The Ends of Paradise
Race, Extraction, and the Struggle for Black Life in Honduras
Christopher A. Loperena




They want us to be gone. This is not an isolated event but part of a plan to destroy Indigenous peoples. But we deserve another destiny. Honduras deserves another destiny.

MIRIAM MIRANDA, Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras1

THIS BOOK BEGAN WHILE WAITING for a bus. It was February 15, 2003, just before 4 a.m. The air was frigid. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (known as COPINH in Spanish) had summoned its members to a protest against the Iraq War in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. We began gathering in the street adjacent to the mercado central (central market) in La Esperanza, a small city in the country’s lush western highlands. I was struck by the sheer energy of the Indigenous campesinos who had traveled—some on foot—from dozens of tiny rural Lenca communities nestled into the mountainous slopes of Intibucá, one of the poorest regions (or “departments”) in Honduras.2 These were subsistence farmers, standing in the freezing cold, eager to participate in this act of global antiwar solidarity.3 Why were they so committed? What did Indigenous farmers in southwestern Honduras have to do with US foreign policy in the Middle East?

Eventually, a yellow school bus arrived. The decrepit kind that are an ubiquitous feature of regional transportation throughout Central America. Crowded onto the small vinyl seats, I asked the compas (comrades) sitting next to me why they had chosen to participate in the rally. Their matter-of-fact responses made it clear that they had answered this question many times. Their answers were world-weary, as if the question itself were absurd. The Iraq War, US foreign policy, and the global ascent of neoliberal economic policies were inextricably linked; these policies, they explained, have been particularly heavy-handed in Honduras, and a source of extraordinary social and political precarity in their home communities. Lenca campesinos spoke frequently about yanqui imperialism and the rapacious expansion of neoliberalism, which in their assessment was by and large a political and economic campaign to destroy Indigenous ways of being. They were adamant that US economic policy in the region, including the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, was a formidable threat to their livelihoods, not only for its duplicitous pledge to end tariffs on foreign goods and services but also for the introduction of genetically modified seeds and other technologies deemed necessary to increase productivity. This formula for growth, they argued, would endanger the larger notion of a collective commons and ultimately their very survival.4

The perilous living conditions of Indigenous and Black Hondurans were inseparable from the expansion of global capitalism, the industrialization of agriculture, and the unsustainable exploitation of the country’s abundant land, water, forest, and mineral resources—all in the name of “development.” Although I did not know it then, in that predawn bus ride, sitting next to those painfully astute strangers, I had stumbled onto the crux of what I would study for the next fifteen years: how we can imagine a future to save us from an untenable present. This is not what I was expecting to see. And yet the more I immersed myself into this world, the more it was clear that protest movements required more than just protesting; they required a radical imagination. What I saw that day, and again and again in the following years in Honduras, was that the daily struggle to survive, struggles against crushing odds, were made possible by alternative imaginings of the future and hope for “another world” in which Indigenous and Black peoples thrive.5

Months later, back in Chicago, I realized that I had to return, but with the tools of ethnography to gather data on the lived experience of broader economic transformations. I was drawn to the Caribbean coast, 250 kilometers to the north, where Garifuna—the descendants of runaway African slaves, Arawak, and Carib Indians—had been fighting for over a decade to defend their ancestral lands from the grips of tourism developers and the rapid expansion of African palm plantations. There, too, future imaginaries were inextricable from nonnormative desires to live freely,6 and a deep commitment to just development, autonomy, and sustainability. Each of these goals was under immediate threat in the wake of the 2009 coup d’état against then president Manuel Zelaya. The coup, and the forms of privation it authorized, was the catalyst for a bold power grab that has been conceptualized as extractivist in form and purpose. Extractivism, as it plays out in Honduras, is a government-sanctioned effort, nearly always aided by multinational capital, to take whatever resources it can both from a place and its people.

The history of extractivism has long been relatively simple: foreign companies—often multinationals, and typically in the mining or agricultural sectors—set up shop in a poor country, garner enormous profit, and offer very little benefit to the countries in which they operate. As such, extractivism has a clear spatial narrative, in which external forces, mostly from the developed North act upon more vulnerable geographies in the Global South that are dependent on foreign capital and technologies. The exploitation of local resources is always the result. This dichotomy—between the external and the internal, between the foreign invader and the local victim—distracts us from seeing the ways in which national elites are complicit in the expansion of extractive capitalism in their own countries, and also how extractivist agendas are carried out under the guise of development.7 What we have seen in the past two decades is a more complex version of extractivism, one conjoined with the tenets of development and the advancement of social well-being (Gudynas 2009; Acosta 2013).8 Yet for peasants and other historically marginalized populations in Honduras, the extractivism of today feels all too familiar—unsettlingly similar to the pain and inequity that were the hallmarks of US-controlled banana enclaves in the early twentieth century. Moreover, enduring patterns of natural resource exploitation are responsible for extraordinary environmental destruction and loss of livelihoods.

