‘The Ends of Paradise’ Explores the Struggles of Honduras’ Black and Indigenous Peoples
Professor Christopher Loperena’s new book reveals the challenges faced by Garifuna as they assert their rights to their ancestral land.
Garifuna, a Black Indigenous people whose presence in Honduras predates the country’s independence, are often perceived as non-native inhabitants of the land they call home. That land happens to be some of the most sought-after coastline in Honduras, prized for its beaches and its use in agriculture.
In his new book, The Ends of Paradise: Race, Extraction, and the Struggle for Black Life in Honduras, Professor Christopher Loperena (Anthropology), who has worked with Garifuna activists, takes a close look at the threats faced by Garifuna and their efforts to defend their communal land. He will launch the book at a hybrid Anthropology Colloquium event at the Graduate Center on March 17.
Loperena recently spoke to the Graduate Center from Puerto Rico, where he is taking classes related to a project on race and climate vulnerability that was awarded a Mellon New Directions grant.
The Graduate Center: How did you first become interested in Honduras’ Garifuna communities and their fight against tourism and agricultural developers?
Loperena: I went there first as an activist, and became interested in these political struggles and in Garifuna land defense strategies. Then, when I entered graduate school, I had the opportunity to collaborate on an interdisciplinary team working to support Garifuna land claims via a large multi-communal diagnostic study, and I was the lead ethnographer on that study. The diagnostic that we produced was eventually used to substantiate Garifuna claims to the lands that they reside on, and which are currently under siege from these different extractivist development initiatives.
There are about 46 Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and on the island of Roatán, and because these are coastal communities located on lands that are highly coveted now for their touristic potential, tourism investors have taken an interest. There’s a lot of land speculation and land-grabbing taking place related to tourism, but also related to agro-industry and agricultural development, specifically African palm.
GC: Do you consider activism to be an important part of your academic work?
Loperena: It was really important when I was deciding to pursue graduate school. I felt I needed to be in a program that would allow me to bridge my political and activist work with my intellectual work and the questions that I would be asking in my research. And so that relationship between politics and intellectual inquiry was always closely coupled.
Everybody enters their field work in a different way. The way that I entered mine was via this political and activist work. I was responding in part to political questions that the organizations I was aligned with were asking as well, and that I saw my work as being able to respond to in some way. My next project will probably take a different shape, but I know that politics will continue to be at the at the core of the work that I do, because I see myself as a politically engaged researcher.
GC: In the book you say Garifuna define themselves as a Black Indigenous people, yet some academics, the Honduran government, and even other Hondurans find this confusing. Why is that?
Loperena: Garifuna have this really complicated history. They are a Black Indigenous people of African, Arawak, and Carib ancestry. They arrived in Honduras in 1797, initially in Roatán, after they were exiled from the island of Saint Vincent. And then from there, they established all these communities along the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
They have been in Honduras since before Honduras gained its independence from Spain in 1823. And I think that’s really significant, because what we see happening is that Garifuna are often positioned as outsiders to Honduras or as recent arrivants. Part of what the book is trying to grapple with is why. What is so fundamentally problematic about Garifuna identity, and about Black Indigenous identity, in particular, for the Honduran state?
One of the things that I argue in the book is that Garifuna are denied their claims to indigeneity by virtue of being Black or a visibly Black people, and that that denial of indigeneity is a tactic of displacement used by the state to simultaneously deny Garifuna rights and claims to Honduran national territory. This is why Garifuna have brought their demands to international courts, as well, to say: We are an Indigenous people. We are a Black Indigenous people. And we claim these lands as our ancestral territory. And we have a right to be recognized as the rightful heirs to these lands, in spite of the state’s attempts to continuously position us as outsiders.
GC: Is there a lack of academic work on the Black peoples of Central America?
Loperena: There certainly have been some really formative studies. Beginning in the 1950s, anthropologists started publishing work on Garifuna culture and spiritual beliefs. There are Garifuna communities in Belize and Nicaragua and Guatemala, and of course, a large Garifuna diaspora in the U.S. But typically, when we think of Central America, we don’t think of Black peoples. It’s a generalization that I think we make, and that we see reflected in the scholarship on the region.
One thing I think is difficult for us, or that I see happening, is that we often understand Blackness and indigeneity, at least in the scholarship, as mutually exclusive categories of difference. So this is one thing I’m trying to write against in the work that I produced. The other point that’s important to mention here is that this sort of exteriorization of Blackness is very much related to Honduran history. So after Honduras gains independence from Spain, like many other countries in Latin America, it is attempting to carve out a unique national identity that recognizes its unique racial mixture. The Honduran version of mestizaje is rooted in notions of Indo-Hispanic racial mixture, so that’s to say, Indigenous and European racial mixture. It is exclusive of Blackness. Of course, that has all sorts of political and material consequences for Black Hondurans, including the Garifuna, the English-speaking Black population or the Creole population, and even the Miskito population, which also has African ancestry.
GC: In the book you discuss alternative imaginings of the future and hopes for another world in which Indigenous and Black peoples thrive. How do Garifuna envision a more promising future for themselves?
Loperena: The development projects that are underway on the Caribbean coast, and that are leading to land dispossession, are projects promoted not just by the state but multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. They’re promoted as projects that will create development, that will bring progress and prosperity to Honduras, but often at the expense of Indigenous and Black peoples’ rights. Lands with the largest concentrations of forests, water, white sand beaches, fertile soil — those are largely concentrated in Indigenous and Black territories. So that development or that promise for a more prosperous future is contingent on the extraction of those resources from those communities.
In the Garifuna community, this has created a divide because, of course, some people see an opportunity to perhaps hinge their own progress onto these other types of developments, like perhaps tourism will bring steady employment or formal employment to the community. But then you have also a large contingent of activists that are fighting to defend the ancestral rights of the community, specifically communal property rights, and that understand the community’s well-being to be contingent on the defense of those communal property rights, so that in the future Garifuna will have a place to build their homes, to cultivate their crops, to have a place for their children. So you have different notions of progress butting up against one another, and that have everything to do with these struggles over land that are at the center of the book.
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