Islanders Learn to Assert Their Rights
Community leaders, activists and educators from the Bay Islands learned about their rights under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention and how to assert them at a workshop at the Mayan Princess Resort in Roatan’s West Bay June 15-16.
The 1989 convention, established under the auspices of the International Labor Organization and also known as ILO Convention 169, obliges national governments to respect the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples within their territories and to safeguard their institutions, property, labor, culture and environment. Honduras ratified the convention in 1995. Garifuna and English-speaking Bay Islanders are both considered to be covered by the convention.
“It is the only mechanism that indigenous and tribal people have to set up obligations for governments,” said Juan Ignacio Castillo, an ILO official based in Costa Rica who was one of the main presenters at the workshop.
Castillo said the June 15-16 workshop was the sixth of a series of nine that the ILO, together with the UN Development Program, was conducting in Honduras, each aimed at a specific recognized indigenous or tribal group. The focus in this case was the “black English-speaking Bay Islanders.” There was to be a similar workshop later in the week in La Ceiba for Garifuna people.
Central to the rights of indigenous people under ILO 169, said Castillo, is “the right to be consulted” about public policies that affect them.
“For instance,” he said, “if there is a policy related to education, the state should ask indigenous and tribal people about how they feel … Here in Honduras, the state worked with education programs and the education budget and stuff like that, but they don’t realize that they had to do it respecting the bilingual programs and bilingual cultures. They feel that they only have to do it in Spanish.”
Since ratifying the convention in 1995, Honduras has been obliged to provide public education Garifuna and English-speaking people on the Bay Islands in their native languages. But resources have never been sufficient to fully realize that obligation.
Castillo said those who feel their rights under the convention have been violated could file claims not just at the national level but also internationally, such as through the ILO or the Interamerican Court of Justice. He said the ILO received a complaint two years ago from Honduran Miskitos alleging forced labor in the lobster diving industry. Lenca people in Honduras have raised a case to the international level claiming they were not consulted about a hydroelectric project. But Castillo was not aware of any claims made under ILO 169 to date by Bay Islanders, although he said that at the workshop it became clear to him that the Bay Islanders had “a lot of problems.”
Castillo clarified that ILO 169 applied not just to the nine recognized groups but to any self-identified group of people who “feel that they belong to some community.” Thus, he said, it could also apply to non-black English-speaking islanders.
Participants at the workshop gave it glowing reviews.
“I learned to defend myself,” said Carla Bennett of Flowers Bay. “I learned that it’s very important to know your culture. I also learned that we must fight for our rights.”
Diane Bennett, a teacher from Pensacola, agreed the workshop had been useful in terms of “learning our rights as Bay Islanders.”
“I know what are my goals now and how I can get help with whatever situation we get into,” she said.
Kislin Dilbert, a justice official for Santos Guardiola Municipality (eastern half of Roatan), said lessons from the workshop would help him in the line of duty.
“Sometimes we have people come in with property issues,” he said. “A lot of people in the community doesn’t know their rights.”
Dilbert said ILO 169 offered ways to deal with issues in which people claim customary rights to a peace of land but have no legal title to it. “There is a way to go about it other than just take them off,” he said. “I think it’s a plus for everyone.”
However, Jem Haylock, an educator from Guanaja, while agreeing the workshop had been useful, urged caution about running off to file claims in international court.
“Leave that as your last resource,” she said. “Try to resolve it first.”
ILO 169 was a “powerful tool,” she said, and “it’s good to know” that it’s there. But she said to “use it wisely,” in an educated way, and for the community, not for individual ends.
“I feel like you get so much more with honey than you get with vinegar,” said Haylock.