The Long Recovery of Indigenous Lands in Costa Rica

    Indigenous people of Costa Rica try to reappropriate territories that belonged to their ancestors

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    Decades have passed since the Costa Rican government guaranteed the native peoples of the country that they would recover their lands. Meanwhile, they regroup on their own and carry out reappropriations of territories that were once theirs and that are currently in the hands of ranchers.

    “We have documentation from 1940-1956, where the elders claimed that the settlers were getting into the land and asked the government to resolve the right to land as soon as possible because they were losing it,” Pablo Sibar explains as a member of the Council of Elders of the Brörán, in Térraba (Costa Rica). “It is the organization that represents the indigenous people who carry out the processes of struggle over land,” he adds.

    Sibar is a member of the Brörán community, an original Costa Rican people, with just 600 members, who are fighting to make the lands of their ancestors theirs again. “In Costa Rica there are 24 indigenous territories in 8 cultures, but the Térraba territory is 9,355 hectares and 80% is in the hands of non-indigenous people,” he emphasizes.

    Answers from a recovered farm

    “I am part of the recuperators. Here we are 16 families made up of 100 people who had nothing, we had no where to sow. We arrived at four in the morning, we settled in the farm and made a statement saying that the farm was recovered by way of fact and that the person who usurped the land had a reasonable amount of time to remove everything that belonged to him and that the land belonged to us”, Sibar recalls.

    “The ranch laborers, at the request of the usurper rancher, said that they had to get us out and they were very violent moments. We filed a suit for usurpation before the criminal court and he also sued in the criminal court; they rejected it but went to the agrarian court and still there it has not been resolved,”he says.

    He regrets the situation they are in.” When we entered this farm there was not a single tree, there was grass. Today, three years later, it is very interesting because animals have begun to arrive and we have food security, here we produce our food”, he explains. “Indigenous peoples have nowhere to grow crops and farmers have land only for cattle,” he criticizes.

    Although they may remain there for the moment, their future is uncertain. “On January 6th, 2019, the judge ordered the eviction. We appealed and we had the trial on December 14th, 2020, but they suspended it and we do not know when they will reschedule it,” he laments.

    An unresolved conflict

    In 1956 the Boruca-Térraba Indigenous Reserve was designated by decree. On the other hand, “the Indigenous Law of 1977 says that those who had some right to the land, the State has to compensate, expropriate or relocate them. Until today, the cattle rancher has not demonstrated having rights before the law”, he emphasizes, recalling that“ the State recognized by decree that these lands belonged to the Brörán people”.

    Sibar states that within the framework of the 1977 Law: “the State says that the lands will be governed by indigenous communities and their community structures, or the laws of the Republic.” In 1982, a decree was approved on the legal representation of Indigenous Communities by “development associations” and as local government. “That’s where the whole problem began,” Sibar considers, remembering that the Térraba’s was created in 1975.

    “This association was the one that was going to recover the land and file complaints, but in 40 years it never carried out an eviction process,” he criticizes. Likewise, “what this “development association” does is defend the interests of non-indigenous people, the landowners.”

    Indigenous active organization

    Faced with this situation, as well as the paralysis, for decades, of a bill on indigenous autonomy in the Legislative Assembly, motivated the indigenous people to organize. “In 2010 we created the Brörán Council of Elders, from the Térraba people, and we began with the actual recovery process,” he emphasizes. “The law says that this land belongs to the Brörán people, therefore if the government does not do it, we will have to do it ourselves,” he justifies.

    A very long process 

    “In 2014, we made a proposal to the government of 17 urgent farms to recover. However, from 2014 until now the government has done absolutely nothing and those are the farms that we are in the process of recovering”, he clarifies.

    An operation that so far has resulted in the recovery of seven farms representing 2,600 hectares. “There are more than 6,000 hectares to recover. It’s not easy at all”, he admits, calculating that it will take a decade to complete the process. These recoveries become very violent, we have many risks”, he assures.

    Violence against native people

    Sibar cannot forget the murder of his partner Jhery Rivera, in February 2020t, and whose case has not yet been resolved. “It was very violent, they took us from one of the farms we were accompanying, we had to leave, practically fleeing, they almost lynched us,” he recalls.

    This death is joined by that of his “brother and partner” Sergio Rojas, a Bribri leader, in March 2019. “They murdered him at nine in the evening at his home,” he laments, denouncing that “these murders continue to go unpunished.” And remember that both leaders were petitioners for the precautionary measure that the United Nations placed on Costa Rica in 2015 to protect indigenous peoples from violence.

    The wave of violence stopped after Rivera’s murder. “The Government asked that the recoveries not continue and that they were going to solve the problem but until today the government has not solved anything at all,” he criticizes.

    Likewise, the global health crisis paralyzed their activities that they intend to resume this year. All this, despite living in fear. However, “we are not throwing in the towel because we have to leave something much better for future generations”.
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