The enclave is an apt spatial metaphor to query the longue durée of extractivism on the Caribbean coast, which has, in its most recent iteration, pivoted to resort tourism.9 It is easy to downplay the problems of tourism; indeed, the Honduran government is determined to do just that. It refers to the tourism industry as the industria sin chimeneas (industry without smokestacks), a rhetorical ruse intended to position tourism as an environmentally sustainable alternative to heavy industries, such as mining. But it is only by conceptualizing tourism as a form of extractivism that we can truly understand the myriad and seemingly contradictory ways that tourism upends life for the Garifuna and other Indigenous groups, and for Honduras more generally. Enclosure, dispossession, and environmental degradation are intrinsic to the politics of destination making in Honduras, bringing into sharp relief the convergence of varied but fundamentally similar visions of development, via mining, agribusiness, and tourism. Moreover, explicitly linking these economic strategies in the same conceptual framework facilitates a deeper understanding of how Garifuna experience tourism as a form of exploitation analogous to traditional extractive industries (see Loperena 2017a).10

Partnerships between the state and private enterprise have supported the most robust projects.11 This mode of development, fashioned from the neoliberal policy recommendations of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, is designed to generate investment opportunities for domestic capital just as much as foreign capital. Of course, there is another “domestic” group that is involved—the Garifuna themselves. Both their lands and their culture are key to the success of tourism in Honduras, and yet the benefit of such extractivism for them is far less clear.

This book is largely an effort to grasp the projected futurity to which Garifuna aspire and the ways that political struggles for territorial autonomy respond to and reshape the extractivist mandate of the Honduran state and multinational capital on the Caribbean coast. By demanding to be accounted for on their own terms, as both Black and Indigenous, Garifuna demystify the workings of extractive capitalism and its tendency to differentiate and objectify racialized populations and their territories for the purposes accumulation. I will not limit my discussion to conventionally defined extractive industries, such as mining and energy developments that are prevalent throughout Honduras, including on the Caribbean coast (ERIC 2016), and that have garnered much interest from scholars of the region (Bebbington et al. 2018). Rather, I want to address the extractivist logics of progress, and the mechanisms through which the country’s Black and Indigenous peoples are simultaneously rendered as obstacles to, and at times beneficiaries of, national development.12 I argue that this possibility is promoted by the state and multilateral institutions through development policies that hinge on an autonomous Indigenous subject with the capacity to harness market opportunities for self-improvement and progress.13

Black Indigeneity

The Garifuna are fundamentally confusing to everyone but themselves. As we have seen, they identify as a Black Indigenous people, a category that for many academics and government bureaucrats and even fellow Hondurans, doesn’t seem to exist; this negation, as I explain later, has deep political and material consequences for Garifuna.

Garifuna trace their ancestry to the year 1635, when two Spanish vessels carrying enslaved Africans shipwrecked off the coast of Yurumei (St. Vincent) in the Lesser Antilles (Suazo 1997). The shipwrecked Africans, likely from many different ethnic groups, took refuge on the island, which was inhabited by the Island Carib. There they intermarried with the Caribs, adopting their language and many of their cultural practices. This fusion, combined with the addition of runaway slaves from nearby islands, led to the formation of a new ethnicity that came to be known as the Garifuna, or as the English referred to them, the Black Caribs.

British and French settlers vied for power and control over the island of St. Vincent until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when the French conceded the territory to the English. However, conflicts between the British and the Garifuna continued to escalate; in 1797, the roughly five thousand Garifuna living on St. Vincent were deported to the island of Roatán, off the Caribbean coast of present-day Honduras. According to the anthropologist Nancy González (1988, 48), the permanent settlement of Roatán would have yielded only “desultory subsistence agriculture.” Consequently, many Garifuna left for the shores of mainland Honduras, eventually establishing forty-six communities, as well as several additional communities along the Atlantic coast in what is today Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua.

