Indian Land Uses Are Put on the Map
Project in Honduras works to protect ancient rights
TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — FOR centuries Sinito Waylan's family has lived with and from the forest. Generations of the Miskito Indians of Honduras have built their homes and dug-out canoes from its wood, used its medicinal plants, and made ceremonial clothes from its tree bark. Their food has come from hunting wild animals, fishing in the ocean and rivers, small-scale cultivation, and gathering wild herbs and fruit.
But 500 years after Columbus's arrival in his land, Mr. Waylan is unsure if his son will be able to continue this traditional lifestyle.
"If just the next generation could live as I have, that would mean eternal happiness for me," he says in Miskito, his first language.
Waylan is one of 22 indigenous representatives who gathered information that was used to create a land-use map like no other in Latin America. The map could be the key to obtaining legal rights to their land.
More than 35,000 Indians live in the Mosquitia, a land of tropical forest and savannah made known by the book and the movie "The Mosquito Coast." They are placing their hopes on a four-year-old program administered by MOPAWI, a nonprofit agency that is helping the Indians to organize and petition the government for land titles in the face of encroaching colonists who clear the forest for cattle and crops.
Coordinated by British volunteer Andrew Leake, the program recently sponsored the First Congress on Indigenous Lands of the Mosquitia, where the Indians impressed the Honduran vice president, land authorities, government ministers, military officials, and others with the presentation of the unique land-use map. The information on the map will serve as a reference for government authorities in charge of land titles, development, and resource management.
"We hope the congress has provided base-line information that will orient land-tenancy thinking and economic-development policies," says Mr. Leake. "It's an historic event. And it's interesting [to see] the factors that have come together to make it possible - the Indians, the agency, the donor, and the academic."
The donor is Cultural Survival, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., that works with indigenous peoples and financed the land-legalization program, including the map and the congress.
"In most countries in Central America there is no history of legislation [dealing with] Indian lands which are communal lands, and the map and congress focus attention on this," says Mac Chapin of Cultural Survival. "The whole process of the congress gets a lot of the Indians thinking about what kind of development they want. We're going to try to do this throughout Central America."
The academic is Peter Herlihy, a cultural geographer and professor at Southeastern Lou- isiana University in Hammond, La., who has lived in the Mosquitia and made the map.
"Indigenous areas throughout Central America are the least known areas, and we're putting the Indians on the map," Professor Herlihy says. "If you're talking about natural-resource conservation in protected areas, you have to talk about indigenous populations and their social use of the land. For example, there are 240 protected areas in Central America, and indigenous populations live in or have access to resources within 85 percent of those areas."
Information for the land-use map was collected by representatives of 22 regions of the Mosquitia, including four indigenous groups: Miskitos, Garifunas, Tawahkas, and Pesch. They met with 200 communities to ask them where they cultivate, hunt, fish, pan for gold, gather materials for house and boat construction, and collect medicinal plants. They traveled in dug-out canoes, with and without outboard motors, by horse, motorcycle, bicycle, and on foot, sometimes in heavy storms in isolated areas.
"The weather was terrible," recounts Olegario Lopez, a member of the Garifuna ethnic group, who visited eight communities. "There was so much mud that it came up to the chest of my horse, so I had to get off and pull him out. My questionnaires got all wet."
Others were stung by mosquitoes and nearly bitten by poisonous snakes. Some received death threats.
"In one village they told me that they would give me information only because they knew me, and so if I cheated them they'd know where to find me," says Quintin Castro, a Miskito. "I really resented those words, because some of them were friends and neighbors."
Almost all the 22 surveyors encountered villagers fearful of saying too much, such as where they find hardwood trees and where they pan gold, information government officials or a private company could use for personal economic interests, according to Leake. Also, rumors have circulated that the government plans to relocate inhabitants from a reserve in the Mosquitia, making people suspicious of questions about land use.
After filling out their questionnaires with the communities, the surveyors met in Puerto Lempira, where they shared the information with Herlihy. He spent some 100 hours looking up more than 5,000 points on maps. The result was a land-use map of each of the 22 regions, which the surveyors took back to the communities to be reviewed and corrected. Herlihy then made one single map of the entire Mosquitia.
"The map caused a sensation," says Tomas Rivas, another Miskito, about his second trip to the communities. "All the people are very enthusiastic. Now I notice that the people are starting to become more aware of their natural resources, and they feel the need to unite and protect their land."