Land rights defender Miriam Miranda
Land rights defender Miriam Miranda

(WOMENSENEWS)– Miriam Miranda, a Garifuna land rights defender and head of a black human rights organization, was attacked and kidnapped by heavily armed men this summer.

The incident was part of the massive struggle by the Garifuna people, who are descendants of African, Carib and Arawak Indians and have owned communal lands for more than 200 years in Northern Honduras spanning the departments of Cortés, Atlántida, Islas de la Bahía, Gracias a Dios and Colón.

Like Miranda, many Garifuna land defenders live in a constant state of danger and violence perpetrated not only by drug dealers but also by extractive industries, land barons, local businessmen and state officials and who often have ties to the narco traffickers and corporate interests.

As women exercise leadership and raise their voices, gender violence has increased. A 2012 Arms Survey Report placed Honduras as the seventh country in the world for its femicide rates. Overall, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.

Approximately half of the Garifuna population between the ages of 12 and 30 has left the country since mid-2013, and some to the United States.

Given this, the U.S. should reconsider its support of militarization as part of its antinarcotics strategy.

In the case of Miranda, she and seven colleagues were conducting a routine visit to their land in Vallecito, located in the Colón Department in Northern Honduras, in an area where illegal invasions to Garifuna land have been occurring.

Drug dealers had re-invaded Vallecito to reconstruct an illegal landing strip that had been demolished months before by local authorities. Realizing that the landing strip had been restored, Miranda and her colleagues took photographs. As they continued inspecting a nearby agricultural area, they were attacked and surrounded by heavily armed men who kidnapped them.

One of Miranda’s colleagues was able to hide in the bushes from the attackers and called for help. Alerts to local and international land rights networks prompted the often-negligent local police to arrive to the area in Vallecito.

As the armed men were violently grouping their captives, they contacted via cell phone their "narco head" and received instructions to keep the seven Garifunas in the area and destroy the pictures taken. After a couple of hours in captivity at gunpoint, Miranda and the others were freed and the armed men escaped.

Threats and Violence

Women’s rights activists, particularly black and indigenous women in Latin America, continue to face threats and violence because of their defense of land rights.

Among Garifunas, ancestral land is communal and it is passed on by mothers to their children. This means Garifuna women are on the front lines to reclaim and protect their ancestral land, and as a result, they have been specifically targeted and attacked.

Not only have Garifuna women traditionally been the ones inheriting land and cultivating and harvesting it, but they play a role as leaders in the transmission of cultural traditions and in the protection of the collective wellbeing of their community, where communal land occupies a paramount role.

The Honduran government has passed a series of privatization laws and has either imposed or allowed international corporate projects such as tourism development and agribusiness, without the consent of the ancestral landowners, the Garifunas. For women, in particular, this process has meant the loss of their territorial control through violence.

Gregoria Flores Martínez, one of Miranda’s predecessors in the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, was shot and wounded in 2005 as she was collecting testimonies regarding the wrongful imprisonment of a Garifuna land defender. Martínez fled to live in exile. Martinez and Miranda were both granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But the Honduran government has done very little to protect the Garifuna defenders and address these crimes.

Galvanizing Action

Just last month, the Honduran police and army evicted the Garifuna community of Barra Vieja from their land, directly adjacent to the Indura Beach and Golf Resort.

Over 200 complaints, including this eviction in Barra, have been filed by Garifuna communities with the municipal authorities with little result. The Garifuna also have filed complaints with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

At the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit Black and Indigenous women’s land defenders in particular urged heads of states to take action and to look at this issue with a women’s rights lens.

They demanded respect and recognition for their knowledge and role in agriculture as managers, cultivators and harvesters of mother earth and protectors of their eco systems. They warned against corporate interests and privatization of land, and argued for food sovereignty, restitution of communal ancestral lands, and sustainable agricultural practices.

Land rights activists have fought against industries that have appropriated their lands for mining, monocultures of palm oil, and mega-tourism development projects because these industries have caused severe environmental degradation and human rights violations.

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report notes that, in rural Honduras, over 90 people have been killed in recent years in land disputes in the Bajo Aguán Valley, in the Department of Colón.

A Need to End Militarization

In face of all these crimes, it is worrisome that the United States’ policy towards Honduras has focused on increasing militarization under the rubric of counter narcotic operations, propelling human rights abuses. For example, in 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with the Honduran police "mistakenly" killed four innocent civilians in the village of Ahuas, including a 14-year-old child and a pregnant woman.

Rather than investing in militarization and its vicious cycle of violence and impunity, U.S. foreign policy towards Honduras should focus on the promotion of human rights, with specific attention to women in marginalized communities.

Without this, any policy that disregards the gender specific aspects of violence would fail.

Miranda speaks with resilience and determination about her community and life struggles. For her, defending mother earth against environmental exploitation parallels the defense against the ethnic, gender and racial discrimination that Garifuna women and their bodies confront. She wishes for Afro-Indigenous children that they will be free to benefit from the land that is their birthright, and for the world to understand how this particular land struggle is really the struggle of humanity as a whole.