In spite of the historical presence of Black peoples, Central America is a geographic space that has until relatively recently remained peripheral to anthropological explorations of Blackness and the Black diaspora.14 The sparse scholarly attention to issues pertaining to Black peoples in general, and anti-Black racism in particular, is a testament to the popular perception that Central America is place in which peoples of African descent are either nonexistent or merely recent arrivals.15 The pioneering research of Edmund T. Gordon (1998) and subsequent anthropological studies have helped to fill this gap in the literature, drawing attention to Black political struggles in Central America, as well as exploring the place of Blackness in relation to both the state and the complexities of Indigeneity in the region.16

I hope to take the next steps on the path that Gordon and others have begun. Through his granular ethnographic account of Garifuna activism, Anderson (2009, 8) demonstrates why we should understand Blackness and Indigeneity as overlapping as opposed to mutually exclusive categories of identification. Blackness, he contends, can take on symbolic meanings that are akin to those we associate with Indigenous peoples, and which are necessary to access collective rights (Anderson 2007). These insights are important precisely because of how they facilitate a rethinking of the conceptual boundaries that separate Blackness and Indigeneity.

As noted by Tiffany Lethabo King (2019), Black studies has long meditated on the ocean and water as key metaphors for interrogating the Black diaspora experience. In contrast, my research has mostly revolved around land and questions of autonomy, two concepts that are theorized centrally in the Indigenous and Native studies literature. Despite their apparent distance from issues of Blackness, I hope to show that they are essential to making sense of Garifuna political claims in Honduras. This is because Garifuna identify as Black and Indigenous, a union that defies the presumed analytical and political borders that structure academic debates around racial categorization in the Americas.17 Indeed, when we analyze Indigeneity and Blackness as separate phenomena, we misunderstand the ways these two historically constituted racial groups are coarticulated.

I refuse the analytic temptation to reduce the complexity of Black Indigeneity to either-or logics (see also López-Oro 2021). I believe that such differentiations, aside from being inaccurate, also are counterproductive to the essential political projects of our era: seeking to undo our fealty toward Western humanism and Eurocentric conceptualizations of Man (Wynter 2003). But instead of framing Garifuna political subjectivity as Indigenous-like,18 I seek to emphasize the ways Blackness and Indigeneity are mutually constituted as categories of difference in relation to, and exclusive of, whiteness. Thus, I argue for a more expansive conceptualization of Blackness, one in which Black peoples in the Americas can be understood as Indigenous—that is to say, historically, spiritually, and culturally connected to place. This is not to erase the long history of Garifuna seafarers or the networks of migration and trade around which Garifuna figure as a diasporic people (González 1988). Rather, I seek to overturn (or at least complicate) the notion that Black peoples are somehow placeless—or, to use Catherine McKittrick’s (2006, 26) term, ungeographic. What are the theoretical and political stakes of situating Blackness in relation to place and geography?

The Latin American project of building a nation-state with a homogeneous national community, predicated on racial mixture, or mestizaje, was violent, entailing processes of forced assimilation and cultural genocide (Paschel 2016, 5–7), and one in which Blackness and Indigeneity were effectively eliminated or subsumed into the national body politic (Castellanos 2017; Loperena 2017). Therefore, we might understand the process of state formation in Latin America as embedded within settler colonial logics of elimination, similar to those that have been widely theorized in the United States and Australia (Wolfe 1999).

Settler colonialism is a historical and contemporary process contingent on the elimination of Indigenous peoples and their territories. It is also an ideological project that reifies settler grammars of sovereignty and law under the guise of liberal freedoms, and thus it remains, as Speed (2017) suggests, the fundamental underlying structure of the contemporary Latin American state.19 With this conceptual framework in place, we can better understand how settler law undergirds the emergence of the mestizo nation. This is because mestizaje entailed state policies and social practices that, in the name of racial egalitarianism and anti-imperialism (Hooker 2017), reinscribed essentialist notions of Indigenous and Black inferiority. According to Juliet Hooker (2017, 171), “it was the new mestizo race, not whites, that occupied the highest rung” of José Vasconselos’s racial schema, but the “existence of racial hierarchy in which blacks and Indians were at the bottom remained constant.”

