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Echuni, Inebesei, Pantaü (Tradition, Respect, Pride in Garifuna)

EcoLogic’s Work with Garifuna fisherfolk in Belize

As perhaps all EcoLogic supporters and fans know, we work hand-in-hand with rural and indigenous communities in Mesoamerica to conserve nature in ways that empower local people. For most who have traveled to the region, particularly in Guatemala, the word “indigenous” is likely associated with Mayan ethnicities—rightfully so, given Mayan groups make up about 40% of the population of Guatemala. However, if you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the Caribbean coast of Central America, you might have been introduced to the Garifuna, a minority indigenous group with a distinct language, music, food, and way of life.

Much of EcoLogic’s work throughout Guatemala and southern Mexico takes place in partnership with various Mayan groups (though we also work with the non-Mayan Chinantec in Oaxaca). But it is likely a lesser known fact that we also work closely with Garifuna communities in southern Belize and Caribbean Guatemala, particularly around coastal conservation and sustainable fishing. With this article, we hope to shine a light on the inspiring history and cultural heritage of the Garifuna and of EcoLogic’s work with them.

Gabriela González, EcoLogic Director of Programs, chats with Leslie Colón, President of the Barranco Sustainable Fishing Cooperative, on a boat ride through the Amatique Bay. (Photo Credit: Chris Patterson).

Gabriela González, EcoLogic Director of Programs, chats with Leslie Colón, President of the Barranco Sustainable Fishing Cooperative, on a boat ride through the Amatique Bay. (Photo Credit: Chris Patterson).

The Garifuna people (sometimes called “Garinagu”—plural of Garifuna) are an ethnic group which originated on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent as cultural mix between people of native Caribbean origin (mostly Arawak and Carib) and people of African origin who were brought to the Caribbean as slaves. The Garifuna resisted British efforts to deprive them of their lands for many years. When they eventually lost their lands, those who survived a six-month imprisonment on the island of Baliceaux were loaded onto ships in 1797 and exiled to Central America. From there they spread to the mainland and along the Central American coast to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Since it was on the island of St. Vincent that the Garifuna came into existence as an identifiable group, they are considered to be indigenous to the Caribbean and Central America. Today there are approximately 500,000 Garifuna in Central America, with around 15,000 residing in Belize, 4,000 in Guatemala, and over 300,000 in Honduras (source: the National Garifuna Council of Belize, ngcbelize.org).

In Belize, EcoLogic works with the fisherfolk of Barranco, a Garifuna village located at the edge of Sarstoon-Temash National Park in southernmost region of Belize near the border with Guatemala. The village of Barranco was settled around 1860 and, in addition to fishing, became an agricultural production center, producing rice and pineapple for local and national markets. Currently the village has approximately 150 residents and is recognized as one of the last traditional Garifuna communities in Belize (ngcbelize.org). The economy in Barranco is largely based on subsistence agriculture and fishing, so conserving natural resources is vital to this community. Though the Garifuna deeply value the conservation of their natural environment, overfishing has been a significant problem, causing the younger generation in particular to leave the village in order to find work elsewhere.

EcoLogic’s work with the Barranco Sustainable Fishing Cooperative is threefold. First, along with our Belizean partner, the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), we support the association with the establishment and monitoring of voluntary “no-take zones” (demarcated sections of the bay where fisherfolk agree to not fish during certain periods in order to allow the fish stocks and the natural food chain to replenish), as well as the associated community education needed so that people are aware of and abide by the no-take zones. Second, we are helping build the association’s organizational and technical capacity, so that their leaders have the skills and systems in place to be effective in the long run. And third, we are linking up the Barranco fisherfolk with fisherfolk in Guatemala so that their efforts complement and support one another, given their shared interest in the ecosystem of the Amatique Bay and its resources.

This third point is of the utmost importance if communities are to be successful in reviving the ecosystem of the Bay. The coastal communities and fishing cooperatives and associations around the Bay are extremely diverse. They are Garifuna, Mayan, and Mestizo. Each group fishes for distinct species (from fish to crustaceans), with distinct practices (from artisanal line fishing to trawling), for distinct purposes (from subsistence to commercial). Yet, they are all unified by their dependence on a functional ecosystem, and they understand the imperative of working together to maintain it.

EcoLogic’s work aims to help these diverse groups put into place agreed-upon measures that will improve the sustainability of the fish stocks and broader health of the ecosystem upon which their livelihoods depend. The efforts being made in the region right now to develop this unified platform are truly remarkable. In particular, EcoLogic has been able to foster what is becoming an extremely valuable and dynamic relationship between the Fisherfolk Association of Barranco and the Fisherfolk Association of Barra Sarstún, which is just across the border in Guatemala. The Association of Barra Sarstún is more developed and now has a strong track record in its ability to establish, secure buy-in for, and monitor sustainable fishing practices, and they have essentially become models and advisors for the Association of Barranco. The camaraderie and unity that has formed across the border—in a region with a history of mistrust and disconnect—is a remarkable step forward. You can read more about EcoLogic’s work in the transboundary area of Sarstún and the Amatique Bay here.

In EcoLogic’s work, we always seek to strike the right balance between the conservation of an ecosystem and the needs of the communities that depend upon it. We also seek to find balance between diverse cultures and actors. Our work with the Garifuna of Barranco builds upon their traditional wisdom and incredible willingness to commit to sustainability. It also emphasizes the need for cross-cultural collaboration, and demonstrates that diverse people can come together for the betterment of their shared resources. What an example for us all!

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