Last year, on April 12th, we observed the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Garifuna People in Central America. Events surrounding the observances brought a new awareness to many of the circumstances surrounding our exile from St. Vincent, and the real reasons for the attempted genocide, as well as a new appreciation for the miracle of our survival.
While we managed to survive the inhuman treatment two hundred years ago and continue to exist today as an distinct group it is our view that that survival is now threatened. The threat comes from ourselves as well as from some of the modern day institutions that have a profound effect on us.
The danger from within arises from the fact that we are fast losing the identity and cultural strength that enabled our ancestors to resist great hardships and privations. We learned and taught the history, language and culture of those who colonized us and are losing ours. Consequently we become vulnerable and allow others to define us and our rights according to their pleasure. Clearly, this is something that has to be addressed with some urgency.
History shows that we have never really been welcome in the territories we settled subsequent to our exile to Central America. This partly explains why we settled the less populated coastal areas that were largely outside of the effective control of the governmental authorities of the day. When that authority eventually reached our communities we cooperated and offered our services as teachers and public servants. Indications today are that the institution of education has continued to erode our cultural identity leading us to turn away from our traditional values and there is a growing perception in the Garifuna community in Belize that some serious gate keeping is preventing Garifuna professionals from reaching or, once there, from retaining their positions at the highest levels in the Public service. Furthermore, our lands have been sold off or are seriously threatened everywhere as are the social fabric and the economic life of our communities.
This is a critical time in the history of the Garifuna Nation which includes Garifuna people everywhere. It is evident from the regional contacts that we have had, especially during the last few years, that the issues affecting us in all our countries are identical although their manifestation may be more extreme in one country than in the others. In Honduras, for example, in one village alone (Triunfo de La Cruz) no fewer than five persons were assassinated last year because of their defence of their land rights while in Belize we have stood by and allowed the Ministry of lands to sell off our lands because they happen to be classified as (crown lands(, and where individuals have legal title to their lands we observe that those lands are prime targets for appropriation (for public purpose( while lands held by non Garinagu are somehow exempted.
It is time that we take stock of our situation in Belize and take steps to ensure that persons and political parties seeking power are made aware of our concerns. It is not the intention of the National Garifuna Council to tell our people who to vote for, but we certainly urge them to put those concerns that affect us on the table and to be guided by the response of the candidates and the parties as they make their choice.
The areas of concerns that we want addressed are categorized as follows: Land, Education, Language and Culture in Education, Health, Support for Economic and Community Development, and Social Issues.
The availability of land for present and future Garifuna residents of the communities that were established by Garinagu is a major concern. The traditional Garifuna way of life cannot be sustained without access to sufficient amounts of suitable land as well as access to marine resources. It is for this reason that our communities have, in nearly every case, been located along the coast. We cannot hope to retain the integrity of our culture and traditions if our access to those resources is curtailed.
The need for land was appreciated by our ancestors who fought the Europeans in a long war when their lands in St. Vincent was threatened by the latter. It is important to note that we are here in this region not because we chose to come here but because, at the conclusion of that land war, the English (who also colonized Belize) chose to carry out a plan that they had contemplated for at least twenty five years and exiled our ancestors to these parts precisely because they realized that as long as we remained in St Vincent we would again rise up in defence of our lands.
We contend that all the lands around our communities are our lands. This is so because at the time that those communities were established there were no competing interests and we utilized those lands for a variety of uses including agriculture, hunting, and the gathering of a wide range of herbal and forest products necessary for our survival. Our use of the land is obviously not limited to those small plots for which individuals may have had leases or titles.
In support of our contention regarding our right to the lands we have traditionally utilized we point out that when our exiled ancestors settled here they established their communities in the southern parts that were not at that time effectively under British control. In addition, there is no record of any conflict between the Garinagu and the Mayas who until recently were entirely an inland people.
In view of the foregoing, we have no choice but to condemn the land policies that have resulted in the land situation that exists in some of our communities and is fast developing in the others and assert the following:
$ The people are frustrated by the great difficulty they experience in securing tenure for land. In addition there has been a lack of support for agricultural and economic development efforts. As a result the ties to the land are weakened as people are forced to migrate in search of alternatives. Far from accepting some responsibility for the situation, the powers that be see this as justification for depriving people of their land.
