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For various reasons this article ended up never being published…just to clear that up!

A Brief History

Landfall on April 12, 1797 was not a joyful occasion. Marking the completion of a voyage of adversity and suffering, it was the final destination of a journey begun over one-hundred years earlier on slave ships embarking from West Africa with holds full of Nigerians bound for the slave markets of the New World.  The Garifuna people had arrived on Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

The initial voyage from West Africa, during the mid-to-late 1600s, saw their ships run aground close to the coast of St. Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean allowing the Nigerians a brief respite. Before long however they found themselves at odds with the indigenous population of Yellow Caribs, originally immigrants from South America, who also tried to enslave them. A period of conflict ensued but, over time, dwindled as many of the Yellow Caribs and Nigerians intermarried, giving rise to the Black Carib or Garifuna.

This most recent voyage, setting out on February 20, 1797, had taken them almost 3,000km (1,800mi) from the Island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles.  A remaining 2,500 Garifuna had been forcibly expelled, or more formally, expatriated, by the British Empire, retribution for  joining forces with the French and the Yellow Caribs in an attempt to free the island from British colonial rule. Many battles were fought but ultimately the protagonists were forced to surrender.

At first the survivors, numbering around 5,000, were hastily exiled to Balliceaux, a small island prison not far from St. Vincent where many died from disease and starvation. Eventually, the remaining Garifuna were shipped away, first to Jamaica and finally to Honduras where they were abandoned.

After enduring over 100 years of repression and discrimination, arrival on Roatan signalled a new era for the Garifuna. However, the relatively small island with its infertile ground initially proved a difficult place to establish a functional community.  Many moved to the mainland where the Spanish allowed them to settle in return for labour and military service.

Meanwhile, having formed a small settlement on the north of the island where they first arrived, a minority group of Garifuna chose to stay on Roatan, surviving by fishing, hunting, gathering and cultivating whatever they could. The population quickly grew and before long a permanent community was established. This became known as Punta Gorda.

For over 200 years the Garifuna have lived in relative peace in comparison to the hardships they had previously endured, forming other communities around the island. They now form a significant percentage of the 50,000 or so people who live on Roatan. Punta Gorda remains the oldest and largest Garifuna community on the island.

Barely noticeable from the main highway Punta Gorda lies at the end of a steep, dusty unpaved track. Driving down the hill in a cloud of dust, the turquoise flash of the Caribbean Sea on the horizon, a few ramshackle dwellings become apparent, half-hidden in the bushes on the hillside.

Punta Gorda

Barely noticeable from the main highway Punta Gorda lies at the end of a steep, dusty unpaved track about two thirds of the way along the north coast of Roatan. Driving down the track in a cloud of dust, the turquoise flash of the Caribbean Sea on the horizon, a few ramshackle dwellings become apparent, half-hidden in the bushes on the hillside. Reaching the junction and driving along the seafront a few people walk lazily along the beach while others prepare food in rickety cafes or hang out washing on makeshift lines. Dogs lounge here and there, too hot to move or wander sluggishly unhindered.

An hour’s drive from the touristic West End, itself by no means a frenetic community, entering Punta Gorda is a little like going back in time. Life here moves at a pace not in tune with the increasingly Americanised parts of the island, and although certain aspects of Western culture are evident, it would seem life in Punta Gorda has remained relatively unchanged for over 200 years.

By no means an easy life, considering their origins, the people of Punta Gorda have managed to build themselves a relatively comfortable and stable existence, based on simple values and firmly upheld traditions. But, the rapid, inevitable, and inexorable changes our world continues to experience raises the question of how much longer these will be maintained.

As a sign of the times new threats common to many subsistence communities are emerging, this time not from slavery, repression or discrimination but from more subtle sources, gradually closing in on established territories and eating away from within the community. Loss of land to major development projects is a real concern and this, combined with the gradual encroachment of Western idealism due to rapid globalisation, is building resentment and eroding traditional values.

With access to mobile phones and satellite TV many young people in Punta Gorda are acquiring a taste for Western materialism, turning their back on what they consider out-dated cultural traditions in favour of many of the falsities of the American ethos. Subsistence is becoming less dependent upon the “hunter/gatherer” traditions due to improved access, transportation, communications and a growing abundance of Western conveniences. Many of the community’s ‘twenty-somethings’ seek work overseas, usually in construction or shipping where they can earn reasonably good money. Those that do stay have limited options for employment outside the community and so the majority take to fishing as a quick source of income rather than what was once a necessity.

Fish, however, is still very much an integral component in the Garifuna diet and so dependence on the marine environment, albeit not as a crucial means of survival, remains. Unfortunately, as is all too common in this day and age, that dependence is frequently met with frustration and disappointment. In small dug-out canoes using hand lines or with make-shift spear guns, many hot, salty hours can be spent each day on the reef. In the past these hours would be rewarded with plentiful catches, but today the rewards are getting fewer and fewer as many fish on the reef have been over-harvested.

