THE HELICOPTER DESCENDED over the house to land across the street, by the oil company compound, and the noise of its engine forced us to fall silent. Dr. Joseph Palacio, coauthor of the recent study of land ownership in the Garifuna community of Barranco in southern Belize, waited while the helicopter — its rotor blades still turning — was reloaded.
The house is newly built, its construction defying the trend of emigration away from the village. Joseph Palacio returned to Barranco on retiring from a career in anthropology that has included research at the universities of McGill, California (Berkeley), the West Indies, and Belize.
The Garifuna are a people born of the intermarriage between shipwrecked African slaves and Carib and Arawak islanders on the island of Saint Vincent. Following a protracted war against the British they were expelled and shipped to the Honduran atoll of Roatanin 1797. They subsequently founded Amerindian-speaking communities along the Central American mainland in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Barranco itself sits on the Bay of Amatique, looking across to the hills of Guatemala and the more distant mountains of Honduras. This long coast is the closest the Garifuna come to possessing a physical territory, while their island homeland — on which their language has been extinguished — lies far beyond the eastern horizon in the Southern Antilles.
The blades of the helicopter spun faster, the sound peaking as it rose and headed inland to resupply the teams of workers conducting seismic explorations in the neighboring rainforest.
I asked Dr. Palacio if he and his coauthors had written the study — Garifuna Continuity in Land: Barranco Settlement and Land Use 1862 to 2000 — in response to the land conflict between the local Maya leaders and the oil company which had chosen to base its operations in Barranco?
“Not exactly” he replied, before introducing the book’s motivation with a former professor’s considered use of words:
The village is typical of other Garifuna villages throughout Central America: the Garifuna were born practically out of land disputes; we are the creation of land dispossession by the British on the island of Saint Vincent, and ever since we came to Central America we came with this idea that we wanted land. However, as much as we wanted our land there was every effort again to dispossess us, in Honduras and in Belize; so we are a landless people with a history of territoriality.
Such a paradox is visible in the way that the dabuyaba or temple of Barranco faces east to Saint Vincent so as to ease the return of ancestral spirits who come to possess participants during the dügü religious ceremonies. It is a paradox heard, longingly, in the Belizean adúgúrahani songs recalling life in Saint Vincentian society, prior to their last, long, disastrous war against the British. And it is evident in the fact that in their new homelands limitations have historically been placed on Garifuna land ownership in Belize. Garifuna land continues to be confiscated today by the oligarchy under the government of President Porfirio Lobo in Honduras.
Such dispossessions have occurred at points in Barranco’s history too, Palacio told me:
But there has been no study done on the continuity in land ten...