Uwahnie Mel Martinez, a Garifuna Entrepreneur

Veronica Wood
September 6, 2022

Uwahnie is an indigenous Garifuna entrepreneur based in Hopkins, Belize. 

I was lucky enough to visit her cultural center, Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute in July 2022. The Cultural Center is a short boat ride off from Hopkins. Once on the property, you experience the love and care dedicated to  honoring Garifuna culture. There was a drumming center, a spiritual center, and of course a kitchen and eco-cabins.

Uwahnie has started the center as a way for tourists to engage with the local indigenous Garifuna culture of Hopkins. Garifuna people are a mix of African and indigenous American roots. They inhabited the Caribbean before the European settlers came, and had their own language and own customs. In fact, Garifuna language, dance and music is declared by UNESCO to be a “masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”

During my visit, I had the pleasure of talking with Uwahnie about various topics. I’ll address a few of them below. I am doing my best to paraphrase some of the ideas that came out, but I know she tells her own story and we must hear her own words. Please do visit for yourself the Garifuna Cultural Center in Hopkins, Belize. More info below. 

Indigenous Tourism

This is a very complex topic of course. Tourism may have many benefits, but we cannot overlook the dark effects that may come ashore with the hailed jewels of deep-pocketed tourists. There is much harm also done to Belize’s waters, to the drain-off from large hotel chains and through simply more foot traffic. One of the huge issues is also the real estate. Belize is known for its naturally white-sand, clear beaches. Much of the native Garifuna population is ocean-side, as many are fishermen. This beach-side land is the most lucrative to developers, and as many indigenous communities experience worldwide, many Garifuna are pressured to sell the lands to developers, or even have land outright stolen. Many leave in one way or another, most likely never to return to their homelands. Besides those two very deep threats to locals, there is another, perhaps more subtle and insidious - the culture change. As the monolithic hotels copy-paste themselves into the beautiful shores, they also remove so much of the wealth of the indigenous architecture, the language of the people, and the culture. 

However, Uwahnie is also determined to create a positive tourism for her people - one that does not destroy the land, and does not remove the indigenous from their homes. She has a little island farm, where she employs Garifna people who live on the property. They are self-sufficient in solar energy, and eat plants from their garden and local Garifuna markets. 

Not only is she not doing the damage of traditional tourism, she also educates tourists in the very ethos of her culture. In her tours, she teaches traditional herbal medicine, and cooks from the land. Tourists learn to eat Hudut and Berdinga, and they learn about the local people, land, and materials. 

Indigenous Sovereignty

Uwahnie intends to create more business opportunities and support for indigenous people.

Indigenous people must be able to support themselves. Indigenous business deserves to be paid properly, not through pittance, donations, and grants. This is something that starts with every indigenous person to also not stand to be treated as lesser. She speaks of empowerment, and to not take bad deals. Indigenous people have so much wisdom, but can be taken advantage of in bad contracts, and other sneaky ways. She advises people to read carefully, to ask questions, and to trust your intuition. The way forward is to give each other respect and to also hold ourselves with respect. 

Please visit Uwahnie! Follow the link here to book with her: