Hondurans Stake Their Claim

Indigenous peoples mount defense of their land and culture from spreading colonization

`PRETEND you are a hawk flying and looking down along the Patuca River. You are going upstream and you see the village of Krausirpe. Now where do you look to find Krautara?'' The Tawahka Sumu Indians crowd around the map of their home, the Mosquitia rain forest, and point correctly. They are learning how to read a map, the first step toward defending their land and culture, which is being threatened by a rapid colonization movement coming from the interior of Honduras, a change occurring along the entire Atlantic Coast of Central America. The man giving the lesson is Andrew Leake, a British volunteer working with MOPAWI, a Honduran organization that is helping the Indians of the Mosquitia gain land titles.

``A lot of people in the United States are concerned about saving the rain forests and I think a good idea is to ally ourselves with the people who have been living in the rain forests for centuries and preserving them,'' says Mac Chapin of Cultural Survival, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that works with indigenous peoples. ``The Indians are doing in practice what we have been doing through media campaigns. They've been trying to save their land, which is the forest.''

The Sumus are just one of many tribes throughout Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama fighting the same battle, according to Mr. Chapin, the program director who works in Central America.

``Indians have virtually disappeared on the Pacific Coast and there are no forests there,'' he says. ``The Indians have escaped into the jungles to take refuge from the whites and now we see a lot of mestizos [people of Spanish-Indian descent] and whites pushing into those jungles.''

Leaders from three of the seven Honduran Sumu communities met in Krausirpe, the largest village. It has 70 houses, one-room wooden structures on posts. Most are barren inside, with maybe a hammock and a small table. There are no fences, unlike even the most remote villages in the ladino (mestizo) area of Honduras. Women are outside dehulling rice by pounding it with a heavy wooden club. Others are making bags out of materials and dyes from the forest. Men navigate their canoes, fishing or traveling to another area to hunt. There is little commercial agriculture except for small-scale cultivation of rice, beans, and cacao trees. There is no paid work. There is no health facility closer than a four-hour canoe ride.

What does exist is a dense rain forest on hilly uplands that spill over the shores of the Patuca River providing wood, medicine, clothing, wild animals, and food for a people who have depended on the forest for centuries. In other areas of Honduras, forests have been turned to desert as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture, cattle-raising, firewood collection, and overpopulation. From 1964 to 1986, 34.8 percent of Honduras's tropical forest was destroyed, at an annual rate of 160,000 acres, according to the Honduran government.

The wave of deforestation is now moving in the direction of the Sumus and their ancestral land.

``We've felt a lot of fear in the last two years,'' says Lorenzo Tinglas, a young Sumu from the village of Krautara, who despite only a sixth-grade education speaks articulately. ``If we lose our land, we automatically lose everything that is our culture,'' he says. ``Everything we make, such as bows and arrows and tuno [traditional dress made from tree bark] come from the mountains. If we lose that, we would be converted into ladino peasants.''

The Sumus, known for their gentleness and hard work, are the most vulnerable ethnic group in Honduras. They are part of the country's minority indigenous people, who make up less than 10 percent of the total population. The Sumus are the smallest group, numbering around 700, outnumbered by the Mosquitia's dominant ethnic group, the Miskitos. Not all Sumus speak Spanish and not a single one has studied beyond high school, making them the least-prepared people in Honduras to repel a threat to their existence.

Their first organizational effort began three years ago with the formation of the Indigenous Tawahka Federation of Honduras, but not all has gone smoothly.

``Organizing is difficult because we have little experience, especially dealing with people in the village who have different levels of education,'' says Mr. Tinglas. ``Before we didn't have to plan for the future because there was no threat. But little by little people are seeing with their own eyes and learning.''

What they saw and what scared them was the arrival of 35 armed Honduran Ladinos, some firing AK-47 semi-automatic machine guns in the air on the shores of Krautara. Poor peasants themselves, they were financed and armed by wealthier cattle ranchers who got the weapons from US-backed Nicaraguan contras. In this case, the 35 brought their families, cut 125 acres, and planted corn.

The Sumus asked for help from the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INA), which persuaded the invaders to leave after three months. Typically, invaders will cultivate for a year or two until they realize that the forest's soil is too acidic for corn and then sell the land to the cattle ranchers.

By law, INA can give 13 acres of land to each family. But because the Indians use much of their land communally, this solution was not appropriate. INA stretched the rules and gave Krausirpe a provisional guarantee of 18,500 acres.

``The people use at least five times that area,'' says Peter Herlihy, a cultural geographer from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La. Under a Fulbright research grant, he lived with the Sumus six months to study and map their land use and make maps to facilitate their application for land titles.

``If the government is going to give a small piece of land to each village, they may as well give nothing,'' Mr. Herlihy says. ``It's not going to preserve the culture or the rain forest. And it's not necessarily a lack of will on INA's part but rather a lack of information. Even the Indians don't understand all the issues involved. What they do understand is that their resources are being depleted.''

The recently elected President Rafael Leonardo Callejas has shown interest in environmental and indigenous issues. After his January inauguration, he called in all the mayors of Honduras and gave them an environmental mandate and his first trip outside the capital was to the Mosquitia. The new director of INA, Juan Ramon Martinez, is a lawyer and journalist known for taking on the establishment. He is ready to execute a national experiment.

``The flora and fauna we should deliver to their inhabitants to care for them and preserve them,'' he says. ``The government is not going to protect the forest, the fauna, the rivers, but rather the people. And the people are going to protect nature.''

SOME are skeptical of the new government's overtures. ``The trip to the Mosquitia by President Callejas was political,'' says Antonio Lopez, director of organization and training at CAHDEA, which represents the seven indigenous groups in Honduras. ``It is true that the director of INA has shown some interest, but any INA director can have good intentions but not be able to do anything without the support of the government.''

Mr. Martinez replies, ``I am part of the government and I have support. I don't feel any pressure from President Callejas to not touch certain interests. He has given me complete freedom to enforce the law.''

Only three great wilderness regions remain in Central America: Guatemala's Peten, Panama's Darien, and the Mosquitia of Honduras and Nicaragua. What Herlihy, MOPAWI, and the Sumus propose as a solution to save their region is a Sumu forest reserve, which would be owned and managed by the Sumus with the agreement that they would continue to preserve the forest.

``You look at the forest and you think this could never be destroyed, but it could happen overnight,'' says Herlihy. ``[T]o preserve this region is to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Honduras, not just 700 people.''

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