Local Voices

for clean air, clean water, and the common good

Garifuna Woman
Garifuna community members in the Tela Bay region of northern Honduras favor small-scale eco-tourism. PHOTO: James Rodriguez/www.mimundo.org.

Too often, voices of local communities are ignored in the rush to extract resources and pursue development schemes.  Local communities bear the greatest costs, including polluted air, dirty water, and the destruction of traditional ways of life.  Yet, local voices are often ignored in decisions about the natural environment and communities.

The heart of ELAW’s work is making local voices heard.  Collaborating with grassroots advocates, ELAW helps communities speak out for a sustainable future.  We help communities challenge short-sighted development schemes and remedy environmental abuses.  We help local citizens – the people who would suffer the impacts of environmental degradation – speak out for long-term solutions.

Empowering local voices means changing the way we make decisions about the natural environment.

That change is long overdue.

The following brief reports describe progress making local voices heard.

ELAW advocate Antoinette Moore is part of a team of lawyers who are helping indigenous Maya communities in Belize secure traditional land rights near Sarstoon Temash National Park.  Those communities are developing sustainable forest projects to build local living economies.

With help from the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, villagers in Conejo and Santa Teresa have drafted forest management plans, with sustainable harvesting cycles, that will benefit local Q’eqchi families, and community members are providing guided tours of the national park.

Meanwhile, the government of Belize continues to try to open Mayan lands for speculation by multinational oil companies.  Domestic courts and the Inter-American Human Rights Court have affirmed Mayan land rights, but the Maya people, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years, continue to be left out of the discussion.

In July, Antoinette will share her experience defending the Maya with Garifuna communities in Tela Bay, Honduras.  These communities have lived along the white-sand beaches of the Honduran Caribbean coast for more than 200 years.  These beaches are now eyed by developers for high-end mega-tourist facilities.

ELAW Associate Director Lori Maddox will join Antoinette and a team of Mesoamerican attorneys who are working to protect communities and coastlines in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, and meet with residents of Tela Bay.

Maya community members, Belize
Maya Community members conduct field inventory for sustainable forest management. PHOTO: SATIIM.

Honduran attorney Clarisa Vega works with Garifuna communities in Honduras and will share successful strategies from other countries in the region.

“Cancun is not for everyone.  Communities on this Caribbean coast have music, cultural heritage, food, reefs, jungles and beaches to offer, and they want visitors, but they want to develop tourism in a way that is consistent with their culture and lifestyle, and benefits local people, not faraway corporations,” says Lori.

Clarisa is working to strengthen the voice of Garifuna communities in contentious debates over the future of their traditional lands.  She advocates for the marginalized in domestic tribunals and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Clarisa and others in the ELAW network have been inspired by recent news from Belize and Panama.

The Belize portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef was designated a UN World Heritage site in 1996.  Since then, tourist development has destroyed mangrove forests and eroded coastlines.  In May, the UN World Heritage Committee alerted its Belize Ambassador that the Committee intends to move ahead and place the Belize Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list, to bring attention to the crisis and afford extra protection for this unique marine environment.

In Panama, Hector Huertas and Aresio Valiente, Kuna Indian attorneys, announced that the Inter-
American Commission on Human Rights has accepted a case they filed nearly a decade ago advocating for thousands of Kuna and Embera peoples who were displaced to make way for a hydroelectric dam on the Bayano River.

ELAW scientist Meche Lu visited the area.  “I was appalled at the conditions.  The power lines run overhead but the people live in abject poverty, without electricity.  These are their lands.  How did they benefit?  Now they will have their voices heard.”

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Read about local voices for clean air, clean water, and the common good in the Summer 2009 ELAW Advocate.