Mestizaje is a racial ideology that, under the façade of racial mixture and cultural hybridity, sought to shed the yoke of European colonialism. It is a practice made visible in policies that encouraged racial miscegenation between European and Native peoples (and sometimes Black peoples) and a uniquely Latin American nationalist ideology. It is thus fundamentally anti-Black and anti-Indigenous because it prioritizes the moral and racial superiority of whiteness as a means of obtaining human progress or improvement. Scholars of Latin America have referred to it as a whitening ideology (Wade 2010), but for my purposes, mestizaje is simultaneously a settler colonial logic that seeks to dilute Indigenous peoples within the mestizo (read: white) category while erasing Blackness from the spatial and temporal boundaries of the nation.

Black Indigeneity, in contrast, powerfully reformulates the moral underpinnings and racial hierarchy of mestizaje. This is because it is not oriented toward the moral superiority of whiteness or a pseudowhite mixed population; rather, in the intentional elision of whiteness, Black Indigenous being creates a paradigm to interrogate Blackness and Indigeneity on the same conceptual plane—and, in the process, disrupts our foundational assumptions about the presumed racial distinction between the two.20

Black Indigeneity is also fundamentally problematic for the state, evidenced by the repeated attempts of Honduran state officials to define Garifuna as strictly Afro-descendant in order to differentiate them from the category of Indigenous and to deny them land rights that Indigenous people are entitled to under international law. Although Garifuna arrived in Honduras prior to Central American independence from Spain, Garifuna claims to land, especially lands in and around the highly coveted Tela Bay, are deemed illegitimate. On account of their Blackness, as we will see, Garifuna are excised from the category Indigenous and thus deemed unrightful heirs to national territory. It is for this reason that many of the Garifuna activists I worked with refused to be identified as Afro-Honduran (but did not refuse to be identified as Black); by rejecting the label Afro, they sought to tether Blackness to Indigeneity and thus situate it firmly within the territorial boundaries of the nation (see chapter 5).

In pursuing state recognition of their territorial rights, Garifuna not only find it necessary to prove that they are from Honduras, but also, more importantly, they must situate their claims not just geographically but also temporally. As Rosa (2019, 14) argues, “Place of birth is of little relevance when one’s racially overdetermined body, primordially anchored in an imagined foreign elsewhere, demands to be accounted for.” Extending this line of thinking, it is important to account for the ways in which historically constituted communities of color are relegated to an illusory other-where, outside the space and time of the present. In Honduras, questions of when and where you are from are applied almost exclusively to Black and Indigenous peoples, who must continuously legitimate their presence on the land, even though their historical settlement predate the creation of the modern nation-state.21


1. Quoted in Jackie McVicar, “Indigenous Men in Honduras Are Being Abducted. Are the Police to Blame? America Magazine,” America: The Jesuit Review, August 5, 2020, 2020/08/05/indigenous-men-honduras-are-being-abducted-are-police-blame.

2. There are seven officially recognized Indigenous peoples in Honduras—the Lenca, Miskito, Tawahka, Pech, Maya Chortis and Tolupán—in addition to the English-speaking Blacks (or Creoles) and the Garifuna, who also identify as Indigenous but are most often classified as Afro-Honduran.

3. February 15, 2003, was a massive antiwar action that took place in cities across the globe.

4. The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, or FTAA, was a trade agreement backed by the US government, steeped in neoliberal economic thinking of the time, and strongly opposed by left-leaning parties and politicians. The late Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela, was among the most outspoken critics of the plan, which he argued would be used to undermine the sovereignty of Latin American nation-states. He subsequently proposed an alternative trade block, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA, by its Spanish acronym). In close alliance with Brazil, ALBA became an emblematic policy objective of leftist governments throughout Latin America.

5. This is evidenced in the popular protest chant “¡Otro mundo es posible!” (Another world is possible). It was also the slogan for the World Social Forums, which had wide resonance among grassroots groups in Latin America. According to Arturo Escobar, alternative imaginings of the future are rooted in actual existing worlds and territorial struggles. In Pluriversal Politics, he (2020, 69–70) argues the epistemologies and struggles of Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant peoples are pathways to transformation which require thinking outside the space of Western social theory.

6. I am inspired by the work of Sadiya Hartman, who in Wayward Lives (2019), illustrates how young Black women in the early twentieth-century United States made life in the face of death, including the everyday acts of resistance they engaged in simply by daring to experience pleasure or freedom, however compromised.

7. Contrary to popular belief, much of the capital for these initiatives actually comes from within the country, as is the case in Aguán Valley, where land grabs for oil palm production have been orchestrated by mostly domestic investors with support from multilateral development institutions (Edelman and León 2013, 1700).

