BY TRACI CARL
TRIUNFO DE LA CRUZ, Honduras -- The gaunt teenager walked barefoot for days along narrow, muddy paths and caught rides from an occasional passing car to reach the nearest city.
But the trip was worth it for Margarito Lored, a Garifuna fisherman headed to a regional meeting aimed at preventing planeloads of tourists from descending to sunbathe and party on the quiet beaches where his people have lived for more than 200 years.
Honduras, looking to generate tourism dollars, is searching for investors for two resorts -- one with 1,600 hotel rooms, two beach clubs, a water park, a campground and an equestrian club -- on its northern coast, long home to the descendants of black slaves and Carib Indians known as the Garifuna (gah-REE-fu-nah).
For some Garifunas, the hotels and shops could mean fewer people will have to work in the United States. For others, it is a threat to a way of life that to an outsider's eye has changed little from generation to generation.
The Garifuna have adopted few Honduran traditions, maintaining their own language, their own culture and their own closely linked communities.
Former inhabitants of the free island of St. Vincent, they were defeated by the British and deported to the island of Roatan off Honduras' northern coast in 1797.
Eventually, they spread to settlements along the Caribbean coast in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. They maintain their Garifuna language -- which is influenced by Arawak, French, English, Spanish and various African languages -- while also adopting Spanish and, in the case of Belize, English.
Experts estimate more than 160,000 Garifunas live in Central America, and at least 50,000 have migrated to the United States.
RELIANT ON THE SEA
Their culture is reliant on the sea. Their homes are built along the beaches -- or on stilts above the waves. Their children play soccer in the ocean's shallows while men fish from dugout canoes or dive with spears for fish along the reefs.
But the same beaches that have served as a backbone to their culture for generations could soon bring an entirely different way of life.
A disease has killed most of the palm trees along the coast, robbing residents of one of their main food sources -- coconuts -- while Hurricane Mitch in 1998 forced many fishermen to sail hours out of their way to find their catch.
``There are no highways, and they are deforesting the land,'' Lored said, arriving for a meeting to organize residents against encroaching tourism.
At the same time, Garifuna leaders say, residents are coming under increasing pressure to sell their land to developers. In the coastal village of Triunfo de la Cruz, 190 miles north of Tegucigalpa, the capital, a few residents sold a yucca field because they didn't know they had the right to say no, community leader Edgardo Benedeth said.
``They think that if they don't sell the land, it will be stolen'' and they won't receive any money, he said.
Once other villagers discovered what had happened, the yucca field was already being plowed under and construction had begun on seven luxury vacation homes, complete with swimming pools and two-story picture windows. The community is fighting the construction in court and trying to educate residents about their property rights.
JUST A START
But that development is just the beginning.
Small hotels and restaurants are sprouting up nearby, and Honduran officials are searching for foreign investors for a multimillion-dollar resort located in the swamps next to the Garifuna village of Tornabe, 12 miles to the west.
A similar resort is being planned 100 miles to the east, amid several Garifuna villages.
``We have hundreds of kilometers of beaches that aren't developed, and it's a waste,'' Tourism Secretary Ana Abarca said in Tegucigalpa. ``We want strong tourism. We are going after the sun and the beach.''
Although government officials say the resorts will include day tours of Garifuna villages, community leaders want to develop sustainable, small-scale ecotourism -- and not become sideshows to giant resorts with spring breakers and water parks, said Miriam Miranda of the Central Office of the Fraternal Black Organization in Honduras.
Government leaders have agreed to help the Garifuna build walking paths between some villages, possibly helping residents attract people interested in taking cultural tours.
``This is going to happen, the question is how to prepare,'' said Natividad Rochez, the Tourism Ministry's coordinator of ethnic projects and himself a Garifuna.