$ In Hopkins and Seine Bight virtually all the lands immediately around the villages have been alienated and not necessarily by the people themselves. Absolutely no allowance has been made for village expansion let alone development by the villagers themselves. The lands are nearly all in the hands of outsiders who are attracted by the tourist potential of those areas with the result that our lands are being sold abroad on the internet. Because the foreign concept of land ownership defers from ours, our traditional access to these lands is blocked as (no entry( and other signs are posted for our attention.
$ Apart from the fact that outsiders have an easier time in securing recognized ownership of our lands, not much regard is given to the environmental and social impact that their development schemes may have on the residents. We note, as an example, that there is official support for the sale and filling of the swamp west of Hopkins in spite of the obvious negative environmental and social impact that this project is bound to have on the resident population.
$ The cayes to which we have traditionally had unrestricted access are being sold at an alarming rate. Here again, individual private ownership invariably results in our traditional rights of access no longer being acknowledged. Such access is important to us not only because of the implications for our traditional subsistence patterns but also because of the need to use the cayes as a base for adugahani, an activity that is associated with the d?g? ritual.
$ The alienation of our lands to outsiders is accelerated as infrastructure, including road access is improved. We have seen the impact that this has had on Hopkins and Seine Bight whose attractions were not appreciated until the advent of a road that is traficable practically all year round. While we welcome such developments as improved roads electricity and water systems, we are rightfully concerned about the land grab that will accompany the improvement of the Southern Highway which, if proper arrangements are not made to secure our interests, will further contribute to rendering us a landless people.
Because of the seriousness of the situation described above and its implication for the wellbeing of present and future generations of Garinagu, we ask the Political Parties to make the following commitments:
The right of the Garifuna people to the lands that they have traditionally utilized for subsistence, cultural, religious and other purposes will be recognized, and definite steps will be taken to ensure that suitable lands are made available and continue to be available for present and future generations in all Garifuna communities.
Recognizing the subsistence patterns and the geographic distribution of The Garifuna People, the Garifuna community will be consulted, through the National Garifuna Council, on any and all matters that are likely to affect any or all of the Garifuna communities in Belize,including land and maritime matters, and contacts and cooperation across borders.
Belize will become a signatory to ILO Convention 169 which deals with the rights of Indigenous People, including their right to lands that they have traditionally held.
It is generally acknowledged that this country was largely educated by pioneer Garifuna teachers. Our brightest and our best minds were identified by the churches and sent to all parts of Belize including the remotest and most disadvantaged communities. It was possible to find suitable candidates for the teaching profession among our people because we valued education and the schools in our towns and villages provided quality education. In addition, advancement in education was largely dependent on the personal interest and will of the individual as opposed to opportunities for secondary and higher education.
We observe that there has been a decline in the quality and relevance of the education provided in our communities. A decline has also been noted in the educational level of our youth relative to others and we believe that this is due to a relative decline in opportunities in an age when advancement is linked more to opportunities for formal education than to individual personal effort.
We live in a fast changing world and survival will depend on our ability to keep up with these changes. It is our view that while it is important that we remain true to the traditional values of the Garifuna Nation, it is imperative that our youth be provided with an education that is relevant to the information age and this changing world. We are not satisfied that the education offered in our towns and villages recognize the importance of rooting our children in their culture of origin or providing the scientific and technological orientation that is required for survival in the wider society today. We as an organized community are prepared to work with our people but we can only do so much without the support of the relevant governmental authority.
Our observations regarding education include the following:
( Now that advancement in education is dependent on access to secondary and higher education, we find ourselves at a serious disadvantage. We have not really benefitted nearly as much as other communities from bursaries and secondary school children transportation arrangements that are intended to improve access to secondary and junior college education. Therefore, access to secondary and higher education has not improved for the Garifuna community.
( There are no opportunities for job entry level skills training in the southern districts. Consequently that any one of our youth who is desirous of receiving technical training that will enable him or her to function in a job must either be satisfied with apprenticeship or invest in training that will require him or her to meet the cost of living in Belize City for the duration of the training.
( There is an overwhelming tendency for our youth who have the opportunity to attend secondary and higher education to go (or be steered?) into the arts and to shun mathematics and the sciences. The National Garifuna Council is concerned about this and is prepared to collaborate with school authorities in striving to achieve a balance that will enable more of our people to pursue careers in science and technology.
