|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Rediscovering the Half-Forgotten Farms of the Garifuna by Robin Llewellyn
January 13th, 2013
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:
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:
The book, coauthored by crafts researcher Carlson Tuttle and writer/publisher Judith Lumb, takes as its starting point the establishment of the village by its first settler, Santiago Avilez. He was born in Honduras around 1804, just seven years after the expulsion from Saint Vincent, and moved to the settlement of Punta Gorda, nine miles north of Barranco along the mangrove coast. Oral history tells us he travelled south by carved canoe, or dory, and set his turtle nets where a red ridge served as a landmark. He wandered ashore and found fresh water and fertile soil, later setting up a camp and growing beans. Others began to accompany him, and eventually they stayed, their settlement attracting other Garifuna from the north and south.
The book’s real focus begins in 1861, though, when the first census was performed, and 1862, the beginning of the colonial status of Belize, both of which provided extensive documentary resources for researchers.
The Bay of Amatique was easily travelled, and Santiago had a love of the further shore; he fathered children by four women in Honduras, Punta Gorda, and the Guatemalan Garifuna town of Livingston. He established a farming area across what is now the Belize-Guatemala border of the Sarstoon River, later farmed by his son John, who subsequently became a shopkeeper in Barranco in 1906.
Other farms grew around the village and spread up the waterways of the Temash and Sarstoon Rivers. Today most of these have been swallowed up again by the rainforest, but ethnographic research in oral history and official records from the colonial period bring their names back to life. Some are Garifuna: Dándeirugu (“in the place of tapirs”), Lidise (“so far away”) and Falumágeirugu (“rich in coconuts”); others are in English: Vinland, Trial Farm, and Fairview. Far up the Temash River were parcels of land that have regrown into rainforest and mangrove swamp, now shared between the Sarstoon Temash National Park and the hunting grounds of neighboring Mayan villages.
Challenges to Garifuna autonomy were not slow in coming from the colonial authorities. In 1891 British authorities sent surveyors to Barranco and a year later, in what the book’s authors describe as an attempt to extinguish “their customary rights to their own house lots and impose legal ownership according to colonial law” the land was reassigned.
The colonial government laid an uneven grid over the existing village (225 people and 59 houses), redividing the community, ignoring many elements that determined customary land tenure: matrifocality, consanguinity, patronymic nomenclature, and uxorilocal residence.
In 1911 more government surveyors announced that all Barranco’s farmers were trespassing on Crown Lands, giving them six weeks to apply for leases or to purchase their traditional farms. Villagers mobilized themselves and, through sharing resources, they succeeded in leasing a 200-acre block which they could continue to cultivate. As Dr. Palacio explained to me:
The helicopter was still out over the jungle, quite possibly supplying teams cutting the seismic trails through the hunting grounds of the Maya. This is supported by the current government, even though banned under a 2010 decision of the Belizean Supreme Court, which explicitly forbade the “issuing of any concessions for resource exploitation, including concessions, permits or contracts authorizing logging, prospecting or exploration” on Mayan land. For the Maya, too, land ownership has had a complex relationship with customary tenure and colonial or national law, and the Maya have had some success in gaining the legal recognition of the court system for their customary practices. But the Garifuna have not followed suit. Why? I ask.
“There are two sets of indigenous peoples in Belize — there are the Maya and the Garifuna.” Palacio answered.
Most of the Maya live in houses built from local timber and thatched with palm fronds collected while the leaves are broadening during a waxing moon. Mayan hunting and milpa agriculture gives them just enough sustenance from an acidic soil, and they exchange the little surplus of rice they produce for salt and sugar in the market at Punta Gorda.
But while the Maya have clung to the land, the Garifuna have withdrawn from theirs; the postwar abandonment of the farms around Barranco has been led by the Garifuna themselves. Palacio said the neighboring Maya villages “are more land oriented, and take more advantage of land than we do. To us, at this point in time — quite the contrary to what I said in history — we have been alienated completely from land.”
Barranguna — as the people of Barranco are known — have been successful in gaining state employment elsewhere in the country, often as teachers or civil servants, and this has drained the village of its people and the land of its farmers. It was a process partly due, says Palacio, to the historical fact that, “There’s no orientation towards farming in the school system: whatever orientation there is, is toward being a worker somewhere, Chicago or Belize City, or Corozal.”