The lack of fish on these reefs is painfully apparent in just a couple of hours snorkelling. The problem is a symptom of not just overfishing, but an entire suite of natural and man-made pressures which, when combined, have a profoundly negative impact on the marine ecosystem. Although undoubtedly a global issue involving many factors both ecological and socioeconomic, positive changes can, and are being made on localised levels.

Others choose to spearfish with many hours spent each day swimming over the reef in search of suitable targets.

Protecting Resources

The implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs), specifically no-take zones (NTZs), has always been a contentious issue, and more so in developing regions. All too often unwitting Governments or organisations from the West blunder into an area and, without taking time to build a workable relationship with communities, begin to draw up regulations often based solely on ecological data, banning or restricting traditional fishing methods in locations which have been used for generations. While this is, in theory, good for the fish it rarely works because, faced with no other alternatives, fishermen continue to fish, albeit now effectively as criminals. This builds resentment in the community and quickly any conservation objectives are lost in a mess of political and social grievances. The other problem is the instigation of long-term management plans and suitable enforcement of regulations. Few MPAs include realistic financial projections or a level of management high enough to meet any kind of objectives, and in many cases management plans do not include any form of monitoring to assess these goals, if goals exist at all.

The only way MPAs can work in the long-term is by including the community at the outset, building trust and mutual understanding, providing tools to enable them to steer the planning and implementation in a way that is sensitive to their traditions. Many communities in developing coastal regions are fully aware of their declining fish stocks and deteriorating coral reefs, and they are open to some form of management to ensure sustainability. The problem is they generally neither have the knowledge or capacity to manage resources effectively, nor many realistic alternatives for the provision of food and income.

Such is the case with the Garifuna of Punta Gorda. Seeking guidance on how to effectively manage their fishing grounds, the people here are more than willing to accept help from outside the community, but are understandably wary due to the potential for exploitation or other undisclosed interests from third parties not genuinely concerned with the welfare of the community or maintaining its resources or traditions.

In a radical approach designed to steer the focus away from keystone coral reef species such as Parrotfish CME are working with the people of Punta Gorda to focus efforts on catching Lionfish.

Treading carefully, Centro de Estudios Marinos (CEM), a Honduran-based NGO, are providing just that. As is the case for many similar coastal communities, fishing, although no longer vital for survival, is fully ingrained into the Garifuna culture and, for some, one of the few sources of income so simply prohibiting the people from doing so is not, and rarely is, a viable option. While the necessary formation of a NTZ isn’t in dispute, there are ways and means to go about this in order to garner full support from key members of the community. Without this support at the initial stages the endeavour is really a non-starter, and so it is that Dr Steve Box, Director of CEM, is working closely with the community’s leaders to provide much needed advice on how best to proceed.

The primary objective here is to reduce the pressure on coral reef fishes, many of which are in severe decline, allowing a much needed period of recovery. Because many of the predatory reef fish, specifically Grouper and Snapper, have been depleted, species that were not previously considered by fishermen are now being targeted. Of these the greatest concern are Parrotfish, a herbivore which, in recent years, has been shown to be crucial in the maintenance of a healthy coral reef through the consumption of algae. Without Parrotfish many corals, which are already in a state of vulnerability, are struggling to compete with faster growing species of algae and so the structure and function of many coral reef ecosystems is rapidly changing.

In a radical approach designed to not only steer the focus away from Parrotfish, but also tackle another pressing conservation issue, Steve is pushing for the people of Punta Gorda to concentrate their efforts on catching Lionfish, a recent invasive to the Caribbean, and fortunately one that is good to eat! With this in mind the community has formed a fishing cooperative intending to provide many of the island’s restaurants with a steady supply of Lionfish which is quickly catching on with tourists. If this scheme can maintain momentum it will be the first step on the road to recovery for Punta Gorda’s fish stocks and ultimately, in time, the coral reef itself.

The next step, and one which needs to occur in conjunction with the change in catch, is the identification of a suitable location for a NTZ, an area where nobody will be allowed to fish, or fishing will be strictly limited, for a specified period. Steve is confident that successful management of such an area can be left in the hands of a community who understand the ecological and economic value of their resources. The people of Punta Gorda do understand this and, if kept on track, a section of reef here could soon be one of a handful of community-led MPAs, acting as a template for other communities throughout the Caribbean.

Sowing the Seeds

The story of how the Garifuna people came to be in Honduras, overcoming slavery, war, imprisonment and exile, and their astonishing ability to adapt is testament to their resilience and reassuring for the preservation of their natural resources, culture and traditions. The people of Punta Gorda are fiercely proud of their Afro-Carib heritage and maintain much of their traditional values. This is evident in most aspects of their lives, including food, music, dance, language, story-telling and religion the combination of which, in 2001, was declared by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize. For the most part their awareness of the environment and interest shown in managing sustainable natural resources demonstrates the desire to maintain, as far as possible, their traditional way of life with minimal reliance on the outside world. Whether such an agrarian utopia is possible, in an exponentially changing world, remains to be seen, but for now a few seeds of hope have been sown.