Rediscovering the Half-Forgotten Farms of the Garifuna




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 tenure, that although there is this contradiction, by nature a people have houses, they have plot lands, they have farmlands. So that is the crux of this book.

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 stroke of the surveyor’s pen firstly dispossessed many a person of his/her lot, then officially re-allocated the same lot to him/her; or, in some cases, completely dispossessed him/her by giving the lot to others.

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:

There are two systems in land tenure; there was the formal system done by the British colonial government and then there was an informal system which we developed over time, and somehow these two systems have co-adjusted to each other over the past 150, 160 years.

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.

But when it comes to land claims the Maya have taken the bull by the horns, and they have been doing their work with no consultation with the Garifuna people, which is unfortunate, because in the work that we’ve done in our book there are several overlaps historically where we could work together as two indigenous peoples. But the atmosphere has not been conducive to this kind of dialogue and interaction. Part of the reason for this isn’t so much the fault of the Maya —it is that the funders, who are mostly North American, have difficulty accepting black people as indigenous people. I know this for a fact because I dealt with them on quite a few issues.

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,

We saw education as the answer. And if the jobs weren’t available here then we went to where they were. And at that time, I’m talking about the 1960s and the 1970s, when jobs were available easily, in the United States for example, people went in large numbers to work.

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:

Despite the solid economic and cultural contributions that Garinagu have made to Belize’s development, the legacy of an embedded colonial value system has continued to keep them marginalized and often treated as second class citizens in their own country. […] This same colonial mind-set and value system are also evident in the condescending behavior towards indigenous peoples who seek to maintain their own ancestral cultural values. Such state of affairs is yet to be uprooted in order to transform our society into a truly inclusive Belizean one.

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

Relatively minor issues, minor to the fact that we are talking about a territorialized people who have been de-territorialized. That to me is the issue, and how this affects the history, how this affects the identity, and how this affects their sense of being as a people.

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:

A concerted effort to reduce many of them to squatters and cheap wage labour broke the resolve of many to retain their cultural identity, forcing them to join the majority mixed population, either mestizo in Central America or Creole in Belize. For others, it strengthened their resolve to reconstitute their nationhood.

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:

In the villages the cult house is constructed on the beach, its main entrance facing eastward across the Caribbean. At first light, as the rite begins, fishing crews, composed of both men and women, circle offshore in their dories in readiness for their ceremonial entry. The crews, adorned with head-dresses of palm fronds and vines, have come from the cayes, when they bring fish and crab as offerings for the ancestors, but their arrival also signals that of the ancestors, who accompany them on their journey.

We see the wider meanings and functions of spirit possession, including its role in linking the past and the present:

Myth and history are fused together in the ritual portrayal of the ancestral journey from the past to the present. Because of this fusion, the picture is initially confusing, for the ancestors arrive at the cult house both from Saint Vincent-sairi, and from the mud floor of the cult house itself; but it is from this ambiguity that the rite derives its meaning. On the one hand, the ancestors journey from Seiri, the afterworld of luxuriant manioc gardens, and from Saint Vincent, the historical ancestral home. The ancestors in this merged aspect enter the cult house through the doorways, and are referred to as áhari — the dead in their beneficent aspect. On the other hand, they are drawn into the cult house from its mud floor; in this aspect the dead are gubida — malevolent. We will suggest that dügü transforms the dead from their malevolent to their beneficent aspect: from gubida, associated with the physical decomposition of the grave site, to áhari, associated with the air and with the mythico-historical ancestral home. Exuberant possession at dügü signals ancestral joy at this transformation.

Dr. Palacio took the time to explain this ambiguity further:

There are two metaphorical meanings for St. Vincent in reference here. One is Seiri, which is comparable to the term “heaven” for Christians. The other is “home” as a place where everything was as the Garifuna would have wanted as a people here on Earth — their political structure, economic means of livelihood, natural resources, etc. The recent dead (i.e., two or more generations ago) are the ones brought from under the mud floor of the dabuyaba. They are the ones for which the dügü ceremony is being held. Their souls need to be lifted from earth to be taken back to Seiri, where they will ultimately reside. During the ceremony those, who are already in Seiri, who had already gone through their dügü ritual, are invoked to receive the ones that are being “cleansed” during the current ritual.

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.

Because the British rounded up most of the Black Caribs prior to their exile, the people and the culture are now non-existent on Saint Vincent. The language is not spoken, the rituals are not practised, the songs are not heard, the foods are not eaten; the culture is only a distant memory, if anything at all.

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.

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