Unlike their Mayan neighbors,
In November, Garifuna from across Belize and the wider diaspora gathered in the town of Dangriga to celebrate Settlement Day, or what has become known as Garifuna National Day. The event commemorates the arrival of Garifuna settlers on Belizean soil and involves a reenactment with boats carrying Garifuna flags and drums, and plants brought by the first settlers to grow in Belize.
The ceremony is the centerpiece of a week of Garifuna festivities and discussion, but when the National Garifuna Council (NGC) president Robert Mariano opened Garifuna Week in the run-up to the festival, he announced that despite the national importance of this celebration of Garifuna culture, “Something has gone wrong.”
It is a sentiment you find voiced from a range of people among the Garifuna, who point to the decline in the language and a weakening in the culture, but who put forward different explanations. Garifuna scholar Jeremy Enriquez argued in Belize’s largest newspaper, Amandala, that:
While Palacio’s book concludes with a set of measures the people of Barranco could take to revitalize their approach to land tenure, it is easy to see Palacio’s latest work as more than development research. It is also a response to the widely perceived malaise in Garifuna culture, focusing attention on what has been abandoned by the rush to modernization and migration.
The 960-acre Saint Vincent Block, bought by the Garifuna for their use in neighboring Punta Gorda in the 1920s, lies fallow, serving as a possible metaphor for aspects of Garifuna culture. In the schools, “even the teachers don’t know the language anymore,” says Palacio. “Where the language exists is in the spirituality, in religious and ancestral rites. That is where it’s still practised, and songs […]”
After describing the various measures that the people of Barranco had attempted to develop new livelihoods, and the diverse responses to oil exploration and the establishment of the neighboring national park, Palacio said that these were
That identity was formed in Saint Vincent, where nationhood “provided the Garifuna with an economic infrastructure, a political power base, and a strong cultural identity.” After the destruction of their crops and their expulsion, Palacio explained:
The cultural wealth inherent in this nationhood is explored in one of Dr. Palacio’s earlier edited books: The Garifuna: A Nation Across Borders. A collection of anthropological essays, the book contains this description by British anthropologist Byron Foster of a dügü ceremony:
We see the wider meanings and functions of spirit possession, including its role in linking the past and the present:
Dr. Palacio took the time to explain this ambiguity further:
In their contribution to the volume, Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano tell us that the Garifuna language, which integrates Arawak and Carib, and which was declared a “masterpiece of the oral intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in 2001, is severely threatened. It possesses forms and structures used exclusively by males, and is the only survivor of the island languages descended from Arawakan.
The threat that the language and with it much of the culture shall fall silent on the Central American mainland serves to both frighten and motivate those working to ensure the continuation of Garifuna culture and society.
Palacios and his colleagues conclude that their research has shown “that land tenure, enriched by the strong bonds of kinship, gender, ethnicity, and socio-cultural values, had at an earlier time been the basis of the overall wellbeing of Barranco,” and they argue that the traditional lands of the village be demarcated and reserved for the use of villagers.
Whether this can be accomplished under a government suspicious of collective land titles remains to be seen, but the researching and publishing of the book may already have influenced opinion in the village itself. The chairman of the Barranco Village Council recently declined to give positive feedback to the oil company’s environmental and social impact statement, and a letter on behalf of the community later expressed objection to the assumption that “the oil company can do whatever they want within our community and that they do not have to account to the community.”
Such an emphasis on consent feeds the discourse of indigenous human rights, pursued legally with some success by their Maya neighbors. It is unclear, however, whether the Garifuna of Barranco will be able to develop this indignation into a movement to assert land rights when so few of their people live from the land.
Whether similar farms like Quiripi, Lagunurugu, and Dulcis Domis — now lying beneath the rainforest — will be established again will depend on transformations in the economic, social and cultural direction of the village as much as the legal framework. The book’s research has already ensured that the farms have been recovered for collective memory, and it is to be hoped that Garifuna society again finds a means for its own sustainability, and that the songs and language of Yurumein, as Saint Vincent is known in Garifuna, live on by the Bay of Amatique.