traditional root crops of taro root, sweet potato, red grow yams and
arrow root, which were becoming scarce even before Mitch. They form an
important, nutritious part of the Garífuna diet, and are much in demand among
people who, having seen their vulnerability in the face of Mitch, want to
attempt to be able to provide for themselves.

In Aguan 3 years ago, dozens of people lost their lives, and hundreds,
like Secundina lost houses. Those that remained, however, are fighting to
do more than just survive. Eufrasia Guity, known as Facha, rows 2 hours
in a dug out canoe to reach the area she is cultivating. She is one of the
elected leaders of the tool bank, and she along with the other farmers,
has benefitted from the Comité's project. Before Michelle, at least, she
commented that, "my fields are lush and thriving, and my family will
see changes when we harvest: we will sell a part and eat a part. I would
like for the community to have something for tomorrow."

Another harvest that the Garífuna will have in ‘for tomorrow,' thanks
to the Comité, is that of coconuts. The majority of coconuts on the
region were killed by a disease called Lethal Yellowing, and so the Garífuna
lost a crucial element in their traditional foods, affecting both consumption
and sale. Amada Solano, another member of the tool bank with Facha,
elaborates, "the coconut is the base of the Garífuna foods, and we miss it a lot —
I used to make coconut bread, coconut candies, crab soup with pounded
plantains. Once we have coconuts again, we will come back to life!"
Many mothers and grandmothers used to have a little income by selling just
such items.

For 16 towns, then, the Comité bought hybrid or resistant coconuts,
and the communities decided on a project. Upon completing the work, whether it
be repair of a bridge, reforesting the beach with coconuts, cleaning up
the piers and waterways used for navigation or cutting the grass around the
kindergarten and health center, the participants are awarded a coconut
plant-for-work. In addition, the Comité is establishing a nursery of
coconuts in Barranco Blanco, a community that almost disappeared with
the double blows of the coconuts' disease, and the destruction of clay and
thatched roof houses in Mitch.

But the Comité doesn't only encourage the revitalization of
traditional Garífuna crops. Responding to the suggestions of the people in the
towns, it has also provided thousands of grafted Valencia orange trees to the
Garífuna towns of Colón. Within a few years, there will be a good
source of vitamin c, even when it isn't mango season, oranges for sale, and also
they will serve as permanent markers of Garífuna towns' territory, which is
increasingly subject to illegal invasion. The orange trees, too, were
distributed in a work-for-plant method, and some were donated by the
communities themselves to the schools. According to their requests,
farmers also received seeds for grains, like rice, corn and beans. In light of
the recent winds, flooding, and dire reports, the status of all these
crops, which did survive last year's Tropical storm Katrina and this year's
drought, will have to be evaluated.

The works of the Comité are not limited to land — they also encompass
the sea, through support to the artisanal fisherpeople. In three towns,
the Comité is mounting a pilot project, providing cords, netting, buoys,
weights, silk thread for weaving nets and other materials to the
fisherpeople. ‘Artisanal' refers to the fisherpeople who row out in
the night to harvest the bounty of the ocean by hand — or at least what is
left after commercial shrimp boats deplete the natural resources of the

The approach of the Comité is not to simply donate: all the projects
are designed so that the participants have to contribute back, and to
foster cooperation, sustainable development and self-sufficiency. The people
who lost houses, for instance, had to contribute an assistant and raw
materials for the building of their house. Likewise, the participants in the
agricultural program are not only on the receiving end: they too must
give back to the program to make it perpetuate itself. When their plants
are producing, each farmer must return a certain portion of the seeds they
received, which will be redistributed to other farmers. And farmers
and fishermen alike must give a part of their harvest, when there is
abundance, back to the program. What is not donated to the sick or elderly from
the harvest of manioc, sweet potato, plantains, taro root or kingfish, can
be used in another of the pioneering projects of the Comité, the
children's breakfast program.

According to an official in the province's educational office, the
children's breakfast program run by the Comité in the Kindergarten
America in Trujillo is the only free, complete daily meal program in the
Whether or not it is one-of-a-kind, it has been a great success. In
this public kindergarten, the Comité provides a hot, nutritious breakfast
everyday. The mothers of the children do their part by rotating turns
to come and cook each morning, and they have also benefitted from training
on how to cook traditional dishes, which are being lost in towns like
The Comité feeds the minds as well as the bodies of the children with
regular workshops, ranging from hygiene and health issues to culture
and land concerns.

Educational workshops take place outside the kindergarten, too, with
seminars, from medicinal plants to human rights under Covenant 169 of
the International Labor Organization. And together with the seeds, plants
and tools, people in the towns requested trainings about improving their
farming methods. The Comité responded by providing workshops with agronomists
in 14 towns, covering the issues of the cultivation of plantains, soil
conservation, and organic composting. To help towns in their
production of cassava, the bread made from manioc, the Comité has helped with
mechanical grinders in 3 towns, whether in repair, or in construction of the
building which houses it.

In the struggle to survive on their ancestral lands, the Garífuna have
had to confront not only challenges of natural disasters, but also human
threats even more dangerous. The Garífuna coastal lands are under threat by
‘invaders,' whether they be large landowners, cattle ranchers, or
indiscriminate tourist development without inclusion of the local
population. The Comité has supported various communities in defending
their human rights, including when the Congress attempted to change the
Constitutional protection for coastal lands, articulated in Article
107, just one month after Mitch. The 1999 peaceful march in the capital
expressing opposition to this Constitutional change was met by live
bullets and teargas on the part of the police and authorities, leading to the
hospitalization of 18 of the marchers. The government then filed a
baseless criminal suit the against Garífuna, indigenous and farmers' leaders,
which was later dropped only after local and international pressure.

