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“Small town, big hell”

“A la derecha, a la derecha!”

Over and over. To the right, to the right. Like a mispronounced Beyoncé lyric.

There are no street signs in Trujillo, or San Antonio or Santa Fe, or any of the northern coastal towns we tore through in a day and a half. Our directions came from Selso, someone we picked up on our seven-hour drive in.

It had gotten dark fast after our stop in La Ceiba. So we drove slower, and it got darker, and before I knew it, how the rest of our night would play out rested in the hands of an unbelievable man in a fedora and khakis – why he was in my car I still hadn’t figured out – and the unreliable street lamps that occasional lit the roads.

After only turning a la derecha for 20 minutes, we made it to our reservation. But the hotel had no power. The back-up had no rooms. We rolled up to Coco Pando, which had an empty beachfront disco blasting reggaeton, a bar and a sparse crowd lingering outside reception. It felt right, so we stayed.

Trujillo was an afterthought tacked on to a two-week trip. But I’d be damned if I didn’t see a beach while covering Central America.

It’s also one of about 40 Garifuna communities in Honduras. Afro-descendants from when the slave trade met the Caribbean in St. Vincent.

They’re an indigenous people with their own language – although Spanish is spoken universally. The communities were some of the hardest hit by Mitch in ’98. Unemployment is high, poverty widespread. And like Canada’s First Nations, their collective actions need to be viewed within the context of an ongoing historical struggle for rights and land.

Today the latter concerns some of the beaches I came to see. The Garifuna communities themselves resemble those in other parts of the country: shredded roads, heaps of garbage, worn-down low-level low-budget buildings. The difference is that they’re in front of a pristine ocean view.

And here and there, on the outskirts of the town centres, Canadian developers are buying that up as an investment in a paradise with potential. A new cruise ship port is up and running, with buses to take sea-legged passengers for a day at a beach-front nature park. Homes are up for sale too in a couple of Canadian-led development projects.

Locals claim that the hectares of land bought for these touristic, beachfront developments were illegally purchased. But the issue is hardly black and white.

There’s corruption at all levels of government. And an economic crisis intensified by the 2009 military coup has put pressure on people to make ends meet. Sometimes that means selling land. ‘Tilin tilan’ – people dance to the rhythm of those who have money.

Legally, collectively-owned land – like that owned by the Garifuna communities – is regulated by community-appointed boards. Boards are supposedly bound to not sell the land. But even if they tried, they would be required to consult a very General Assembly: the entire community.

Still, land has been bought somewhere, somehow by Canadian companies. And the Garifuna want it back.

They say they get no benefit from foreign investments in the region. That their board colluded with developers to sell off collective-owned land to the benefit of a few individuals. Their whole culture is built from the ground up: it’s their heritage, their patrimony. And so for that reason, they say, everyone is opposed to the how these developments have come to be.

One developer I spoke with adamantly stated that any land they’ve purchased has been purchased legally, and with strong support from the surrounding communities. They said every dollar goes back into the communities via wages and further investments, and that several cultural tours and tourism-related projects have been launched in collaboration with the communities.

Part of what makes the issue so grey is how adamantly each side maintains their version of the story.

My last interview was in Santa Fe. We popped into Cafeteria Emperador to meet a 76-year-old teacher who started talking the second I appeared in the doorway.

I managed to edge a few questions into his monologue. He didn’t always answer them. But persistence paid off when he summed up the situation beautifully.

“Small town, big hell.”

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