Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COSTA RICA: Indigenous People Still Largely Invisible

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Oct 29 2008 (IPS) - In Costa Rica, the most advanced country in Central America in terms of human development, indigenous people tend to be neglected and forgotten.

The country’s native peoples have the highest poverty rates and lowest levels of human development, and their views and interests receive little attention from the government.

The single-chamber parliament modified a clause in the Biodiversity Law and approved the amended legislation in the first reading on Oct. 16, without having consulted the country’s indigenous people, despite a constitutional court ruling that they had to be consulted about the change.

Under International Labour Convention (ILO) 169, the “Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries”, to which Costa Rica is a signatory, governments must consult indigenous communities prior to undertaking any activity or passing any law that directly affects them or their land.

On Oct. 20, lawmakers from the Citizen Action Party (PAC), the Broad Front, and the Accessibility without Exclusion Party (PASE) questioned the constitutionality of the amended law, an aspect on which the courts must now rule.

“The state has made indigenous people invisible,” Eliécer Velas, a representative of the Maloku people, one of Costa Rica’s eight distinct native groups, told IPS.

The country’s 24 indigenous reservations cover a total of 400,000 hectares, approximately seven percent of the national territory, and the nearly 64,000 members of the different groups make up just under 1.5 percent of the population of 4.3 million. (The vast majority of the population is of mixed blood – generally Spanish and Native American – or European heritage).

The eight indigenous groups are the Bribri (who account for 35 percent of the country’s indigenous people), Cabecare (25 percent), Brunca (15 percent), Ngöbe Bugle (13 percent), Chorotega (four percent), Huetares (three percent), Maloku (three percent) and Teribe (two percent).

Most of them live in the southern part of the country. A 1977 law established the country’s Indian reservations.

Maloku leaders met last week with representatives of government institutions in the presidential palace to discuss issues of concern to their community, like the acquisition of land, construction of a water pipeline, a local health clinic and a four-km road, and a housing programme.

Velas criticised the government because, after turning a blind eye to the fact that the legislature modified the Biodiversity Law without consulting indigenous groups, it has called on them, one by one, to ask them about their needs and negotiate necessary infrastructure projects.

“In Costa Rica, electricity is available in 95 percent of the territory. And the indigenous communities are included in the remaining five percent,” said Velas.

The outlook is the same in terms of health and educational coverage, to which most of the country’s native people have little to no access.

Rubén Chacón, a lawyer who specialises in indigenous rights, said the authorities talk about building schools and medical centres, and about helping native communities gain formal title to their ancestral territories. “But what kind of education and what kind of medicine?” he asked.

“The government is interested in opening schools and health centres even if they don’t have desks or medicines, and they don’t guarantee indigenous cultural content either. That is a serious problem,” he argued.

But a parliamentary debate that has begun on a draft law on autonomous development for indigenous people is good news for the country’s native communities, said Chacón, who added that the new law may be passed in the first quarter of 2009.

The question, though, is whether the draft law’s strong indigenous perspective will become reality, or will remain just empty words. “Costa Rica has the most advanced legislation on indigenous rights in Latin America, but the laws are not enforced,” said Velas.

“This country has signed many international conventions on human rights, but there are still problems when it comes to their application, whether due to economic or ideological reasons,” said Chacón.

Indigenous activists are hopeful that if the draft law that respects the world view of native communities is approved, compliance will improve.

“It took a lengthy participation process to get to this point,” said Chacón.

“The new law will grant autonomy to indigenous communities,” each of which will have a direct relationship with the state, said Velas. Under the law, the Finance Ministry will assign funds, “and each community will decide how to use that money,” he explained.

Costa Rica’s indigenous people are demanding respect for basic rights: cultural integrity; non-discrimination; property rights to, use of, control over and access to their land and natural resources; ethnodevelopment; social assistance and educational coverage in line with their world view; and political participation.

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