Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Spanish, Garífuna, English Creole, indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Evangelical)
According to the 2013 Census, a total of 717,618 people, comprising nearly 9 per cent of the total population, self-identify as a member of either an indigenous or minority community. However, according to a 2007 census conducted by indigenous organizations, people who self-identified as indigenous or of African descent accounted for 20 per cent of the Honduran population. Main minorities and indigenous peoples: Lenca (453,672), Miskito (80,007), Garífuna (43,111), Maya Ch’ortí (33,256), Tolupán (19,033), Bay Creoles (12,337), Nahua (6,339), Pech (6,024), and Tawahka (2,690).
The Lenca, Pech, Tawahka, Xicaque , Maya Ch’ortí , Misquito, and Garífuna are classified as indigenous. The Garífuna are of mixed Afro-Caribbean origin and moved to the area during the colonial period. There is also an Afro-Honduran Creole English-speaking minority community of around 12,337 who live mainly in the Honduran Bay Islands.
In Honduras, as well as other Latin American countries, there has been a historical tendency to represent the presence and concerns of indigenous peoples as a purely pre-Columbian and pre-colonial phenomenon that gradually disappeared through absorption before the formation of the republic. However, the rising consciousness of indigenous peoples’ rights in the 1980s spearheaded by Garífuna organizations brought forth an upsurge of indigenous cultural struggles, particularly with a focus on the reclamation of traditional lands.
Updated: May 2018
Discrimination and marginalization are ongoing challenges for the country’s indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. Both continue to suffer social exclusion, poverty and intimidation. Access to healthcare and education lags behind the general population: the Garífuna community, for example, has some of the highest rates of HIV in the country, placing them in a situation of particular vulnerability. 19 per cent of the indigenous population in Honduras is illiterate, compared to 13 per cent of the general population.
Around 23 per cent of indigenous peoples and Afro-Hondurans live in urban areas, significantly lower than the proportion (60 per cent) of Latinos and mestizos (mixed ethnicity). Indigenous peoples are spread across different regions of the country, while Afro-Hondurans are located, for the most part, along the Atlantic coast. Both groups, besides facing entrenched discrimination and limited access to essential services, have struggled to defend their lands in a context where land tenure ownership has not been fully resolved: only about 10 per cent of indigenous peoples, for example, have a government-accredited land title. Violence, land grabbing and deep poverty in rural areas have forced indigenous peoples to migrate from the countryside to cities in search of security and employment.
Migration has posed considerable challenges to Honduran cities, which lack adequate planning policies or infrastructure to serve growing populations. As a result, many minority and indigenous migrants have settled in shantytowns or urban belts that lack transportation, public security or basic services. For example, there are more than 400 informal settlements located around the capital, Tegucigalpa, in earthquake-prone areas of the city.
Minority and indigenous communities in Honduran cities continue to face discrimination, poverty and marginalization. In major centres such as Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, a culture of national unity has long been promoted based on mestizo values – another factor contributing to discrimination, as it leaves little room for minority and indigenous expression. Indigenous and Afro-Honduran migrants also struggle to access urban labour markets due to discrimination, with many ending up in low-paid or informal employment. An added difficulty is that Honduran cities have among the highest rates of urban violence in the world, exacerbated by rapid urban growth: San Pedro Sula was recently ranked as the most violent city worldwide outside a conflict zone. Due to their marginalization, minority and indigenous urban residents, particularly women, are highly vulnerable.
Nonetheless, living in urban areas can offer opportunities for marginalized groups to access services and other benefits. For example, in terms of education, a 2011 National Survey of the Perception on Human Development revealed that indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants had higher literacy levels in cities: 94 per cent of those in urban areas are able to read and write, with an average of 8.5 years of schooling, compared to 79 per cent and 4.3 years in rural areas.
Despite Honduras’ ratification of International Labour Organization Convention No. 169, the government has continuously undertaken natural resource projects without adequate consultation with indigenous communities or the free and informed consent of those at risk of relocation. Indigenous activists have pointed out that plans have failed to consider serious environmental consequences for indigenous peoples, such as Miskitos and Tawacas who live on the coastal wetlands and in the lower and central parts of the Patuca region. Opposition to a dam project from inhabitants of the areas to be flooded by the Guayape and Guayambre Rivers began in January 2007. Nevertheless, in January 2011, the Honduran National Congress approved plans to build a sequence of three dams on the Patuca river – Patuca II, IIA and III – which together threaten to flood 42 kilometres of pristine rain forest. Activists cite threats to fisheries as well as unexcavated Mayan civilization sites. The river flows into the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which could potentially be harmed by damming upstream.
