Courtesy Casa Presidencial
Indigenous groups meet with government mediators in Salitre, Puntarenas, Costa Rica on Monday, July 7, 2014.

Costa Rican Government to Push for Indigenous Autonomy Law

John McPhaul

Under international pressure Costa Rica is mulling granting greater self-determination to its 63,000 indigenous.

Last April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the government of Costa Rica to take precautionary measures to protect Bribri and Teribe indigenous in the community of Salitre, on the Pacific slope of the southern Talamanca Mountains, from non-indigenous settlers on indigenous land.

In a series of incidents beginning in July 2012, the settlers burned indigenous crops and used machetes and clubs to try to dislodge indigenous who, led by a 54-year-old Bribri named Sergio Rojas, were attempting to reclaim land within the Salitre Indigenous Reserve.

In response to the IACHR order, the government of Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis tripled the number of police stationed at the "territory," the term preferred by the indigenous, to 60 and intensified the negotiations between the parties involved in the dispute.

Then on July 15 of this year, Gabriella Habtom, secretary of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report "on the grave and persistent violation of indigenous peoples' rights" in Costa Rica.

"This report addresses the pattern of pervasive, long-standing and inter-connected violations or denials of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Republic of Costa Rica…, and the ongoing situation of impunity in which they occur and persist," said Habtom.

The U.N. official noted that on three quarters of the 1,287 square miles (3,334 square kilometers) of land inside the 24 indigenous territories 40 percent is illegally occupied by non-indigenous while in one quarter of the land 80 to 90 percent is illegally occupied.

Taken together, the measures have given hope to Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups that the government will finally pass an Indigenous Autonomy Law, stalled in congress for 20 years, which would give indigenous Costa Ricans a measure of self-determination.

The bill would formalize the country's adherence to the International Labor Organization's 169 convention respecting traditional forms of governance over activities inside the indigenous territories.

The government, which has pledged to support the ILO convention, has thrown its support behind the Indigenous Autonomy bill, but how strongly the government will fight for the legislation remains an open question.

Solis submitted the bill to the Legislative Assembly in the congress’ extraordinary session earlier this year, but the measure was delayed because of opposition, some coming from Solis’ own party in the person of the powerful legislator Otton Solis (no relation to the president), the founder of the governing Citizen’s Action Party.

Government spokesman Mauricio Herrera said the government will resubmit the bill in the extraordinary session that begins in December and lasts until April.

Indigenous leaders said that passing the Indigenous Autonomy Law would go a long way toward resolving territorial, governance and other issues such as the granting to mining concessions, currently in the hands of the Legislative Assembly, by liberating the indigenous territories from the machinations of outside interests which have traditionally used indigenous issues for lucre and power.

The Salitre controversy is a case in point, where large land-holders and squatters have been able to count on central government institutions such as the National Indigenous Affairs Commission (CONAI) and the National Community Development Directorate (DINADECO) to battle the indigenous movement to recover the land.

The law would develop new governing institutions respectful of indigenous traditions.

Until recently in Salitre, the indigenous avenues of powers were upheld by the now-former president of the community Integral Development Association Sergio Rojas.

According to Rojas, Salitre's Indigenous had lived in numerous families per house in the reserve or in the slums of the regional hub of Buenos Aires about 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) down the mountain from Salitre.

"There's no reason for our people to live like that when we have an ancestral home which is ours not only by tradition but under the Indigenous Law, so we organized an effort to take it back," said Rojas.

But Rojas protagonist’s role in the retaking of the land, which resulted in machete and club attacks on the indigenous families, made him enemies in the white power structure in the Salitre region and among indigenous who don’t accept his leadership.

In August of 2012, the Buenos Aires municipal council declared Rojas persona-non-grata and the next month unknown assailants pumped six shots into a taxi Rojas was riding in as he approached the territory.

In November of 2014, Rojas was jailed under preventive detention for seven months for allegedly defrauding a government environmental services fund.

Rojas denied the allegations saying he was never formally charged, but that did not stop DINEDECO from stripping Rojas of the presidency of the Integral Development Association citing the environmental services allegations. 

His supporters said that the government unfairly jailed the Bribri leader because it is alarmed by the emergence of a strong, charismatic indigenous leader capable of stirring up indigenous communities to demand their rights on a national level.

“He was a political prisoner,” said Amilcar Castañeda, an anthropologist at the National Distance University. “It’s a case where there was disorder in the management of the association’s funds. It’s something that’s very common everywhere in the country and no one else has ever been accused of anything.”

Solis's government has worked hard to settle the issue but officials said it is complicated by lack of clarity over who has a right to stay in the territory and who should leave and who can claim compensation and who can't.

Herrera said that settlers who occupied land prior to the time the Indigenous Law went into effect in 1977 are entitled to compensation, while those who squatted on the land or bought land with only a bill of sale, are not.

Another thorny issue is who can claim to be Bribri and who cannot. Bribri culture is defined by matrilineal family ties. For traditionalists, only the offspring of Bribri mothers can be considered Bribri.

The traditions as applied by the controversial Rojas, have caused conflicts and divisions within the indigenous community itself.

Sary Sosa, a member of the Cabécar indigenous, closely related to the Bribri, told the daily La Nación that she feels threatened by Rojas, even after multiple community meetings. She characterized the situation as a division between the “indigenous that go with Sergio Rojas and the indigenous who don’t go with Sergio Rojas.”

“I don’t go with anything that he says,” Sosa said. “I don’t respect him as a leader. I don’t accept him, I don’t want him, I would even like them to take him out of the territory.”

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