Uwahnie Mel Martinez, a Garifuna Entrepreneur

Veronica Wood
September 6, 2022

Pictured: Uwahnie at her property in Hopkins, Belize, July 2022. Photo by Veronica Wood. 

The Cultural Center is a short barge-pole boat ride from Hopkins. Upon walking to the end of a short mud road, I was met by a smiling Garifuna man who carried my suitcase over the thrush onboard the small boat. They do not use motors or paddles, he explained, because poles are the quietest, and do not scare the fish away. 

Embarking on the island, Uwahnie Mel Martinez welcomes me. She is the owner/operator of the Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute, which she hopes will be a new interface for tourists to engage with the authentic local Indigenous Garifuna culture of Hopkins. 

As Martinez explains, Garifuna culture is unlike many of the African migrant populations of the United States; the Garifunas have not experienced slavery. Instead, they are the descendants of African survivors of human cargo ships, many of which were shipwrecked in the Caribbean in 1675. Proudly free, they sided with the Spanish in conflicts against the British. Spanning Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, their largest cultural homeland today is Belize, with the majority in Dangriga and Hopkins. They have a unique and rich cultural heritage, and a very large migrant population, reaching over 300,000 people, with large populations in the Eastern United States and Canada. 

During my visit, I had the pleasure of talking with Uwahnie for several mornings as she mashed Yarrow root with the same tools of her ancestors.

Martinez reflected upon the impact of tourism in her area. Belize is known for its naturally white-sand, clear water beaches. Postcards, Instagram photos, and magazines flaunt these magnetic landscapes; which just so happen to be predominantly Indigenous. Garifuna culture is largely a fishing culture, whose economy relies on access to the ocean.

With these highly-marketable sparkling coastlines, developers have prioritized purchasing beach-side properties, and filling them with hotels. Drain-off from large hotel chains and foot traffic on the beaches have in turn been suffering rise in pollution and debris from the tourists, destroying the fishing habitats that support Garifuna people’s natural economy.  With the export-oriented Belizean economy, the government is weak to the seductive foreign tourism money flooding into these areas, leaving little to no protections of Indigenous land ownership. With less fish, many Garifuna are economically pressured to sell these lands to developers. Some lands are outright stolen. Many leave in one way or another, most likely never to return to their homelands.

And more changes come with these waves of tourists - including the loss of their culture. Hopkins is considered by many Belizeans to be the cultural heart of the Garifuna population in Belize. Today, as the monolithic hotels copy-paste themselves into the beautiful shores, they roll over the traditional fishing-oriented and culturally minded architecture. 

Despite all these effects of tourism, Martinez is determined to create an example of a positive tourism model. In her vision, Indigenous people stay in their homes and have opportunities for entrepreneurship and community building at her cultural center. He has an island farm, where she employs Garifna people who live on the property. They are self-sufficient in solar energy, and source food from their garden and local markets. Martinez honors the rich fishing culture by maintaining her partnership with local fishers, and they are seen at dawn pole-boating down the waterways surrounding her property. Her property includes a Dabuyaba, a ceremonial spiritual and community building made only if ancestors request it. Constructed with wood posts and cohune palm leaves, it is blessed with water and rum before it begins its work marking important Garifuna rituals for births, deaths, and communications with the spirits. 

Beyond her own authenticity and accountability, she also works in outreach, to educate tourists about her culture. She hosts cooking and drumming experiences, which give tourists an immersive touch of the history and culture of the Garifuna people. In her half-day cooking lesson, tourists learn to cook the soupy, fishy dishes of Hudut and Berdinga, after a walk through her garden learning about each of the plants they will consume. 

Martinez has a future vision for the property too. Her journey as an Indigenous businesswoman has revealed the stark reality of an unsupportive environment for Garifuna entrepreneurs, leaving her feeling as though she has been thrust into an empty chasm of free-fall challenges and obstacles, without a support system or mentorship. She endeavors to fill that gap, and to create webs of communal and generational support. At the moment, she feels the Indigenous funding narrative is built upon grants and donations, and she notes there are oft-expected discounts because of the reputation of Indigenous peoples as charities, from even - and sometimes especially - the kindest of tourists. She will work to shift these business norms with Indigenous Peoples to proper payments in full, and negotiate fair contracts. She wants to open a nonprofit which offers Indigenous business support and advice on contract language. ‘Read carefully, ask questions, and trust your intuition’ she advises. ‘The way forward is to give each other respect and to also hold ourselves with respect.’ 

You can visit Uwahnie yourself. Follow this link to book a night stay in her eco-cabin in Hopkins, Belize.