After 40 years of conflicts, protests and negotiations, the government of Honduras on Sept. 12 formally granted title to 654,496 hectares (about 1.6 million acres) to 128 indigenous communities on the remote Miskito Coast. With this move, the total land titled to Miskito indigenous communities in Honduras comes to nearly 970,000 hectares, more than 7% of the national territory, with a population of some 100,000. “With the recognition of the rights of the Miksito people to the lands of our ancestors, Honduras has taken an historic step that benefits all the world’s indigenous peoples,” said Norvin Goff, president of Moskitia Asla Takanka (MASTA), the organization that represented the communities in the talks.
But Goff added: “We do not forget that many of our brothers have been assassinated while defending our forests and territories. We do not forget that we have been struggling for decades against corrupt politicians, the big ranchers, and narco-traffickers.”
Land titling of Miskito communities by the National Agrarian Institute (INA) has greatly picked up pace over the past year. The lands lie within Gracias a Dios department, near the border with Nicaragua, which bisects the traditional Miskito territory. INA director Reynaldo Vega emphasized that oil, mineral and timber interests will now have to obtain formal consent from the Miskito to operate in the titled territory. “This will allow them to defend themselves against third parties who illegally make use of the area’s natural resources,” Vega said. “Foreign companies that operate in the area will have to talk first to the Miskito community.”
Nearly all land in Gracias a Dios is now titled to territorial councils each representing several communities. There are 12 Miskito territorial councils and one each for the neighboring Pech and Tawahka peoples. (See map.) The region of tropical rainforest and coastal savanna has long been invaded by illegal timber operations, and has recently become a staging area for narco-traffickers bringing cocaine up from South America.
The Miskito have long maintained that by failing to title their lands, Honduras was violating terms of the 1859 Cruz-Wyke Treaty, under which Britain recognized Honduran sovereignty over the former English-supported Miskito Kingdom—and which included terms for protection of Miskito territorial rights. The treaty states: “The Misquito Indians in the district recognized by Article II of this Treaty as belonging to and under the sovereignty of the Republic of Honduras…shall not be disturbed in the possession on any lands or other property which they may hold or occupy.”
There was some skepticism about the timing of the government’s move to grant title to the new territories. Bertha Caceres of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) said: “What a coincidence. They authorize land titles just as they are to begin asking the Miskito people to approve oil and gas exploration by the English company British Gas Group.” In May, just as the last large set of Miskito land titles was being issued, the government of President Pepe Lobo Sosa announced it had granted British Gas Group a license to explore for off-shore hydrocarbons along nearly all of Honduras’ Caribbean coast, from Tela in Atlantida department to the west clear to the Nicaraguan border—including large areas titled to Miskito communities. Public meetings to secure consent of these communities are set to begin soon. (La Tribuna, El Heraldo, Honduras Culture and Politics, Sept. 13; AP, Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources, Sept. 12)
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