In 2015, indigenous leaders camped outside Honduras’ State Energy Company, seeking compensation for the 400 indigenous families directly affected by Patuca III dam. Lands reportedly worth US$19 million have been taken without compensation. In fact, there is a long history of indigenous and Afro-descendant activism in the area; in the 1990’s, an activist coalition, the Platform for the Defense of the Patuca River, managed to halt an earlier attempt to build the Patuca II dam due to concerns about the impact of the access roads necessary for construction. Nevertheless, construction of Patuca III dam is expected to be completed shortly.
Honduras has reportedly had the highest murder rates in the world for the past several years. Against a backdrop of violence and insecurity related to gangs, drug cartels and land grabs, many communities have been forcibly displaced. For example, in Mosquitia in north-eastern Honduras, according to reports, in 2015 five indigenous communities were forced to abandon some or all of their territories after they were appropriated by drug traffickers. Clandestine landing strips – surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed men – have been a particular problem as they block community access to traditional lands and bring gang violence to previously remote areas.
The state’s response to this upsurge in violence has focused on increasing militarization, an approach that has contributed to the deteriorating situation in the country. Journalists and human rights defenders continue to be intimidated or murdered without adequate investigations by police and judiciary. In 2017, Honduras was described by the NGO Global Witness as the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist, with over 120 deaths since 2010. Most of these victims were indigenous and minority representatives defending their lands against the construction of large-scale development projects, extractive industries or agri-businesses. Examples include opposition to the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, anti-mining resistance in northern Honduras by Tolupán leaders, and the Bajo Aguán movement conflict over palm oil industries.
In many cases, security personnel have been complicit in violence against indigenous land rights activists and authorities have fabricated criminal charges against them. For instance, in July 2013, military personnel killed the indigenous Lenca leader Tomás García and injured his son while they were taking part in a non-violent demonstration against a planned hydroelectric project on Lenca ancestral lands. Other indigenous members opposing the project suffered threats as well. In September 2013, the indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who led the opposition to a hydroelectric project, was charged with the illegal possession of a weapon and for participating in protests. These charges were denounced as motivated by a desire on the part of state authorities to stop her activism. Cáceres, who also co-founded the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, COPINH), was murdered in her home in March 2016, despite her reporting multiple death threats to the police which were not investigated.
There have been some positive signs in recent years, such as the granting of ownership deeds by the government to Miskito indigenous communities. According to a 2016 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the National Agrarian Institute recorded that 11 out of 12 Miskito community territorial councils had received title to over a million hectares’ land. However, there are still claims pending, and indigenous communities complain that there is a need for upgrading of titles that are granted in order to secure enforcement against settlers.
Minority and indigenous activists are worried about new anti-terror legislation, passed by the National Congress in February 2017. Ostensibly to crack down on violent crime, activists worry that the new law’s vague language and heavy penalties will be applied to civil society organizations and protests. Other legislative developments have also posed threats to communities. In August 2018, hundreds of indigenous demonstrators marched to the National Congress to protest against the proposed ‘Freely Informed Previous Consultation Law’, legislation that the government claimed was in line with international standards but which indigenous leaders argued was an attempt to further undermine consultations and consent by giving the government the authority to sidestep community decision making to push forward development projects on their land. The law was developed without involvement of indigenous communities.
Updated: June 2019
Honduras is the second largest country in Central America. It is bounded to the north by the Caribbean Sea and to the south-west by the Pacific Ocean. Honduras shares frontiers with Guatemala to the west, Nicaragua to the east and south, and El Salvador to the south-west.
Over 80 per cent of the land is mountainous, with ranges extending from east to west. Most of the Afro-Honduran population is concentrated on the Atlantic Coast along with Miskito who live in areas that border Nicaragua. The majority of other indigenous peoples are located in the central departments and near the borders with Guatemala and El Salvador.
