TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The government announced Thursday that it has granted title to more than 1.6 million acres (655,000 hectares) along Honduras' border with Nicaragua and the Caribbean coast to the Miskito Indian communities that inhabit the area.
The land lies in Honduras' northeastern corner, an area known as the Cape of Gracias A Dios. The government already awarded Miskito Indians title to an additional 265,000 acres (107,000 hectares) over the last year.
The executive director of Honduras' National Agrarian Institute, Reynaldo Vega, said the Miskitos can use the land titles to defend the area's natural resources. He said mining, gas, oil and lumber companies wanting to work in that area would have to deal with the Miskitos as owners of the land.
"This will allow them to defend themselves against third parties who illegally make use of the area's natural resources," Vega said. "Foreign companies that operate in the area will have to talk first to the Miskito community."
Norvin Goff, president of the Miskito community group MASTA, said, "It's not a question of negotiating with companies, but rather one of guaranteeing the rights of the people."
The titles are to be handed over to the country's five Miskito communities, known as Finznos, Wamakklisnasta, Trucksinasta, Watiasta and Laminasta. Together, they represent about 21,800 people living in more than 100 villages and towns in the sparsely populated region.
Honduras received the territory under an 1859 treaty with Britain, in which Honduras agreed to grant title to the land to the Miskitos. The land is equivalent to about 2.5 percent of the country's territory.
David Kaimowitz, director of sustainable development projects at the Ford Foundation, said the land grant was a key step to protect the verdant, forested Miskito coastal areas, which stretch into neighboring Nicaragua.
"The recent recognition of indigenous peoples' rights to large areas of forest in Honduras and Nicaragua affects a significant portion of the land in those two countries and is absolutely key for protecting the valuable biodiversity there," Kaimowitz said.
Vega said only about 10 percent of the land grant announced Thursday is arable land. The rest has high soil salinity or acidity levels. Vega said he hopes the Indian communities will use those areas for hunting or planting crops like yucca, which could help improve the soil.