Alfredo Lopez is a hunted man.
He, along with other land rights activists, has received numerous death threats and has been the target of several attacks. While leading efforts to stop a large tourist development from displacing Afro-descendant communities, he was jailed on trumped-up charges and spent six years in prison before being released for lack of evidence. “In the end we succeeded,” Alfredo notes. “But it cost us six years of jail, and five of my colleagues were assassinated. However, we are still here, working, and pushing forward.” Why so much effort to get rid of Alfredo, one might ask. Soft-spoken and humble, Alfredo Lopez is a well-known and respected community leader with the Garifuna population (the descendants of Africans who evaded slavery, and indigenous Arawaks) living on the Northern coast of Honduras. He works with the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), a human rights organization and Grassroots International partner which defends the culture, land and territory of the Garifuna people on Honduras’ Atlantic coast. Alfredo explains that threats to personal safety are commonplace for human rights defenders in Honduras. Embroiled in the middle of political violence spurred on by a hardline, military-backed government, Honduras is on record as one of the most violent countries in the western hemisphere. His work brings him into direct conflict with powerful interests in the nation. Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast, inhabited by the Garifunas for centuries, is a gorgeous land renowned for its coastal beauty, fabulous beaches and reefs, and fertile lands. It is prized territory—of great interest to developers and investors with their eyes on big profits to be gleaned from tourist developments, palm oil production and mega farms. The only problem for the investors is that the land happens to be occupied by Garifuna people. Alfredo notes wryly that defending their lands from being snatched away is nothing new to Garifunas. The history of the Garifunas started with a remarkable story of Africans who successfully overcame their European captors and steered the slave ships towards Honduras and freedom over three centuries ago. Now numbering more than a quarter of a million people spread out along the northern coast of Honduras, Garifunas have established a strong culture with their own unique language and lifestyle. Defending themselves is something Garifunas have had to do from the beginning. Alfredo, as vice-president of OFRANEH, is an outspoken and articulate advocate for defending Garifuna territory, language and culture. This is most likely the reason why he was arrested and packed off to a dingy prison for six years. It was only through community pressure, international solidarity, and a ruling by the International Human Rights Commission Court in Costa Rica that the Honduran government eventually conceded it had no evidence to support the charges, and freed him. Alfredo recalls how hard it was on his wife and children. Conditions in Honduran jails are horrible, and his family never knew whether they would see him alive again. But ever the community organizer and affable spirit, Alfredo made friends with other inmates and his jailers. He jokes that the real reason they let him go was because he was organizing the other prisoners. Since leaving jail, he has not stopped being a major headache for local authorities, resort investors, and land developers who, in their efforts to unlock the riches of the Garifuna lands, would like nothing better than to have him silenced, for good. He has helped OFRANEH set up a network of six community radio stations that are unifying Garifuna communities along the coast. The stations educate the communities about their rights, history and culture and keep them up to date on current news and strategies for defending their territories. OFRANEH has also set up an impressive network of international solidarity as well as a national network of allies across the country to help them in their efforts. They keep a close eye on the Honduran government, mobilizing people for rallies and protests at key moments of legislation affecting Garifunas. They recently won a Honduran court order to reestablish rights to 180 hectares of Garifuna coastal land—remarkable given the endemic corruption of the nation’s legal system. One of their latest struggles is with a Canadian pornography tycoon who has acquired title under shady circumstances to large tracts of prime, beach-front Garifuna land. “He made a fortune as a child pornographer in Canada. But here he has become a respected man with a lot of power…. He’s building tourist resorts, and buying up communal lands, basically displacing Garifunas,” explains Alfredo, who is leading efforts to mobilize international support to stop the developer. The challenges are many, yet even though they are armed with little more than stiff determination, Alfredo and his organization continue in their push for justice. Alfredo relates how the Garifunas find strength from the past: “Our ancestors suffered through the same situation as us, perhaps even worse. They were forced onto boats and shipped from Africa. Many were not lucky enough to survive the journey and died along the way. We try to remember and respect their sacrifices, and this helps us today in our struggles.”