Even in the face of teargas, bullets, and violent police, the Garífuna
remain firm in protecting their ancestral lands, since it is often the
only major material asset that many Garífuna towns have, the legacy one
generation has to pass along to the next. The confrontations, however,
are not only in the capital of Tegucigalpa. In 1999, the residents of
Vallecito had already experienced attempts on their lives, and an invasions their
legally titled lands by the tractors and bull dozers of Miguel Facusse,
who is one of the largest landowners on the north coast and uncle to the
President. In September of that year, the house of leader Lombardo
Lacayo, with his companion and 4 children inside, was firebombed. It burned to
the ground: thankfully no one was hurt. The residents of Vallecito, like
those of other towns, continue to battle for their rights through the courts,
the National Agrarian Institute and other legal avenues, with the support
of the Comité.

This year has brought other crises of human rights to the Garífuna,
including in Trujillo. There, community groups united to stop a plan
to place a huge extension of open sewage lagoons in the most densely
populated Garífuna neighborhood. The legally required environmental study had
not been done, though construction had already begun on this project funded
by U.S. A.I.D. and the municipality. When the Garífuna insisted on
compliance with the legal requirement of the study, the Secretary of the
Environment ruled that the location of the pools was not feasible. Though the
Garífuna only wanted to change the location of these ‘oxidation lagoons', to a
place that wasn't so close to houses, the proponents of the project pulled it
entirely. People involved in this issue received threats and hostile
treatment from officials and elites of the town.

In a conflict that is still ongoing, the Comité is providing
assistance to the residents of Iriona Viejo and surrounding communities, who are
struggling to protect the environment, their water supply, and their
agricultural fields from an illegal highway, built through mountainous
communal lands, to Sico. This highway, built without the legally
required municipal and environmental permits, runs above the water reservoirs of
11 towns, deforested swaths of woods, and destroyed people's fields.
Those that are building the highway have arrived armed, although they have
failed to come to dialogues arranged by the mayor: he himself has received

These particular challenges are recent, but the Garífuna have long
faced economic and political marginalization, perhaps since their arrival 204
years ago, when colonial wars forced them out of the Caribbean island
of St. Vincent. Their towns are served by the poorest of roads, and the work
of the Comité is made doubly difficult with the bridgeless rivers, the
high tide where the beach is the only road, and mud so deep that even four
wheel drive vehicles become trapped. But no obstacle stops people like
Sotera Martinez, 67, and Seferina Alvarez, 58, who get up before the sun,
walk two hours to work in their fields, and carry the fruits of their labor back
in a heavy bundle suspended around their foreheads, a heavy load of firewood
on their heads. Like them, the Comité tries to let no obstacle stop their
work, including the recent storms, #15 and Michelle.

In the future, the projects and the defense of the land will continue,
and the Comité intends to expand its work with diverse crops that have been
requested by the farmers, such as ginger, sweet manioc root, cocoa,
bananas and other fruit trees. The Comité will carry out related trainings,
including ones to teach people to graft trees themselves, so that they
can become a source for grafted fruit trees. With the goal of advancing
self- sufficiency, the Comité will assist in commercializing their crops,
including the opening of a market in Trujillo where farmers will be
able to sell products, like cassava, directly to consumers and to retailers.

For the coming year's reforestation, and to help mark community lands,
the Comité will initiate the distribution of hard woods tree seeds. With
the intention of supporting the rescue of Garífuna artisan work and to
protect the ecological balance, the Comité will explore a project of
cultivating ‘belaire', a wild vine which is the essential element for Garífuna
It grows in shady forests and in wetlands, and has become scare, so
ensuring more growth will keep more lands in their natural state, and also allow
more training of young people in these disappearing arts. The Comité will
also help with soil conservation and enrichment through pilot projects using
foraging peanut, which, planted between plantain trees, serves as
ground cover to prevent erosion, minimize labor and costs of cutting back
weeds or herbicide use; is a source of nutrients for the soil; and can even be
sold as cattle fodder.

In addition to the very concrete accomplishments of the Comité, it is
achieving more intangible goals as well. It serves as an example of a
group trying to work in a democratic, participatory, open, transparent
manner, supporting communities which are working collectively and
cooperatively. It encourages direct participation, especially among women, and for people
to speak for and organize themselves, both for forward-looking development
and defense of their rights. It focuses on the neediest people, and
respects the richness of the Garífuna culture. Seferina Alvarez, a farmer in
the Trujillo tool bank explained, "The people in the Comité pay attention
to people. I like their way of doing things, and how they treat people.
The Comité does important things, works hard, and works well. They really
mobilize people. They take everyone's opinion into consideration, and
they listen to people like me. They know that communication is important.
I feel proud because they take me into account. This project helps us
prevent the loss of our culture, too. My granddaughter Zaida now goes
with me to the fields on Saturdays, so that she learns from me. My other
granddaughter, Karen, knows how to make casave bread. Otherwise, we
will lose our culture."

With limited funds, the Comité has accomplished a lot, thanks to the
generous help from the American Jewish World Service, Mazon: a Jewish
Response to Hunger, the Edwards Foundation, and in kind donations from
Big Huge Help, Witness and Direct Relief International. In spite of the
efforts of the Comité and other organizations, many basic needs have still not
been met. There are people who lost houses in Mitch who are still living
with relatives, not having resources to rebuild. The situation is even
worse after the damage from Michelle, damage that still needs to be evaluated
fully and addressed. A new stage of reconstruction must be undertaken,
and the struggle for self-sufficiency and sustainable development must
continue — both which require more resources and attention. But with
the inspiring determination of the women who walk or row two hours at dawn
to work in their fields, the Comité will continue in their efforts. The
Comité shares the sentiment, expressed by Facha Guity of Aguan, "I want to see
the community triumph!"

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