( Computer literacy must now figure in any discussion of literacy as we enter the Twenty First Century. We believe that it is imperative that the children in the schools in our communities have access to the technology that will enable them to take their place in this information age. If we wait for the school system to provide the opportunities for technological literacy our schools will be among the last. The National Garifuna Council will work with the Garifuna community and sympathetic agencies at home and abroad to bring this about but we expect the Government to support out efforts in tangible ways.
Measures will be taken to have basic education respond to our needs and realities, to improve the access of Garifuna youth to secondary and higher education, to provide skills training that prepare our people to take advantage of job opportunities, and to assist us in including technological literacy in basic education provisions.
3. Language and Culture in Education
It has been pointed out that this country was educated to a great extent through the efforts of Garifuna teachers. While there are those who feel that this is something that we should be proud of, the fact is that that service has been at a high cost to us as an ethnic group here in Belize. This is so because we lost the services of our brightest and best minds who otherwise would have been available to take a leading role in developing and promoting Garifuna culture. Instead, they played a leading role in perpetuating the language, religion and culture of the colonizer and thereby helped in a big way to give momentum to the cultural erosion that is now evident everywhere.
Schools are a very powerful tool that has been used effectively to serve the dominant interests in the society. On the other hand, our language, history, spirituality, and other aspects of our culture
have never been given any serious attention even in the schools in our towns and villages. The result is that we are currently witnessing an identity crisis among our young people most of whom cannot speak, let alone read and write, their own language, and do not know where they came from or who they are. They, therefore, become vulnerable to the lure of the North and the subtle messages they see on the television screens featuring persons who look like them and, in their misguided minds, must somehow be them.
There are those who argue that it is the business of the homes to teach the ancestral language and culture of the children and that that is not a proper role for the school. To that we respond by saying firstly, that when it is convenient we are often told that the school belongs to the community and that it should serve the community. Secondly, the school has such credibility that what it values is valued by the community and what it ignores or devalues is also automatically labeled as worthless. (Our language, history and culture have long been ignored by the schools in our communities and often when they do get attention it is only in a manner that is disparaging.
Small wonder, then, that those of us who know our history and culture and can read and write our language are able to do so in spite, rather than because, of the school.) Thirdly, if the school can be used as an instrument to teach foreign languages like English and Spanish to the extent that some of us are more comfortable using them than our own ancestral language, it is difficult to argue against the role of the school in halting and reversing a linguistic and cultural erosion that it has helped, albeit inadvertently, to bring about. Fourthly, it is interesting to note that all the countries of Mesoamerica are ahead of Belize where the introduction of bilingual intercultural education involving native languages is concerned.
We strongly believe that:
( National and local education authorities must recognize that our children have a right to learn to speak, read and write their ancestral language. While we recognize the importance of English and Spanish as international languages we are strongly opposed to Spanish being given precedence over our ancestral language at the primary level.
( The history, culture and art of the Garifuna people must be given serious attention in the schools in our communities.
( There is a need for scholarships at the highest level to study indigenous culture, folk medicine, folklore, language and archaeology so that we can acquire knowledge that we can disseminate to our children, and lead in the development of various aspects of our culture.
( We are aware that we will have to play a major role in the development of materials and the training of teachers where the Garifuna language and cultural aspects of an improved and more relevant school curriculum are concerned. To this end, the National Garifuna Council is already embarking on a language initiative aimed at preserving, developing and promoting the Garifuna language.
The Ministry of Education will be mandated by Government to collaborate with the National Garifuna Council in facilitating the inclusion of Garifuna Language, history and culture in schools in Garifuna towns and villages. This will entail an unambiguous statement encouraging this inclusion, as well as participation in, and some financial support for, materials development and pedagogical training activities.
We have reason to be concerned about health arrangements in this country as they affect Garifuna people. It cannot be denied that the southern districts of Belize are the worst off when compared to other parts of the country in terms of access to medical and health care. Apart from the fact that the southern districts are not known to get preference in any aspect of government service, it is to be noted that the roads used to access the national centres from these districts are the worst in the country. This poses special difficulties when there is an emergency that requires moving the patient to locations where the required specialist care can be obtained. We are therefore distressed at the decision to discontinue the contract with Wings of Hope which had for many years been utilized to airlift patients in need of such care to Belize City. Our people in Toledo are among the most affected by this decision and we have not been made aware of any alternative arrangements having been made.
