Costa Rica: Why is indigenous autonomy in Costa Rica necessary, urgent and fair?

Countries and identities are social inventions created by human beings that make up cultures and peoples. The human being makes material and ideological creations that may subsequently form part of the characteristics that identify a culture. Costa Rica “created” or consolidated “its invention of homeland” with the so-called “Olive Generation”, consisting of artists, such as painters, writers, intellectuals and thinkers, towards the end of the 19th century.

At this time, the ideologies, materials and aesthetics for an identity based on the Central Valley, an educated white farming society, which identified more with Europe and Spain than with nearby countries, were created, not only with values such as solidarity and humility, but also with flaws that we have not corrected as a society, such as poor education, insofar as the acceptance and good relations with the “other culture” are concerned, regardless of whether they are black, Chinese, Nicaraguan, Chiriquí, fishermen, indigenous, etc.

Maybe it is time to reinvent a country more in line with our realities, discarding what is no longer valid and conserving what is good and current with respect to our identity because we are, in spite of our beliefs of being “exactly the same and white”, a melting pot of cultures that makes our country more diverse. Nevertheless, ordinary Costa Ricans do not know anything about our eight indigenous cultures and their 24 territories; they are not aware of the Afro-Caribbean culture or the culture of fishermen and farmers.

We are a people ignorant of our diversity and of our history rich in colors and different popular cultures. This is serious because it does not allow us to see, nurture or take advantage of our varying cultures which, together with the nature of the forests and the coasts, make us different and diverse.

Most Costa Ricans neither know how these collective territories are managed, nor that seven territories of the following ethnic groups exist in the south of Costa Rica: the Bribri, Cabecar, Boruca and Terraba have serious land tenure problems. Some of these peoples have serious problems with their populations that tend to migrate after failing to find sources of income and livelihood for their families, thus causing them to decrease.

The contradictory laws of this country caused the indigenous peoples of the Central Valley to “colonize land converting forests and mountains into grazing areas” starting with the construction of the Inter-American Highway. In addition to this process in which the indigenous peoples of the south lost large amounts of land, their economic structural poverty has also led to illegal sales. The government, through the Institute for Agricultural Development (IDA), is committed to solving this problem it has caused, which has yet to be corrected.

The indigenous peoples of the seven territories located in Buenos Aires and Pérez Zeledón that would be directly and indirectly affected by the El Diquis Hydroelectric Project currently control 31% of their territories (Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy – MIDEPLAN, 2002).

Indigenous territories are and have been historically threatened by mega-projects and/or activities that propose intensive extractive uses of natural resources such as monocultures, hydroelectric dams and mining extraction. The indigenous communities have a deep and millennial connection and history with their land. If we destroy this cultural element, we are putting these identities at risk, thus coinciding with the statement made by the historical Bribri leader, the Ikekepa Alejandro Swaby, when he said that “an Indian without land is a dead Indian”.

In spite of not controlling 100% of their territories, the 24 territories containing 20% of the forests outside of protected areas (United Nations Development Program, 2008) have been key in understanding the conservation of the forests of the Talamanca mountain range, which is formed by important national parks, such as the La Amistad International Park and the Chirripó National Park, among others. These territories have sustainably thrived around the two most important basins from a socio-cultural, economic and ecological point of view: the Térraba basin in the Pacific and the Sixaola Basin in the Caribbean.

Likewise, many Costa Ricans do not know that our education system was established by the Spanish who banned the use of indigenous languages, thus directly affecting these communities. Remember that our indigenous cultures are oral cultures and by banning their language, we affect the transmission of key knowledge that these groups have collected after sharing and occupying the same territory for thousands of years. Such knowledge includes topics such as beliefs, stories, environment, health, philosophy of life, etc.
The Costa Rican government also imposed forms of organization very different from their traditional ones and promoted structures that generated conflict and corruption in most of the indigenous territories, such as development associations and local governments.

How nice, fair and advantageous it would be to recover the land of the indigenous peoples; to support their rescue and the cultural protection of their traditions; to teach languages, history, songs, knowledge and the philosophy of Bribri, Cabecar, Boruca, Térraba, Maleku, etc. to all the Costa Rican children and adolescents in school and not only those in indigenous territories.

It is urgent that these groups, without manipulation or impositions, decide if they want works, such as hydroelectric projects, highways, mines, etc., which would affect their day-to-day life and cultural characteristics, such as their cultural heritage associated with the land and their natural resources, to be built. Let’s not weaken the indigenous knowledge associated with natural resources; on the contrary, it should be recovered, reinforced and maintained so that it may contribute to the management of natural resources at important socio-environmental sites, such as the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, surrounded by fourteen indigenous territories in Costa Rica and Panama of the Bribri, Cabécar, Ngöbe and Naso Teribe ethnicities. Let´s make sure that their knowledge of medicinal plants benefits the health of the communities and families.

For these reasons, the political structures that include the indigenous inhabitants must be supported and stimulated so that they feel included in democratic processes that respect all of their characteristics. I dream that one day in October as soon as possible, a plan may be adopted to give our territories autonomy as a sign of the desire to reverse an embarrassing history, in which we have caused detriment and taken actions that could form part of a slow and ignorant ethnocide against indigenous cultures.
The Costa Rican indigenous peoples have had to struggle to obtain identity documents within the past 20 years. Their culture has been undervalued, ignored and even humiliated. For over 500 years, they have asked for autonomy in order to keep their identity and thus make Costa Rica culturally richer. Their contribution with respect to the conservation and knowledge of natural resources is significant and unrecognized. This knowledge is vital to properly manage resources.

They were violently removed from the Legislative Assembly a few months ago for using other means to claim their rights and request urgent changes. The indigenous movement has submitted the following bill for the past 15 years: the Autonomous Development Bill. It became one of the most successful and complex consultation processes in the country. This law states that indigenous peoples should have the right to choose their forms of organization to manage their territories, in accordance with their historical experiences, current knowledge, visions and perceptions of well-being and quality of life; to recover their land; and to make sure that education, health and other needs take into account their cultures and social realities.

Let’s make it possible for a nation to recognize the contribution of our first societies, of the indigenous societies that have respectably resisted the forces that have harmed their identities in light of our ignorance and silence. Let’s do this while making sure that the central elements that define the indigenous identities, such as their territories, their language and their culture, are in the hands of the indigenous peoples and organizational structures committed to maintaining their identities and cultural characteristics.

The traveler and European scientist Henry Pittier, who explored the country to give recommendations to the government regarding its strategic actions in indigenous zones, also made suggestions during the time of the “Olive Generation” regarding the management of relations between the government and the indigenous territories of the south. “I believe that the Supreme Government must provide equal protection to all its citizens. For this reason, I dare recommend that the autonomy of the Térraba, Boruca, Ujarrás and Cabagra peoples should be respected insofar as possible, that their chiefs and school teachers should be chosen among themselves and that people of other races should be strictly prohibited from establishing themselves among them without their consent, without refraining from monitoring their well-being from up above. The Costa Rican nation owes this to the rest of the ancient and rightful owners of its soil” (Henry Pittier, 1891).

Pitter knew that if these central characteristics, such as the control of their language and the territory, were not inserted into a framework of autonomy, these cultures could run the risk of disappearing. So much suffering. We would be so much better off if we would have paid attention or if we had understood what the illustrious European had recommended to us in 1891.

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