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A perspective of Garifuna history and values in the context of Guatemala’s claim

There is a kind of profoundly deep and unique pride that the Garinagu, especially their elders, tended to quietly nurture about their special attachment to southern Belize. It is a pride born from their own sparsely written history that has been largely evaded (as is much of Belize’s history) at all levels of Belize’s school system, including junior colleges, UB and Galen.

In  the beginning of the 1800s when the British timber merchants in the early settlement of Belize wanted to expand their harvesting of mahogany south of the Sibun River treaty limit, they had no choice but to seek and import Garifuna laborers from Roatan. This was only within five years after the surviving 2,026 exiled Garifuna men, women and children from St. Vincent were dumped on the island of Roatan in April 1797, to fend for themselves. Shipping these fierce and rebellious survivors to Africa following their war against the marauding British, as had been contemplated, would have been too costly.

Right around the turn of the 1800s, the settlement of Belize was facing a dire economic situation that threatened its existence. Although there was a sharp increase in the demand for mahogany in Europe, the last stands of once lucrative harvests north of the Sibun had been virtually depleted. Many of the enslaved labor had escaped to the neighboring Spanish territories and the white forestocracy (the Bakras) desperately needed a fresh supply of reliable labor.

The influx of Garifuna to the Belize settlement was a godsend to meet the labor demands for mahogany exploitation and significantly boost the economy of the settlement. In August and then again in December 1802, the first stock of 150 Garifuna laborers were imported from Roatan and hired (as the first free blacks in the territory) to harvest mahogany south of the Sibun River treaty limits. By the 1820s, hundreds more migrated to Belize from Guatemala to work in the lucrative mahogany industry. This included the large influx in 1823 of persons seeking to escape the wars in Central America. By the 1820s, Dangriga and Punta Gorda were already stable Garifuna communities.

Brute force, blood, sweat and tears of Garifuna labor enriched the Baymen’s clan, and expanded the reach of Belize’s territory from Sibun to the Sarstoon. During that period, they were strictly outlawed from living in Belize Town in order to keep the enslaved and free blacks physically and mentally divided. As a result, all Garifuna communities of Belize have since remained south of the Sibun River, where Guatemala now also claims.

While the labor of enslaved Africans laid the foundation for the territory in the northern part of Belize, from the Sibun to the Rio Hondo, the Garifuna laborers plied the forest south from Sibun to the Sarstoon. That must have been why the original Coat of Arms of Belize portrayed two black men representing the two groups on whose blood, sweat and tears the early settlement of Belize was built. Ironically these are the same two groups who currently face increasing marginalization and declining socioeconomic conditions in Belize – but that’s for another discussion another time. Suffice it to say that given their history, Garifuna elders often shared a deep sense of quiet pride about the critical role of their ancestors in the expansion of Belize’s territory. Of course their sentiments were also mixed with the frustrations of persistent poverty through which they were forced to survive after their dedicated, strenuous labor.

There is also another deeply rooted connection that the elders loved to give reminders of; that is, their deep ancestral and familial connections across the borders in Guatemala and Honduras, which have spanned generations. Anthropologist, Dr. Joseph Palacio, refers to this connection as “as a nation across borders.” “Sungubei wagia lida aba” — all of us are one— was the mantra of the elders nurturing ties of peace and unity.

Such transboundary familial and cultural ties were so deeply ingrained in the Garifuna world view that by the mid-1850s (before the 1859 border treaty) the leadership of the early Catholic Church in Belize made an attempt to form all Garifuna communities along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize into one ecclesiastical community with its proposed headquarters (and cathedral) to have been built in Punta Gorda. That initiative, which was spearheaded by Punta Gorda resident Belgian Jesuit priest Fr. John Gennon, S. J., fell through due to the magnitude of logistics, illnesses of supporting nuns and priests, and the emerging politics surrounding the 1859 border treaty.

Whether these family ties may have been completely disconnected or continue to be maintained, the DNA of Garifuna families in Belize are intimately a part of their blood relatives spanning across coastal Guatemala and Honduras, from where they first migrated to Belize. Despite all the geopolitics of the dispute between Guatemala and Belize, and even through threats of war in the 1970s by the Guatemalan military regime, several Garinagu families have maintained contact with relatives and friends across the border in Guatemala. Likewise Garifuna families in Guatemala quite often visit or maintain contact with their relatives and friends in Belize.

These deeply rooted historical and family ties which have been maintained for well over two centuries and long before this dispute, reveal why the Garinagu of Belize and Guatemala have always longed for peaceful settlement of the Belize-Guatemala dispute, despite their historical exclusion from the halls of international negotiations. War or conflict with their own families, as the military regime or Guatemala would not care to stoke, was considered unthinkable.

In their own cultural practices, decisions about their spirituality or for resolving community or cultural concerns tended to draw leaders together in the dabuyaba or in communal spaces in calm and thoughtful discussion. Even in the face of disagreements, they encouraged deep listening, thoughtful response and respect for others in building consensus around facts and truth. Seeking and listening to the advice of those with integrity of knowledge was also key. Those practices of the elders kept families and communities strong and grounded as they weathered life’s adversities.

Such thoughtful dialogue to arrive at a consensus decision was also a common practice that I witnessed among the Maya leadership, especially when they decided the way forward to resolve their land rights issue. When they found that they needed further clarity of information, rather than delve in conjecture or become entrenched in misleading statements, they sought guidance and utilized the skills of highly qualified and trained experts. That was how they won their land rights case.

Like the Garinagu, the Mayas in southern Belize and the people along the western border towns and villages in the Cayo District have maintained a healthy relationship with friends and relatives across the border. As such they can also vouch that stirring conflict, spreading falsehoods, and undermining every objective factual analysis towards attaining higher goals of truth and peace, do not resolve conflicts. When emotions override rational thinking, the consequences can be dangerous. The tearing down of those who bear the truth are destructive mind-states that go way beyond the crucifixion of Jesus. Service towards the highest good requires abstaining from slander, abusive language, spreading falsehoods, and demeaning others as a way to evade truth. Perhaps this is why there is often a traditional reluctance of the elders to participate in noisy discussions that are perceived as stoking divisions amongst themselves at home and across borders. There are objective and rational ways to resolve disputes. Emotions cloud judgments.

Historically, Belize has come a long way with its unique mix of wonderful people of all ethnicities making their profound contribution to the building of this nation, throughout their histories that they too can tell. In the final analysis, our national discourse, founded on such rich diversity of our history, must be committed to truth towards finding a final resolution of a claim.

Greedy oligarchs from Guatemala are hell bent on acquiring territory that they never owned, occupied or administered. After decades upon decades of failed negotiations and after sorting out all the legal analyses from both Guatemala’s and Belize’s side, the questions amidst the cacophony of views that the people might want to ponder carefully are these:

After all the labor that went into clearing the land from Sibun to the Rio Hondo, and then from Sibun to the Sarstoon, and then settling in this territory for well over 200 years, after a treaty establishing the integrity of Belize’s borders, would a court by any stretch of imagination grant to Guatemala a territory that it never owned, occupied or administered? Can we trust that the Guatemalan government will really settle this claim through further negotiations? Are we to believe that that the Guatemalan oligarchs will eventually agree to drop their claim of Belize’s territory on their own good will with more time? How can we really mindfully propose to have this claim settled definitively? We must be very mindful of the thought process and decisions we make. For better or for worse, our decisions will have consequences for ourselves and generations to come. We are in this together.

Au bu, amuru nu.

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