The high cost of health care is also of great concern. There has been an escalation in the cost of health care, resulting in an inability on the part of many people to access the service. We are not satisfied that the Health Reform Project that is contemplated will address this issue.
Certain diseases are known to have high incidence among the Garinagu relative to the wider Belizean population. These include diabetes, hypertension, hepatitis, cataract and glaucoma. There is urgent need for studies to be carried out as well as the provision of treatment.
Some members of our community are condemned to living outside of the country because they have to go on dialysis on a regular basis and this service is not available in a public facility that they can access. This illustrates the need for access to hospital facilities that are well equipped and set up to deliver care that is affordable and can be accessed by our people regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Affordable access to quality health care will be guaranteed. This includes measures aimed at prevention and treatment as well as suitable arrangements to secure timely access to emergency care.
The necessary research will be undertaken into those illnesses that are prevalent among the Garinagu with a view to understanding the causes and prescribing preventative action, and the necessary treatment and medication will be provided.
5. Support for Community and Economic Development
Garifuna communities were, at an earlier stage in our country(s development, self sufficient and productive entities. Agricultural production was high as people worked their lands and exploited the sea to feed themselves and sold the surplus as a means earning income to meet their other needs. Some people did venture out to seek employment in the forest industry and elsewhere, but these tended to be temporary arrangements and did not have any significant effect on the population. Over the years we have seen a dramatic decline as residents are forced to abandon their villages, towns, and even the country in search of opportunities and a better life.
There is a tendency for Government officials to look at our communities and only see them as they appear to be today. These decision makers do not bother to look at antecedents with a view to determining the factors that created present conditions and, as a result, do not bother to assist the people in engaging the historical process so that they can take control of their destinies.
The case of Barranco is quite instructive and exemplifies what went on in all our communities. Barranco, up to the early sixties, was a vibrant hub of agricultural activity. Large areas of land around the village, up the Temash River, and along Sunday Wood Creek and Boyo Creek were cultivated as villagers grew bananas for export and rice for sale to the Marketing Board. All this was possible because of the level of support that existed for these local economic activities. Boats plied the coast to pick up the bananas for shipment, a thresher was provided to help prepare the rice paddy, a buying centre was established in the village so that the producers would not have to transport the rice to the town as this was the responsibility of the buyers, and there was a farm demonstrator posted in the village to demonstrate agricultural techniques that villagers were encouraged to adopt. Barranco produced large quantities of rice and villagers – men women and children – turned out to harvest (by hand) for a share of the crop, which they were able to sell at the buying centre in the village. One man alone, James Avilez, had seventy five acres of rice.
What happened to Barranco is a story that is repeated in all of our communities. There was a decline in the banana industry (and when it was re-introduced a couple decades ago this was done in a manner that effectively excludes the participation of small village farmers). The Marketing Board stopped taking the variety of rice, Seventy Nine, that the people were accustomed to and whose technology they had mastered, and there was no offer of technical assistance and seeds to enable them to make the switch to the new varieties. The buying centre, the thresher and the farm demonstrator were removed and the people were all left on their own. That marked a turning point in the history of the village as people left in search of job opportunities, first in the sugar belt up north and later in the urban centres in the country and abroad. That was when the resident village population began to dwindle.
We are prepared to take responsibility for our own development. However, as the case of Barranco demonstrates, we often have to contend with forces that are beyond our control and decisions made by the powers that be can facilitate or hinder that effort. In this regard, we offer the following observations:
( It is a well known fact that the Garinagu are an agricultural and sea faring people who have traditionally drawn their sustenance from the land and the sea. We continue to have the capacity for involvement in the agricultural and fisheries sectors but can only do so if there is support from the relevant governmental agencies. Such support has long been non existent.
( A study of Garifuna spirituality and the our cosmology will reveal that our culture is based on mutual support as opposed to individual effort. This means that our communities should be fertile ground for Cooperatives and Credit Unions. We believe that this potential has not been realized and harnessed because the Department(s efforts at organizing cooperatives have been on their own terms rather than taking into account the peculiarities of our culture where family and friendship groupings constitute natural cooperative groups. We are prepared to work with the relevant Government Department to explore the possibilities.