8. This is so even in “pink tide” states, where extractivism has coincided with more progressive, and presumably anti-neoliberal ideologies (Ruiz Marrero 2011).

9. Braudel and Wallerstein (2009) have encouraged social scientists to think beyond the temporal immediacy of the event, and in doing so to locate old habits of thought and action that animate the “current reality,” which is actually “a conjoining of movements with different origins and rhythms.”

10. Interrogating the tourism-extraction nexus, Davidov and Büscher (2014, 6) argue that tourism ventures within rural Indigenous communities entail both the commodification of nature and the extraction of dance, food, and local crafts for the consumption of visiting tourists. Córdoba Azcárate (2020, 13) argues that capital intensive infrastructure development associated with tourism “exhausts places, bodies, and resources in order to satisfy short-term consumer demand.” Tourism, she asserts, is “reengineering” the earth. My work is conversant with these authors but centers race as an analytic for understanding the extractivist character of tourism. By analyzing tourism development through the lens of race and racialization, we can establish clearer linkages between colonial practices of resource plunder and the destination-making politics I detail in this book.

11. The Honduran state is not a bounded or singular entity. Rather, it is constituted by a heterogeneous set of actors, institutions, and social practices that are tethered to other “statelike” spheres of power; this complexity undermines its utility as a coherent object of study (see Abrams [1977] 2006; Trouillot 2001). Nonetheless, social movement activists often experience “the state” as an antagonistic force, and thus it remains a meaningful referent and target of their activism.

12. I use the phrase “Black and Indigenous peoples” to refer to the full spectrum of racially minoritized populations in Honduras. Throughout Latin America, Black and Indigenous protest movements in defense of their territories and collective rights have been met with brutal repression. This worrisome pattern has enabled scholars of the region to draw clear linkages between the resurgence of extractivism and “racial retrenchment” (Hooker 2020).

13. In her study of care in neoliberal Chile, Han (2012, 5) demonstrates how the state, through orchestrated acts of social divestment, transposed responsibility for the care of its citizens onto individuals. In the neoliberal conjuncture, discourses of “self-care” and “self-improvement” become dominant, and, she argues, they are premised on a self that is both sovereign and morally autonomous.

14. Douglas MacRae Taylor’s The Black Carib of British Honduras, published in 1951, is a notable exception.

15. Historical works by Bourgois (1989), Euraque (1996), Putnam (2002), Chambers (2010), and Gudmundson and Wolfe (2010) have helped to counter this misconception regarding African heritage in Costa Rica and Honduras.

16. Ethnographies by Mark Anderson (2009), Keri Brondo (2013), and Jennifer Goett (2017) have helped shape these emerging debates, shedding light on the gendered and raced politics of diasporic Blackness in Central America, as well as the varied modes of political subjectivity that have emerged in response to the erasure of their histories and larger claims to place. Because of the particular social and historical ties between Caribbean Central America and the Caribbean islands, the Atlantic coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are often imagined as exterior to the formation of the contemporary Central American states, which reinscribes the exteriority of Blackness to the Central American isthmus.

17. Paul López Oro (2016) has contributed substantively to this emerging formulation through his foundational chapter “Ni de aquí, ni de allá” in which he argues that Garifuna New Yorkers live within multiple diasporas and are thus simultaneously Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, which defies dominant ideologies of racial categorization. He has furthered this analysis by highlighting the various terms Garifuna use to describe their identities (e.g., Black Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, Black Carib), which he says points to the “multiplicity of geographies informing Garinagu racial identity formations” in Central America and its diasporas (López Oro 2021, 250).

18. The notion that Garifuna are Indigenous-like may hold in place the analytic distinctions between Blackness and Indigeneity.

19. In her study of Mexican postcolonial racial geographies, Saldaña-Portillo (2016, 124) demonstrates how through the extension of liberal rights and politics, the Mexican state effectively “cut off Indigenous peoples from their spatial practice.” In other words, liberalism was a tool to sever Indigenous peoples from what she calls their “territorial difference.” Similarly, Ybarra’s (2018, 15) account of resource conflicts in Guatemala shows how racial liberalism “subsumes Indigenous collectives in logics of individual rights and needs.”

20. Aside from being conceptually provocative, Black Indigeneity has important implications for the on-the-ground political work and aims of antiracist struggle.

21. I provide a much more thorough engagement with these dynamics in chapter 4.