A “strong means of mobilization”

Benedict quickly creates a playlist to cover the next hour of his show, then we duck out for a short tour of Triunfo de la Cruz, a village of approximately 2,000 inhabitants characterized by pastel-colored wooden houses divided by uneven dirt roads. The sound of Benedict’s music selection pours through the open windows of many of the households we pass.

Benedict says that Faluma Bimetu, which broadcasts almost exclusively in Garifuna, plays a pivotal role in both informing and mobilizing the community of Triunfo de la Cruz. “I’d go so far as to say that the radio has saved the life of this community. Without it, I’m not sure we’d still be here,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Benedict cites a 2016 judgment by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an international appeals court in Costa Rica for countries in the Americas. The judgment found the state of Honduras responsible for the violation of collective ownership rights and a lack of judicial protection in Triunfo de la Cruz and the nearby Garifuna community of Punta Piedra, after the municipal government sold off Garifuna land to private developers.

Benedict believes that Faluma Bimetu was crucial in raising awareness of the case and reiterating the importance of conserving ancestral lands. Recordings of on-air discussions that included call-ins from aggrieved local residents were also submitted to the court as evidence.

Miriam Miranda, a prominent Garifuna activist and the general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), sits in her office in the city of La Ceiba. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Miriam Miranda is a prominent Garifuna activist and the general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH is its Spanish acronym), a Garifuna advocacy group that finances Faluma Bimetu and facilitates the training of its team. She shares Benedict’s sentiment that the radio station has served as a “very strong means of mobilization” in Triunfo de la Cruz, adding that “it’s also a very cheap one.”

Furthermore, Miranda points out that community radio can still operate with relative freedom in Honduras’s increasingly repressive media environment, where most commercial radio stations and television channels are either state sponsored or forced to self-censor for fear of heavy-handed state reprisal. In small and largely neglected Garifuna communities, independent stations like Faluma Bimetu have a better chance of flying under the government’s radar.

Miranda’s organization helps run a total of six Garifuna community radio stations across Honduras, all of which have close links with other indigenous radio stations and causes. In a country renowned as the most dangerous in the world for environmental rights activists, these stations have helped raise the profile of people on the frontlines of the struggle to protect indigenous lands and ways of life. They also highlight the regular injustices activists face at the hands of the Honduran state.

In November 2016, Radio Lumamali Giriga, a Garifuna community radio station in the coastal town of Santa Fe, 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Triunfo de la Cruz, ran an interview with local Garifuna leader Madeline David Fernandez. The activist had been detained and allegedly tortured by Honduran police in response to her attempts to occupy ancestral Garifuna land that the municipal government had sold to a Canadian company for a large-scale tourism development. Lumamali Giriga was first to pick up this story, then a number of other community radio stations and human rights organizations followed suit.

According to Francesco Diasio, secretary general of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, radio is a particularly powerful and accessible medium in indigenous Latin American communities, which often have low internet connectivity and literacy rates and strong oral traditions.

Persistent threats

However, Diasio cautioned that there is “very little protection and often considerable risk” for journalists and activists working in community radio in Central American countries such as Honduras. “You only have to do a quick Google search to see that the Garifuna community radio stations have faced harassment from the Honduran government,” he adds.

In January 2010, after various incidences of intimidation and theft, Faluma Bimetu was the target of an arson attack that destroyed broadcasting equipment and badly damaged the building. No arrests have ever been made in connection with the incident. Benedict places the blame at the feet of Indura Beach and Golf Resort, a flagship luxury tourism destination near Triunfo de la Cruz that was initiated in 2008 as a joint venture between the Honduran Tourism Institute and a number of the country’s most powerful business figures.

A January 2017 Global Witness report titled “Honduras: the deadliest place to defend the planet,” wrote of Indura that “Beneath the perfect travel brochure surface, is a story of threats, harassment and human rights abuse.” In the months preceding the arson attack, Faluma Bimetu had frequently criticized Indura on air.

The report also claimed that the boundaries of Jeanette Kawas National Park, located just west of Triunfo de la Cruz, were redrawn to allow for the construction of Indura. In addition, Global Witness alleged that in 2014 police and military units tried to forcibly evict 157 Garifuna families from the same area as part of a plan to expand the tourism complex, incorporating two new hotels that would take the total number of rooms to 600.

Playa Escondida Beach Club is one of two luxury tourism developments that have been built on land claimed by the Garifuna in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Keri Brondo, an anthropologist with the University of Memphis in Tennessee, U.S., who has written extensively on the Garifuna, testified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2013 for the case brought by Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra. In her testimony she said that creating protected tourism areas that excluded local populations had led to overcrowding and the perpetuation of poverty in places like Triunfo de la Cruz. She added that lack of access to these protected areas had “hindered the community’s ability to maintain its traditional way of life.”

Mark Bonta, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona in Pennsylvania, U.S., who has been working in Honduras for almost 20 years, told Mongabay that coastal tourism development in this region threatens not only local communities’ environmental sustainability, “but also coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, strand, and other marine and coastal ecosystems.”

Bonta added that “local communities themselves, against all odds, if left alone, are able to protect their own resources sustainably, and there are many cases of their doing so.” He believes that community radio can make a “huge difference” in propagating such causes.

Indura Beach and Golf Resort declined to comment for this story, but in a January 2017 press release the resort stated that it had “all legal permits required by law for the development of the project” and that Global Witness had made “several false allegations.” Indura denied any attempt to force out Garifuna and said it had sought to work hand in hand with local communities.

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.

Two recently constructed temples serve as the centerpiece of the Garifuna community of Vallecito. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

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.”

OFRANEH is in the process of building a new community radio station in Vallecito. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

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 prepares a meal in the communal kitchen at the Garifuna settlement of Vallecito. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

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.”

“A community without its land cannot survive”

Back in Triunfo de la Cruz, Benedict sits beneath the shaded porch of a ramshackle beach shack and looks across the deserted white sand out to sea. Away to his left, the staggered terracotta roofs of another major tourism development, called Playa Escondida Beach Club, interrupt the blanket of verdant forest that wraps around the western perimeter of the village. “We may have won the court case against the developers, but they’re still here,” Benedict says. “The fight isn’t over.”

With minimal funding and persistent threats of closure from the Honduran government, Benedict admits that Faluma Bimetu is struggling to stay afloat. One of his seven hosts has just joined the caravan of Honduran immigrants headed for the U.S., and Benedict is clearly strained by his growing workload.

“When I first started at the radio there were more than 20 of us working here, there was an excitement, every hour there was a different presenter. But things have changed. As director, I’ve trained many people, but most of them just stay for a few months and then they move on and never come back.”

For all the trials and tribulations, Benedict’s sense of responsibility to his community remains unwavering: “This land is everything to us. We live from it, we draw our spiritual beliefs from it. We have no choice but to keep doing what we can to protect it. A community without its land cannot survive.”

Garifuna children on their way to school in Vallecito. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Banner image: Cesar Benedict goes on air at Faluma Bimetu community radio station in Triunfo de la Cruz. Image by Christopher Clark for Mongabay.

Christopher Clark is a British freelance journalist and filmmaker based in South Africa. Follow him on Twitter @ManRambling.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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