( Several projects aimed at development have been implemented in the southern districts, particularly Toledo, in the last two decades. We note, with much concern, that Garifuna communities have largely been bypassed in these initiatives.
( Ours is a rich culture that can be used as a basis for economic development. The production and sale of arts and crafts, music and other products offer exciting possibilities. Regrettably the lack of financial resources to capitalize these ventures is a major stumbling block that Government can help to remove through access to small loans that do not place impossible conditions on the people.
( We have noted that migration within and outside of the country are the direct result of a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness arising from the lack of economic opportunities in our communities. Rice is no longer a viable agricultural option for us and there is need for an alternative to citrus which has been going through a major crisis. There is a need to introduce small industry based on other crops where surpluses can be processed for local and export markets.
( The choices available to our women and youth are of critical importance in determining the future of our communities. The women are the mainstay of our culture and the youth our future. Our communities begin to die when we lose them. We require assistance and support in developing projects for sustainable development aimed at benefitting women and youth.
( Garifuna social organization has always been based on respect for traditional as well as formal authority. We accepted the change when our village alcaldes were replaced by the Village Council. However, we find that legitimate village authority is consistently usurped by the imposition of selected henchmen who carry out functions such as land distribution, the control of utilities within the communities, and speaking to government and other outside agencies on our behalf. We have no control over these individuals whose first allegiance is invariably to their political bosses. Clearly, this renders our local community development efforts more difficult.
Through consultation with the people in the communities obstacles to economic development will be identified and assistance provided to develop strategies and implement projects aimed at increasing productivity and generating income for the benefit of all, particularly women and youth.
The authority of traditional and elected leaders in the community will be respected at all times and their concurrence obtained before any decision is made that will affect the lives of the people in the community.
Financial and technical support will be provided through the National Garifuna Council for developing community based institutions and enterprises that harness traditional values.
Ever since our arrival in what is now Belize, we have offered ourselves without reservation to this country. We worked in the mahogany camps, we served as teachers, policemen, soldiers and public officers, and we produced agricultural products that we sold in the towns and the city. History shows, however, that we were, from the very beginning, viewed with suspicion and sometimes we wonder if much has changed since those days.
Because we are a proud people, we are not accustomed to seeing ourselves as poor and we are not in the habit of asking for assistance. On the contrary, we are used to being the ones offering service to others. This is perhaps why we, as a group, are generally perceived to be well off and not in need of help from anyone.
Consultations with people in the various branches of the National Garifuna Council reveals the following social concerns affecting our people:
( There is a perception in the Community that there is discrimination against Garifuna professionals, particularly in the public service. This perception is based on what they have seen happening to a number of competent Garinagu whose careers have been thwarted, when they are bypassed for promotion that we feel they deserve, or cut short by premature retirement based on flimsy pretexts.
( There are special circumstances that seem to affect Garifuna people more that others: these include woman and child abuse, drug addiction and paternity suits. There is a need for investigation to determine causes and take action that will help to ameliorate the situation.
( It has been pointed out that many people from our towns and villages are forced to migrate because of lack of economic opportunities. They left home not because they wanted to but because they had to. The living conditions of many of our people in Belize City are deplorable and cry out for attention
( .Evidence of neglect can also be found in our villages. Public buildings are in a decrepit state and in some communities there are virtually none that are fit to be designated hurricane shelters with the result that the people(s lives would really be endangered were a major hurricane to strike.
( All but two of our communities are over a hundred years old so that one would have thought that by now they would have been provided with the necessary amenities. We are trying to figure out what to make of the fact that Barranco, which has been in existence for about 150 years, is being bypassed in spite of the fact that it made the original application for a water system, while funds have been secured and work is under way for a water system for Midway Village which has been around for barely ten years.
( It is the perception in the Garifuna community that Garifuna aliens are not given the same treatment and provided the same opportunities, under the refugee program for instance, as aliens from other ethnic origins. It is our contention that they were displaced by the same conditions that forced other Central Americans to Belize during the last two decades and that, while peace has been established in Central America, the current struggle of our Honduran counterparts to secure their lands may cause many to flee for their lives in the very near future as indeed some have done in the past. We would expect our government to be more sympathetic and lenient in its treatment of them.
Action will be taken to change the perception of discrimination and neglect prevalent in the Garifuna community.