Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Demographic Profile of the Tawahka Amerindians of Honduras *

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Demographic Profile of the Tawahka Amerindians of Honduras *

Article excerpt

Contradictions abound in the characterization of indigenous groups living in the bio diverse landscapes of Latin America. Although Amerindian populations are often perceived, after decades of decline, to be as endangered as the bio diverse forests they inhabit (Stonich 2001), recent evidence of rapid growth suggests otherwise (Gomes 2000). Similarly, cultural erosion among native groups is lamented even as resurgent indigenous groups celebrate new gains in territorial control and political autonomy (Fisher 1994; Cultural Survival 2001). Meanwhile, indigenous peoples have never wielded more power to manage their communities, futures, and environments and have never been considered so integral to successful bio diversity conservation (IWGIA 1998; Colchester 2000). There is therefore a strong need for basic demographic information to guide policy for conservation and development planning in native homelands. Yet such information remains elusive. State census data are notoriously problematic for the study of remo te indigenous populations, and liner-grained assessments are often difficult in distant tropical forests (CELADE 1994; Kennedy and Perz 2000). As a result, we know very little about the population trajectories of indigenous groups, about how these relate to politically freighted issues of self-identity, and about how they effect resource use (Foller 1995).

These issues are exemplified in the case of the Tawahka of Honduras. The Tawahka are an Amerindian group of just over 1,000 people, living within the newly created 2,300-square-kilometer Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve (TABR) of eastern Honduras (Figure 1). The reserve's biodiverse forests lie at the heart of the binational "Solidaridad" system of protected areas (Herlihy 1997). Although the Tawahka and their territory have recently received much attention from scholars, development practitioners, and conservationists, basic understanding of their population dynamics is minimal. Existing evidence is particularly inconclusive in two key respects. First, there is confusion about how the group's population is changing. On one hand, the Tawahka have been depicted as an "endangered" people (Eldridge and Strome 1987), whose tiny population suggests vulnerability to cultural loss (Herlihy and Leake 1990; Herlihy 1993), particularly because their homeland is increasingly circumscribed by nonindigenous agricultural colonists (Herlihy 1997). In contrast to this view, local health workers in the Tawahka village of Krausirpi report evidence of a rapidly growing population: In 1995, for example, 35 babies were born to the village's base population of only 520, amounting to a staggering birthrate of 67 per 1,000 (Figure 2).

Second, there is confusion about the Tawahka's ethnic composition. According to the neighboring Miskito, the Tawahka are an isolated, ethnically homogeneous population whose numbers are so small that they risk marrying cousins. The Tawahka's geographical isolation and, their shyness with outsiders appear to support this view, but others depict the opposite: a population so culturally intermixed that it faces language loss and imminent disappearance as a distinct society (Conzemius 1938; Eldridge and Strome 1987; Herlihy 1997). As any observant visitor to Tawahka territory may note, Honduran Tawahka physiognomies range from nearly blonde to dark skinned and curly haired, and Spanish and Miskitu are frequently spoken in Tawahka communities.

These contrasting narratives give rise to the questions that frame this article. Is, in fact, the Tawahka population growing? Do recent birthrates represent an anomalous boom, or are they part of a sustained pattern? What is the Tawahka's history of ethnic intermixing, and how is it related to their cultural identity and demographic trajectory? What implications do demographic and cultural dynamics have for resource use in the TABR, and what might they illustrate about the links between population dynamism, natural resource management, and indigenous identity? …

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