In the heart of the Costa Rican forests and jungles, there are 9 Indigenous nations distributed in 24 territorial regions. These natives are part of the history of dispossession and universal discrimination that the indigenous peoples of the world live every day;
The struggle of these peoples has lasted for more than 500 years and in the last decades, their efforts for the recovery of the territory have been constant and gaining strength. Today more than ever it is evident that they are willing to recover the lands where their roots are.
One of the nations with the largest presence in this entire region is the Bribri people, who like all Indigenous Peoples are blessed with a thousand-year-old history and culture, presenting their own peculiarities. The Bribri culture has a matrilineal character, which means that it is the mother who inherits and hands over the land to future generations.
Lesner Figueroa, Bribri Indigenous leader of the Ditsö Iriria Ajkonuk Wakpa Council and defender of the territory and rights of Indigenous Peoples, describes his people as follows:
“We are a clanic matrilineal people, our people are made up of clans, Tuadiwak is my clan, there are others like Uniwak, Dudiwak, Tubolwak, Suladiwak, among others. This clan identity can only be inherited by the mother, you are Bribri if your mother is Bribri.”
In this sense, long ago the only ones who inherited the land were women, but unfortunately today this practice does not occur frequently (due to various factors that other forms of land ownership impose on us), in fact, it is part of the struggle to strengthen it day by day.
To expand on how the matrilineal system functions, we find that this type of social organization works from the recognition and appreciation of women far from the domination and subordination that prevails today with patriarchy.
The fact that in these societies women exercise an important position in the community structure and constitutes the primary element in the family, exemplifies that women have not been subject or subordinate on all continents or at all times, and evidences that female subordination is neither innate nor universal.
The Bribris, not only inhabited Talamanca, there are Bribris in the South Pacific, and Puntarenas (which are in Salitre, Cabagra and Jarrás). According to history, our ancestors even inhabited the Central Valley of San José, but as the Spanish arrived, they displaced the Indigenous population, moving them away from the white population and coming to inhabit the coasts of Limón. This gives an idea of the territory they covered and the regions where these peoples currently live.
According to official stadistics, Costa Rica has a population projection as of June 30th, 2020 of 5,111,238 inhabitants, of which more than 100,000 have been identified as Indigenous people, that is to say, more than 2% of the population in Costa Rica is Indigenous.
Gustavo Oriamuno from the Ditsö council comments: “Like other countries, in Costa Rica (with its particularities and differences) there was a process of genocide of Indigenous Peoples during the conquest, the colony and the republican period. From there, its space and territories have been shrinking. The foregoing strengthens the reality of the multiple spoils that peoples live from hunger and malnutrition as a contemporary form of extermination. Within the history of Indigenous Peoples, these remains are historical, and have been lived in various stages and with different shades of violence.”
Currently, according to a UNDP report, Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica lead the country in poverty and malnutrition. In this it is stated: “Finally, regarding the percentage of Indigenous households with at least one unsatisfied basic need, the latest National Census indicates that it is around 70.1% of households, while the national percentage is 24.6%. ”
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In Costa Rica, an Indigenous population of approximately 63,876 people is recognized (1.5% of the total population according to the 2000 census). Of the more than 5,210,000 hectares covered by the national territory, about 350,000 (that is, approximately 7% of the total land) are established as Indigenous territories.
According to the approval of the regulation of Indigenous Law 6172, the Costa Rican state officially recognizes the ownership and possession of Indigenous territories in the country. This regulation was approved by the country’s Legislative Assembly on December 20, 1977.
It is very important to highlight that compliance with and respect for this law are still pending tasks for the government of Costa Rica, not only for the current one but also for the governments that have been in power for more than 50 years, that to the United Nations has a record for being a stable State that respects and fulfills human rights. However, the rights of only some sectors of the Costa Rican population have been fulfilled and respected, since Indigenous lands remain in the hands of the powerful landlord families that have appropriated these territories ever since colonial times.
Despite the fact that the Indigenous law was approved in 1977 and it recognizes Indigenous territories and the customary law of organization and administration of justice, the Costa Rican State has done nothing to enforce it, even with delaying dialogue and procedures for more than 40 years, time during which entire native organizations and communities have been deceived.
The lands that by ancestral right correspond to entire Indigenous tribes, remain in the hands of non-indigenous landowners. These landowners have criminalized, persecuted, and assassinated those who defend their rights and their lands, stripping them of their ancestral properties and generating serious problems in the regions.
In order to understand the ways in which the peoples of various territories of the country have lived, it is vital to speak with organizations that have worked and accompanied the struggle. Gustavo Oriamuno, speaks of the Iridia (name with which the Earth is called, the “Pachamama” that is the sustenance of all peoples and is sacred). “This is where the Indigenous peoples of the southern zone of Costa Rica discuss their decisions, building their own autonomy and begin to recover – according to their culture and national and international law – the lands that were in the hands of non-indigenous people.”
In the south there are some territories where 80-85% of the legally declared territories, are in the hands of non-indigenous people. In broad daylight, they assassinate those who fight to defend the original territories, and the investigations by the government agencies have not presented any progress. The only public and social media pronouncements are inconclusive and do not go beyond simply informing about the crimes.