The current territory of Honduras cuts across what was a pre-Columbian boundary between Mesoamerica and the more dispersed indigenous communities to the south. Pacific coast and central populations suffered considerable population reduction and displacement due to Spanish gold and silver mining activities in Honduras. In addition, many thousands of enslaved indigenous captives from Honduras were transferred to toil in the Caribbean and in the mines of Peru. In the north and west of the country, Mayan and Lenca groups based their well-organized communities around agriculture and trade and were joined by Nahuat-speaking migrants moving south from Mexico. The Lenca and Maya Ch’ortí are descendants of these populations. The rest of the territory was populated by groups that migrated from the south, including the Mayagna (Sumu), Tolupan (Xicaque) and Pech (Paya) who lived by fishing and shifting agriculture.
This arrangement was largely maintained following the arrival of Spanish gold-seeking colonizers. Honduras turned out to be much richer in silver and, in the west, tens of thousands died and as many as 150,000 were enslaved and exported to mines and estates in other countries. The less accessible jungle areas were not as affected, while on the Atlantic Coast the formation of the Miskito population was influenced by British trading activity
The first Africans initially came to Honduras under conditions of forced labour with the Spanish beginning in 1540, and mostly became part of the mainstream mestizo population.
The Afro-Honduran Garífuna society developed following the 1797 exile by Britain of Afro-Caribbeans from the island of St Vincent to the Honduran Bay Islands. Later, a majority migrated to the mainland and established villages on the Atlantic coast extending from Belize to Nicaragua. They continued to speak their own language and preserve distinctive cultural practices.
In the 1840s a group of English-speaking black free persons from the Cayman Islands also migrated to the Bay Islands and settled there. They formed self-sufficient farming and fishing communities, had little to do with the mainland and retained their Creole language and Afro-Caribbean culture.
Additional Afro-Caribbean groups came in the early twentieth century as migrant workers to build the railroad and work in the banana enclaves of the mainland. Those who could not get jobs in the banana plantations began leaving during the global depression of 1930s and the descendants of those who remained largely became part of the mestizo mainstream.
Modern Honduran history has been dominated by the struggle to forge a national identity from two different parts. US companies operating with generous tax incentives developed fruit plantations on the Atlantic coast on large tracts of land provided by the Honduran government and created an extensive infrastructure of railways and roads primarily to service these holdings. The rest of the country remained a rural agrarian Spanish colonial-influenced society consisting largely of mestizo ranchers and subsistence farmers.
For most of its post-independence history the culture of national unity forged by the state has been on the basis of a mestizo identity formulated largely in the urban centres of the country; most especially in Tegucigalpa (the political capital) and San Pedro Sula (the industrial capital). As a consequence, traditional indigenous and minority populations have historically been marginalized, ignored or discriminated against.
Indigenous organizations, especially those led by Garífuna, began working at a national level in the late 1970s. In the 1980s a rising consciousness of indigenous peoples’ rights emerged, which has focused on struggles against expulsion from traditional lands. Land conflicts sharpened with the 1992 Law on the Modernization of the Agricultural Sector, which brought indigenous groups into conflict with investors in agro-industry and tourism. At a more immediate level, it put them into direct conflict with local landowners, municipal governments, as well as with agencies of the Honduran state, such as the National Agrarian Institute (INA) and the Honduran forestry service (COHDEFOR).
Unlike other countries in the region, in the 1980s Honduras officially recognized the multicultural composition of its society and the need to protect the economic, cultural and human rights of its various ethnic groups. This helped to create an official space for indigenous and minority populations to work towards having their rights recognized and their needs addressed.
President Rafael Callejas (1989-93) pledged to demarcate territory and issue land titles. In the case of the Xicaque, a presidential order to follow this up was issued. However, the promises and signed agreements to title the lands were not delivered to the agreed-upon extent, which led groups to further protest against government failure to fulfil its obligations. Hopes for change were crushed when the Xicaque leader Vicente Matute was assassinated in May 1992.
In July 1994, in an unprecedented demonstration by Honduran indigenous groups, 3,000 indigenous activists camped outside the legislative assembly in Tegucigalpa for five days. Their demands included indigenous peoples’ rights, protection of the environment and the release of indigenous leaders jailed in land disputes. In response, the government of President Carlos Reina set up an emergency commission to attend to the demands. Some logging concessions in indigenous areas were canceled and in 1995 International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on indigenous peoples’ rights was implemented.
