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Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Leaders in Costa Rica Tell Ban Ki-moon Their Problems

A Costa Rican indigenous family runs to take shelter in the community of Cedror in the indigenous territory of Salitre on Jul. 6, afraid of being attacked by landowners who occupied their land after setting fire to their homes and belongings the day before. Credit: David Bolaños/IPS

SAN JOSE, Aug 1 2014 (IPS) - Indigenous people in Costa Rica, hemmed in by violent attacks from farmers and ranchers who invade their land and burn down their homes, have found a new ally: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with 36 native leaders during a recent visit to this country.

The leaders, representing eight indigenous groups, described the violence faced by native people in Costa Rica, and the many struggles they face, even in simply getting identity cards.

But they underlined that their most pressing concern is the occupation of indigenous areas by “the white man”, which has led to an escalation of attacks from landowners, who invade their ancestral territory and try to drive them off the land, despite a law that guarantees their right to collective ownership of their territory.

The latest violent episode occurred in the community of Cedror, in the Salitre indigenous territory in the southeast of the country.

The Bribri people in Salitre had begun a process of recovering territory occupied by landowners or “finqueros”, who responded by burning down their modest homes and blocking access to their territory.

The violence, which continued from Jul. 5 to 8, prompted a visit to Cedror by the deputy minister of political affairs, Ana Gabriel Zúñiga, sent by President Luis Guillermo Solís, along with representatives of the Defensoría de los Habitantes – ombudsperson’s office – and the Ministry of Justice and Peace.

“We don’t want to be beggars of the state. If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.” -- José Carlos Morales

A mob of around 80 thugs converged on the community on Jul. 5, armed with rocks and guns, chased the local indigenous people out of their homes, and then burned down the huts, with all of the families’ belongings inside.

Ligia Bejarano, one of the indigenous leaders who informed the U.N. secretary-general of the situation, told him that in 2010 native people were thrown out of the legislature when they went to lobby for approval of a new law on indigenous affairs.

According to Bejarano, Ban was very receptive and told them he was aware of the latest attack on native people in this Central American country, where members of indigenous groups represent 2.6 percent of the population of 4.5 million.

The secretary-general paid an official visit to Costa Rica on Jul. 30, and spent an additional four days in the country on vacation.

“I stress that dialogue is a very powerful tool and that we must continue to foment it, as long as there is grassroots community participation,” Magaly Lázaro, a member of the Brunca indigenous community who also participated in the meeting with Ban, told IPS.

“This is a group of marginalised populations who have long been discriminated against by societies,” Ban said shortly after the meeting, referring to indigenous people during a conference held in the San José-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“I do take away the empty feeling that it was very short, for such an important meeting – five minutes weren’t enough for me to say what I feel; you can’t sum up so many things because the problem is bigger than what was discussed,” another of the three female participants, Justa Romero, told IPS.

The indigenous territory with the worst problems is Térraba, 150 km southeast of San José. Around 85 percent of the community’s land has been occupied by non-indigenous outsiders, according to the 2012 State of the Nation report drawn up by the National Provosts Council.

This is happening despite the fact that Costa Rica’s Indigenous Law, in force since 1977, declared native territories inalienable, indivisible, non-transferable and exclusive to the indigenous communities living there.

In other words, even if outsiders buy land in indigenous territories, the purchase and land title are invalid.

The native leaders told IPS that in the meeting with Ban they asked him to help them get the authorities to accelerate the adoption of measures to ensure respect for their rights and support for their autonomous development.

“Now we want to see how many non-indigenous people are in our territory,” Romero, a Bribri native who belongs to the Commission of Indigenous Women of Talamanca Association (ACOMUITA) in the country’s southern Caribbean region, told IPS. “But it’s not just a question of saying ‘we found this or that’ – I mean we should go and remove them and demonstrate that the land truly belongs to indigenous people.”

According to the 2011 national census, the roughly 100,000 members of the Brunca, Ngäbe, Bribri, Cabécar, Maleku, Chorotega, Térraba and Teribe communities live in 24 indigenous territories scattered around the country. Altogether, these areas cover 350,000 hectares of land – around seven percent of the national territory.

After visiting Salitre, Deputy Minister Zúñiga said the administration of Solis, who took office as president in May, recognises indigenous people’s right to their land and will support them in recovering their territory.

“We have started to carry out an analysis of all aspects related to the demarcation of Salitre and we are taking the first steps to see who [non-indigenous people] have farms in the territory and who has the right to be indemnified,” Geiner Blanco, a member of the Maleku indigenous community and a presidential adviser on native affairs, told IPS.

A bill aimed at overcoming the gaps and problems in the country’s institutions with respect to indigenous affairs has been stalled in the legislature for 19 years.

The proposed reforms include the governance of native territories by indigenous councils; the removal of all non-native people from the territories; and education for indigenous children designed in line with the native world vision and culture.

“We don’t want to be beggars of the state,” Brunca indigenous leader José Carlos Morales told IPS. “If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.

“But they don’t want to pass it. They want us to keep being beggars,” said Morales, who helped draft the 1977 Indigenous Law and worked for five years in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s indigenous rights body.

Lázaro, a 29-year-old member of the Brunca community, told IPS that she would be happy just to stop being plagued by the fear she started to feel in August last year, when she was visiting Salitre and preparing a meal with the women and children while the men went out to patrol the borders of the territory.

“We were about to eat when a bunch of people came up with sticks and clubs and surrounded us in a question of just a few seconds,” she said. “It was a mob of finqueros and white people; I had heard of that kind of violence, but I hadn’t experienced it, and the fear has stayed with me.”

Edited by: Estrella Gutiérrez / Translated by: Stephanie Wildes

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  • inubiyamarsha

    That makes two of us. Thanks to IPSNEWS. I always believed Costa Rica was one of the few paradise around. Now this information is really hard to comprehend.

  • Rebecca Ore

    All the Central American countries and Texas seceded from Mexico in the 19th Century after the Spanish rule ended because the Mexicans outlawed slavery and made their indigenous people equal citizens. Costa Rica didn’t give its indigenous people citizenship until the 1960s or so and didn’t give them the vote until later than that. From this article, Costa Rica is playing games with ID cards, which implies restrictions on voting rights. None of the countries down here are known for being strong protectors of Indigenous rights.

  • inubiyamarsha

    Thank you for this information Rebecca.

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