The response of justice and clarification for the murders of land defenders is something that families and communities still await. In the long night of more than 500 years, Indigenous Peoples have fought for respect of their self-determination. Undoubtedly, within the Western nation-states logic, this struggle has been ignored, and the ways in which native tribes and nations see, perceive, and coexist in the territories have been made invisible.
Ancestral peoples conceive themselves as part of a united group, without believing themselves superior to nature, and with utmost respect for the soil and water. The capitalist system works with a logic of accumulation, consuming and dispossessing of people. This system has been adopted by governments, which do not represent the ways of life of native communities, hence, they collide with this system, generating criminalization and harassment of indigenous leaders and organizations.
The dark scenario in which the indigenous peoples live, facing the criminalization, persecution and murder of those who fight for their life, peace and dignity, is not something new, and in recent years, in the region of the Caribbean and the jungle between Costa Rica and Panama, violence has been increasing. In less than two years, they have assassinated two leaders and defenders of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, who were exerting a frontal fight for the recovery of ancestral lands.
“Sergio Rojas Ortiz, 59-year-old Bribri Indigenous, father of numerous family, was a man concerned about the community. He thought of everyone in the community and from the approval of the Indigenous law in 1977, participated in the founding of the Indigenous Council in 1979,” assures Lesner Figueroa, who was a friend and companion of Sergio and who is still currently fighting for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Figueroa tells us about the daily harassment and persecution that they live in the Salitre region for leading a frontal fight in their attempts to recover territories, which were taken from them by colonial landowners. He assures that they suffer from persecution and racist discrimination despite the fact that there is a law that recognizes indigenous peoples as owners of the lands they inhabit.
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One year has gone by since the assassination of Sergio Rojas. The IACHR had granted him precautionary measures and the State never enforced them, which shows the complicity and silence in the face of this type of practice by the government. One year after his murder, there is no progress in the investigation despite the fact that the material authors of the murder have been identified.
“Jerhy Rivera, Indigenous Brörán de Térraba, who was leading the recovery of Indigenous territory in the region known as Mano de Tigre, was assassinated on February 24th while they were in the process of recovering land,” says Gustavo Oreamundo. He adds: “Furthermore, in 2013 Jerhy suffered a brutal attack for denouncing illegal and excessive deforestation in their territory”.
There is no significant advance in clarifying who were the intellectual and material authors of these murders. Sergio and Jerhy were closely working on the recovery of Indigenous territories and their murder is a clear symptom of the lack of democracy, of disrespect for human rights for Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica.
It is evident that the current reality for the peoples and organizations that defend their rights and that seek the fulfillment of the laws by the State, is on the verge of a complex crisis, since it is a recovery that has cost blood and lives for peoples and territories.
In the midst of the global crisis caused by COVID-19 and the colonial and structural dispossession that Indigenous Peoples live in the world, territorial and environmental struggle is increasingly necessary.
The voice of hope is maintained in the Bribri native communities, amidst the diverse and multidimensional realities that these peoples live. “The call is to action, unity and organization not to abandon this fight for our way of life,” says Lesner Figueroa. Likewise, he expresses: “The relationship of the Indigenous with water, soil, animals and jungle has been so close that these natural elements are considered sacred, as part of our ancestral family. Around this, a complex ethical, religious, philosophical and social code has been built, contained in the Siwá (wisdom inherited from the ancient inhabitants of Talamanca) and understood as wind, breath or knowledge that coincides in the Talamanque tradition with two tasks: science and religion, in the same concept and practice”.
The current situation continues, given that the Costa Rican State has not implemented any specific measure to support and defend the territories. Indigenous law already says clearly that the land is of the tribes, and in this case of the Bribri; However, nothing has advanced during all this time; None of the National administrations has wanted to return the land to the Indigenous people, and this has generated that in recent years the illegal possession of land has become a serious situation and for this reason, last year there was an increase in violence against Indigenous Peoples. The state is inefficient and does nothing to be able to comply with the law.
Despite the complex situation of the Native communities in Costa Rica, Indigenous Peoples have always desired dialogue, respect, compliance with laws and treaties approved and ratified by the State. This has been a goal for years, with dialogue tables and negotiation processes so that their rights are respected and dignified.
“As a result of the struggle that Sergio Rojas Ortiz started more than 10 years ago, a process that he called land recovery, the claim to land rights was promoted through various actions, for example, one of them was to go directly to the National Legislative Assembly, from which they were disdainfully and forcibly taken out.
“Now, there are threats every day and at night. Death threats and violent attacks persist every day, but our resistance continues. It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to be threatened every day, ” says Lesner Figueroa.
The situation of the Indigenous Peoples of Costa Rica does not appear on the front pages of the written mass media, or on any television channel and it is not a trend in Social Networks. So this report is a contribution to amplify the collective voice of our Indigenous citizens. Collecting these testimonies during the present COVID-19 crisis. The silence and ignorance of our daily reality by part of the government entities is revealed from the search for official information and disaggregated data on the situation of many of these peoples. Much of the existing information has been provided only through universities and international organizations.
However, there is still hope in the midst of this global crisis and the situation of permanent dispossession; The Bribri will continue fighting according to their view of the world, because the land, the water and the hills are sacred elements for exchange and coexistence, and not for consumption and exploitation. The Earth and its elements are not the property of anyone, and therefore cannot be destroyed; rather, they must be respected, cared for, and defended.