In 1997, under President Carlos Reina, the Honduran government promised 14,700 hectares of land to Maya Ch’ortí following the murder of community leader Candido Amador Recinos and the mass protest which occurred in Tegucigalpa and at the Mayan ruins of Copan afterwards. Since then, only a fraction of this land has been titled to Maya Ch’ortí communities. This is partly a consequence of the difficulties surrounding negotiations to purchase the land from local landowners, changes in presidential administrations every four years, as well as the unexplained disappearance of funds.
Critics have long questioned the degree of government commitment, pointing out that the agreements are essentially standard delaying tactics traditionally used by the Honduran state, which involves tolerating the existence of social movements rather than rejecting them outright and attempting to manage or channel dissent through strategies such as promises and accords.
The November 1998 amendment to Article 107 of the Honduran Constitution removed the prohibition against non-Hondurans purchasing land – provided the land is used for tourism projects. This created great concern especially among Garífuna groups because it opened up the possibility for foreign individuals or companies to purchase land in areas where minorities and indigenous peoples have traditionally lived and for which they had not yet been formally given agreed-upon communal titles.
The chances of minority and indigenous groups having their concerns adequately addressed have been especially complicated by the fact that, although each new Honduran administration inherits previously agreed upon accords and promises, they have exercised different degrees of commitment to indigenous issues, and towards honouring past promises and accords, or making new ones.
In November 2005 Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the centre-left Liberal Party was elected President. Zelaya, who took office in 2006, was a vocal proponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and since then various indigenous and campesino organizations have kept a wary eye on the administration to determine its degree of commitment to their issues.
In August 2008 Honduras joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) amid strong criticism from business and right-wing political entities. According to the 2005 founding document, ALBA was established as an alternative to US-sponsored trade agreements like CAFTA with the aim of promoting Latin American cooperation, solidarity and integration while simultaneously fighting regional poverty, inequality and unequal terms of trade. Honduras joined Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to become the sixth member state.
In 2011, the government received a US$25 million loan to support census efforts and more accurate data collection. Such efforts were intended to better inform future government policies, including toward minority and indigenous communities.
Elections in Honduras in November 2013 brought Juan Orlando Hernández to power as the country’s President. Despite limited political support – Hernández secured less than 37 per cent of the votes – the new administration’s emphasis on increased militarization had troubling implications for human rights protections. However, even before Hernández’s election, a law was adopted in August allowing for the creation of a military police force to perform public order tasks, such as conducting arrests, controlling violence or handling conflicts.
At the beginning of 2014, the first Public Policy and National Action Plan for Human Rights was approved. It mandated each ministry to consider the realization, promotion and enforcement of human rights in their planning and budgeting. If properly implemented, the plan had potential to help guarantee and promote the rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. In February, the Penal Code was also amended to prohibit incitement of discrimination publicly or through the media on various grounds, including ethnicity or origin, nationality, language, and religion. Yet 2014 also saw the downgrade of the Directorate of Indigenous and Afro-Honduran Peoples, the primary government body for creating and implementing policies concerning these communities.
The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2017 acknowledged positive progress by the Honduran government towards implementing the National Action Plan for Human Rights. However, Hernández’s government has been characterized by a decrease in commitments to provide social services to the country’s population and significant strengthening of the private sector. This threatens to increase the dispossession of indigenous communities from their land, which is coveted by powerful business interests. Article 346 asserts that the state must protect the rights of indigenous peoples to land, but since 1982 there has remained no explicit recognition of indigenous peoples in the Honduran Constitution.
Updated: May 2018
Comité para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos en Honduras (CODEH)
OFRANEH (Organización Fraternal Negra de Honduras)
[Fraternal Organization of Blacks of Honduras]
Organización Negra de Centro América (ONECA)
Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas (COPINH)
Confederación De Pueblos Autóctonos De Honduras (CONPAH)
[Umbrella organization for indigenous rights, culture and development]
Federación Indígena Tawahka De Honduras
[Indigenous rights, culture and development]
Solidaridad y Desarrollo de la Moskitia
[Indigenous rights, culture and development]
Consejo Nacional Indígena Maya Ch’ortí de Honduras (CONIMCHH)
La Asociación Bayán
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in