Aurelia Arzú is a human rights defender from the Garifuna community in Honduras and vice coordinator of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH). OFRANEH work to safeguard the economic, social, and cultural rights of the unique Garifuna ethnic community. Aurelia spoke to PBI UK regarding the human rights situation in the Garifuna community when she visited the London to highlight the human rights violations against the Garifuna community and the increasingly repressive tactics employed against members of OFRANEH for their human rights work defending ancestral territories and distinct culture. In fact, due to criminalization of OFRANEH members, Aurelia’s friend and colleague Medeline David, who was originally going to come on the tour, was unable to leave the country. What follows is from that interview.
On Garifuna culture
The Garifuna people were expelled from the Caribbean island of St Vincent and have been in Honduras for 218 years since the expulsion. The Garifuna in Honduras still conserve our culture, our food, our gastronomy, and aspects of our ancestral medicine. We have a different culture. The truth is we, the Garifuna, are unique. [Editor's note: The language, dance, and music of the Garifuna community were declared a ‘Treasure of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO in 2001, recognizing the unique roots of Garifuna culture.] The earth for us is very important; it is our mother, because from there we find all our materials for our spirituality. We live from fishing and agriculture. The sea is very important for the Garifuna people as not only it provides food but also since, it provides much of what we use for spirituality too. The survival of the Garifuna people is cultural, ancestral. We are very much in touch with our culture and spirituality.”
OFRANEH is a not-for-profit organization that receives no government support. It is the only organization fighting to protect our land and territory, defending the rights of the Garifuna people. We work for the youth and for women. We have achieved unity between the Garifuna people and the other groups of indigenous people. I wonder sometimes where we would be as a people without OFRANEH because they have taken charge of highlighting and raising the profile of the problems that the Garifuna face.
On Human Rights Violations against the Garifuna
The Garifuna community is facing many problems at the moment. The main issue currently is the seizure of our own lands for which we are facing criminalization. The government and foreign businesses are displacing us from our own land. For us it is unthinkable that foreign businesses can take us to court in our own communities. The problems that our communities are facing now are due to foreign companies, for example, Canadian businessmen are currently pressing charges against my compañeros. They say that they bought the land legally yet how is that possible because we have the ancestral titles to the land. In addition, the ILO convention 169 states that it is not possible to sell the land of peoples like the Garifuna. We are facing issues with both our own national government and the foreign businesses. The government has passed a tourism law that has encouraged people from overseas to come and build tourism in our country but this law does not favor us, the Garifuna community, or other indigenous peoples. As the land with the most potential for tourism is either Garifuna or indigenous land.
On government inaction
We are very worried by the clear lack of urgency from the Honduran government in resolving the situation. We have problems with the state since the Honduran government ignores the ILO convention 169 that protects us. In addition, we had two cases seen in the Inter American Court of Human Rights, which we won. The court gave their verdict that all those guilty of seizing land should be expelled and then compensate the Garifuna. The Court went to Honduras to see how the sentence was advancing but up to now, the government has done nothing. If they do not resolve the issue, it is only because they do not have the desire to do so. Since the moment that the Honduran state declared that they did not recognize us as Honduran people the judicial system has not served us at all. We do not have access to lawyers in Honduras but the Canadian businessmen and foreign companies do.
Criminalization is a pressing concern that we have as an organization. Currently, we have six compañeros who are being criminalized and an additional three compañeros have arrest warrants against them. They are accused of land seizure. This is incomprehensible for us since it is our own land, which we have ancestral titles to, that they stand accused of seizing. The foreign businesses also accuse us of defamation. Yet how can it be defamatory to state that the land is ours when it is true? My companion Medeline David, who was meant to come on this speaker tour, is being criminalized and is under house arrest. The case against her had been supposedly closed but inexplicably they reopened Medeline’s case just so they could stop her leaving the country. She cannot be more than three meters from her home.
On a personal level, criminalization has had a big impact on our families. Perhaps, our families are more afraid of the criminalization of OFRANEH members than the members themselves are. On an organizational level, we view the criminalization as a method to damage our organization and its reputation. Since, it is as if the more compañeros that they press charges against leads to the organization losing prestige. However, instead it motivates us more because we know that our cause is just and theirs is not.
On protection of Human Rights Defenders
International support networks for organizations like OFRANEH have been very useful because we have seen big positive impacts following incidents such as the arrests of Medeline and Miriam. When, Miriam was arbitrarily detained by the state the international community took notice of what was happening. This had a big impact as the government immediately sought to solve the problem as they wish to convey a good image to international observers. We look to expand our reach, diffuse our message. We believe that international support is an important factor for organizations like us.