Where Mainland Meets the Island
There are now five colonias in Sandy Bay and each one has its own special flavor. Balfate, the oldest Colonia, is relaxed with a smooth-functioning patronato, a well, and no establishments selling alcohol as alcohol sales are seen by the community as attracting violence and riffraff. Bellavista has the best views of the northern coast on the island, it is also neglected, but safe. Colonia Policarpo Galindo is the most densely populated and also more dangerous than others. Colonia Montifresco is the smallest, more quiet and safe. Colonia Aldin is the new kid on the block. It is the largest by area, but also the poorest with no running water, no electricity, and no infrastructure. Aldin could also decide the fate of the entire island.
The colonias grew quickly and people from all over Honduras came here. Other than desperation and a desire to try to make a living on Roatan, they have very few things in common. The residents are young and old, mostly unqualified, poorly educated people and they just keep on coming. “We dug a well by hand [in 1994]” recalls Suarado. “The biggest problem is when the rain comes. The garbage just washes down to the beach and onto the reef,” says Suarado .After the death of Doc Polo Galindo things got even more complicated. “Let me be clear. The colonia is here because of land invasions and political manipulations,” said Suarado, who lost both of his legs to diabetes.
He remembers that in 1997 some patronato members got hold of legal documents of the patronato and just burned the “libro de actas” to eliminate the trail of responsibility,. While the colonias keeps growing, memories of conflict don’t die. “There is a great deal of thieves here,” says Suarado.
Aldin could also decide the fate of the entire island.
Services in the colonias are scarce and garbage removal is a huge problem. The creek is filled with tons of plastics and refuse. The municipality is supposed to send their trucks to remove the garbage three times each week, but often that is not the case. The pigs and dogs feed on the scraps of food they find in heaps of garbage on the side of the road. Piles of garbage litter the streets of the colonia. “We clean once a month,” says Ramos describing a local volunteer effort to keep the community clean, but the garbage just keeps rolling down the creek.
Water is also a big issue, and transport, especially emergency transport for people in the more remote areas, is not easy. Yet security is by far the biggest concern for most. “One thing we need is a police station,” says Ramos. There is no police presence in the colonia whatsoever and when there is a disturbance a police unit form Coxen Hole is dispatched, but it takes it half an hour to arrive and sometimes longer to locate the location of the problem in the maze of paths and clusters of homes on the slopes of the colonia.“Some bad people, drug dealers, don’t want the police here,” says Ramos.
The people work and live in the colonia. There is manufacturing, recreation, worship. A public kindergarten, Ramon Villeda Rosales, is located in the colonia. A nearby “modelo” grade school offers 1-9 grade classes and is second biggest on the island. There are two soccer fields, and plenty of places to.
Right as you enter the Colonia there is a footbolito sports field. Hector Ramos, 26, is in charge of the facility. 200,000 plastic bottles were used in building the walls that surround the field. Chris and Theresa Imbach, started a nonprofit “Care for Community” NGO that also has an after hour program.
Let me be clear. The Colonia is here because of land invasions and political manipulations.
The image of the colonias is that of danger and chaos and few foreigners ever come to the colonia, but, some foreigners have chosen to live on the edges of the colonia. Mel James opened a hostel just a stone’s throws away from the hills of the colonia. After a few years Mel doesn’t go there but recommends that her foreign backpackers venture out to explore. “If it’s dark then you don’t need to be there,” says Mel. The colonia is a resource for employment, and an occasional errand, but not much more. “I send my sons to get haircuts there. It’s 50 Lps. A haircut,” says Mel. “If I want to go for a walk I go to the beach.”
Tom Henry, 80, walks his island dog through the lower part of the colonia every day. “There is a lot of extremes here. If it’s a nice day it’s great. If it’s a bad day you wouldn’t find a worse day in your life,” says Henry, a retired Canadian who came to Roatan five years ago. Henry purchased a home in Sandy Bay and is trying to sell it.
Bill Brady, an American, and his wife Irma owned a piece of land adjacent to the colonia and found that the land was being squatted upon. “We fought back, but it was unnecessary. We had a bulldozer and had to take down some houses,” says Brady. “They had the divided the lot into 1,000 pieces from one night to the other,” recalls Brady, describing how the colonias came to be.
“I was here when there was not a single shack in Los Fuertes,” remembers Bill Brady who came to Roatan as a Peace Core volunteer in 1971. “Then someone build a shack by the sea and then they would become organized,” said Brady, an architect who designed dozens of island homes.“It’s like cancer. It has no sanitation, no master plan. If it’s allowed to continue to happen that will accelerate the demise of Roatan. The island will become a sad little footnote in the history of the Caribbean,” said Brady.
The colonias are like a living organism. There is always construction and constant expansion.It is somewhat contained on the east and west, but it keeps expanding south. In 2014 the colonia really took off and houses beyond the ridge, facing Watering Place, began to appear. Now there are 600 homes, or structures here. The area is roughly two kilometers wide and 2.5 kilometer long, so there could be thousands of homes here in just a couple of years. This makes some people very nervous. “Mark my words. This colonia will be the end of this island,” says Bill Brady.
The colonias are like a living organism. There is always construction, expansion.
Bella Vista has around 70 families or 280 people. Colonia Montefresco is also home to 70 families and 280 people. Balfate, with 600 families or 2,400 people is bigger still. Aldin, the new arrival, already claims 600 families residing or 2,400 people. The biggest is Policarpo Galindo with 800 families or 3,200 people. All together 8,500 people reside here.
The creek that runs through the colonias is called La Uva, after the grape tree that grows there. The tree trunk grows out of a small restaurant that completely surrounds the tree. La Uva is also a meeting place. The community gathers here to discuss politics, there are church rallies and festivities. It’s also the place where taxis and busses pick up passengers. Up the hill from there it’s mostly 4×4 and on foot. The paved road becomes dirt and also becomes much steeper, so steep in fact that some streets are just stairs made out of used car tires, or washed out rain mud track.
A bit up the hill, all the way on the ridge you will find Jose Modesto, 73, a carpenter with a million dollar view. “They know me not as a big person, but as a good person, a good carpenter,” says Modesto, who has lived on the island for 26 years and works on building apartments in colonia Bella Vista.
Another colonia resident, Santos Lopez, an AKR worker, says he owns 27 acres in Colonia Bella Vista, as he caries a five gallon water jug up a dirt road leading to his house. “High class people don’t come here. They think it’s just dangerous. But we catch the bad guys and kick them out,” says Lopez.
“If you buy a lot there and you won’t live there, you’ll lose it,” says Zelaya. “The land doesn’t come with proper documents and the only guarantee of keeping your house is living there if you stay here.” Zelaya is the president of the Bella Vista patronato, the grass roots organization that runs the day to day operation of the colonias. Depending on the size of the lot and how desperate the seller is, a lot in Bella Vista, costs between Lps. 200,000 and Lps. 250,000 according to Zelaya.
The newest colonia is named after Aldin Webster, an islander who fell behind on his taxes and property payments, but there are at least four other property owners in the area whose land had been invaded, including Marcus Webster and Tim Overfield.
One of the people residing in Aldin is Suzie Beltras, 60, an energetic Lenca lady from Intibuca who moved to Colonia Aldin three months ago. She supports herself selling jewelry to tourists on West Bay beach. Jonathan Gonzales, 19, has been living on the ridge of the Colonia Aldin for the last seven months. “I was born in Colon, but I’m a ‘1101’,” says Gonzales, referring to his Honduran ID that places him on Roatan Municipality.
It looks like the fight is against really poor people, when in fact a lot of the land is owned by lawyers, judges.
Gonzales, skinny with short, black hair shiny with gel, works in Grand Roatan and spends more time at work then at his three meter by three meter home. He collects rainwater from the zinc roof panels into plastic bottles and containers. “It tastes better than bottled water,” says Gonzales. He has a small solar panel that lights up his tiny yard full of chickens. The 70 by 50 foot property was purchased by his father and slopes at a 45 degree angle south to Watering Palace. The view is spectacular. One can see two cruise ships maneuvering to harbor and planes approaching Roatan airport. We’re at 190 meters above sea level.
Many people who live as squatters are not the ones laying claim to the land. “There are people with money that put people on these properties to stay there. It looks like the fight is against really poor people, when in fact a lot of the land is owned by lawyers, judges and people in politics,” said a Roatan Municipal council member who did not want to be identified for fear of backlash.
According to the councilman there is a huge confrontation appearing on the horizon. “There is no free land on Roatan or like the Spanish call it ‘propiedades eriles,” said the councilman. “When the documents are cleared for the owners, the squatters will be removed, regardless if it’s 600 or 1000 homes.” One such removal took place in 2015 in Colonia Brice or “Canaveral” when the military removed around 20 homes. The scale of the problem has ballooned, but the players waiting for a ‘lottery’ payout are, according to the councilman, the same. “Almost all the taxi drivers own properties in the squatting areas,” said the councilman. “It’s almost like a business. Once they manage to get a document to the property then they will sell it.”
There is a family moving to Colonia Aldin every two, or three days. The valley is filled with improvised wooden structures that have no electricity, no running water, and no bathrooms. The people have hope that all that will come one day. “At 6 am all the people head to work. It looks like a stream of ants heading across the hill to Coxen Hole,” says Hector Ramos. The residents of Colonia Aldin come from Colon, Yoro and Atlántida. “These from Yoro are the poorest, they hardly have anything,” says Zelaya. But they are resilient. They carry pieces of corrugated metal on their heads and piece by piece assemble small structures on 45 degree slopes. They clear land to farm corn and plantains. Hundreds of homes cook using cut down trees. But many of the residents don’t have the energy or means to carry much to and from their houses. They cut the organic trash and use it as compost. Some trash becomes a building material for their homes. Cut down trees, sheets of metal, plastic tarps are building blocks of the dwellings here.
The sounds of up-tempo music and shouting come from an evangelical church that has Thursday afternoon services for colonia residents in need of spiritual uplift. Life in the valley is hard and prospects for a more stable, better life are distant. Their speaker is powered by an extension cord running from the last home in Colonia Bella Vista that has access to electricity. “I give them electricity,” says Zelaya who wants to build a small bar on a place called “La Roca,” the rock. The place is indeed spectacular. The views stretch on three sides of the island: Sandy Bay to Watering Place and West End. “You can see Utila, Cayos Cochinos and on a moonless night the light of La Ceiba 60 kilometers away.” The island poor enjoy million dollar views.