Costa Rican Indigenous Leaders Call for Passage of Indigenous Autonomy Law

October 15, 2015

By John McPhaul

Costa Rica shares with Panama an enormous copper field in the Talamanca Mountains which link the two countries. The Costa Rican government has granted dozens of concessions to multinational mining companies in the Talamanca highlands.

But a problem for the mining companies lies in the fact that the copper reserves are beneath Indigenous territory and the law requires that the country's Legislative Assembly to give final approval to the concessions. Also, the Costa Rican government is signatory of the International Labor Organization Convention 169 which requires the approval of Indigenous communities to any outside development which takes place inside their land.

"The cosmology of the Bribri," the most populous Indigenous people on the Costa Rican side of the Talamancas, "sees the earth and its ecosystems as a sacred living being called Iriria, precluding any mining inside Indigenous territory," said Bribri leader José Dualok Rojas.

To date the governments of Costa Rica have been faithful to the International Labour Convention 169 and loathe to press for final approval of the concessions. The government of current President Luis Guillermo Solis said it has no plans to abrogate Convention 169. "The government is committed with respect to the international conventions that the country has signed on the subject of the rights of the Indigenous Peoples," said Minister of Communication Mauricio Herrara.

But Costa Rican Indigenous leaders are mistrustful of the government's ability to fight off the intentions of the powerful multinationals over the long haul.

"What is certain is that the concessions are adjudicated to the transnational companies and that makes for a latent risk," said Rojas. "Any politician can have a change of heart or can do something foolish."

To definitively consecrate the ILO into Costa Rican law, Costa Rica's eight Indigenous groups are pressing for the passage of Bill 14352, otherwise known as the Indigenous Autonomy Law, which for the first time would give Indigenous communities in the country's 24 reserves full governance of their land and remove them from the current control of central government institutions such as the National Indigenous Affairs Commission (CONAI) and the National Community Development Directorate (DINADECO). Indigenous do not trust these institutions, accusing them of defending outside interests not those of Indigenous population.

The law would also enable Indigenous communities to recover land within the Indigenous territories where non-Indigenous settlers occupy about 60 percent of the land. Those who occupied the land prior to 1977 when the reserves were created would be entitled to compensation, while those who squatted on the land or illegally bought land with nothing more than a bill of sale would not. Still the government is worried about the social problems created by dislocation of thousands of "white" settlers, should the Indigenous regain their territories.

Indigenous leaders also said the law, which was drafted 19 years ago, would provide the government with a path toward resolving the case of the Salitre Indigenous Reserve on the Pacific slope of the Talamancas, where an Indigenous movement to reclaim land from white landholders has resulted in violence over the last three years.

As the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights last April ordered the Costa Rican government to take "precautionary measures," to protect Indigenous communities Indigenous leaders are saying the government will look to passage of the Indigenous Autonomy Law to deal with the Salitre issue.

"It could be that [the Indigenous Autonomy Law] provides the government with a policy that helps resolve conflicts like Salitre," said Donald Rojas, a Brunca member of the Mesa Indigena (Indigenous Table) an ad hoc group which has been pressuring for passage of the bill.

Jose Dualok Rojas, no relation to Donald, agreed, voicing hope that the government will now be moved to pass the Autonomy Law under pressure by the IACHR precautionary measures order.

"Now because of all the problems with the Salitre, they are going to present this bill as a possible solution to the conflict," said José Dualok Rojas.

Other Indigenous supporters are not as optimistic.

"I very much doubt it," said University of Costa Rica anthropologist Marcos Guevera, of passage of the autonomous law. “As much as I would like to see it happen, there's just too much opposition to it in the Legislative Assembly."

The Indigenous Autonomy Law would lay out more clearly the authority of Indigenous leaders over the Indigenous territories.

Much of the conflict in Salitre can be traced to a dispute over the authority of the Salitre Integral Indigenous Development Association, whose president, José Dualok Rojas' brother, Sergio, organized Indigenous starting in early 2012 to take back land claimed by white settlers.

The "white" population responded with violence, trying to remove the Indigenous with clubs and machetes, burning the Indigenous hovels and crops.

While the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights ruled in favor of Bribri and Teribe peoples,  Herrera said the issue is much more complicated than a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

“The Bribri are divided into matrilineal clans,” said Herrera, “meaning that an individual’s identity within the community is determined by whether or not the individual's mother is Bribri. An individual whose father is Bribri and mother is Cabecar, a group closely related to the Bribri, is considered Cabecar, not Bribri.”

The Indigenous movement headed by Sergio Rojas has attempted to reestablish a Bribri social order in the community and Rojas has been accused of intimidating Indigenous individuals who are not "of clan."

Rojas denies these allegation and has stated that people of mixed heritage are welcome in the reserve, but, he adds, “just as long as they accept the decisions of the Development Association.”

Sary Sosa, a Cabecar farmer told the daily La Nación that she feels threatened by Rojas, even after multiple community meetings, in a situation which she characterized as a division between the "Indigenous that go with Sergio Rojas and Indigenous who don't go with Sergio Rojas."

"I don't go with anything that he says," said Sosa. "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."

Last week DINADECO removed Rojas from the presidency of the Development Association alleging that he was barred from public service by a court order after serving seven months of preventative detention for alleged irregularities in the management of a government environmental services fund (FONAFIFO). Rojas said the charges were trumped up because of his protagonism in the Salitre controversy which has seen multiple cases of violence directed at Indigenous families.

Rojas told La Nación that the Bribri will defend themselves from violence aimed at them if necessary. "Violence brings violence," said Rojas. "If the state doesn't guarantee our security our rights we have to go, as we have done, we have to find a way to guarantee our survival and if violence occurs it will be the fault of the state.”

Rojas' supporters say that the Bribri leader has been the target of political persecution by the government which is threatened by the emergence of a strong, independent, Indigenous leader capable of starting a movement to reclaim Indigenous land at the national level.

"Because of the circumstances, he has taken a very strong position and the violent actions aimed at [Sergio Rojas group] has caused him to make some mistakes," said Donald Rojas.

The Salitre controversy is not the only source of pressure on the Costa Rican government to giver more attention to Indigenous issues.

Another source of pressure for passage of the Autonomy Law is a report by Gabriella Habtom, Secretary of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination "on the grave and persistent violation of Indigenous people's rights in Costa Rica," issued on July 15.

"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," wrote Habtom.

Donald Rojas said that all these pressures have created a lively debate within the Solis government on whether or not to press forward with the Indigenous Autonomy Law within the Legislative Assembly.

According to Cinia Jimenez, of the Legislative Assembly Office of Citizen Participation, the Indigenous Autonomy Bill number 14352 is currently 37th on Assembly's docket, meaning that the bill will likely not come up in the assembly's ordinary session which ends at the end of November. The Solis Administration would have an opportunity to bring the bill before the assembly in the extraordinary session which begins in December and lasts until the end of April.

One powerful voice against the Indigenous Autonomy cause is governing Citizen Action Party founder and congressman Otton Solis. Solis wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the daily La Nación on October 21, 2014 in which he criticized Sergio Rojas' Salitre movement as collectivist and in conflict with Costa Rica's Constitution.

Solis didn't respond to a request for comment.

Donald Rojas also said that a dose of racism also lies behind some of the opposition to the proposed Indigenous Autonomy Bill. "There are those who say that we should be made to live like white people, that we should modernize ourselves," said Donald Rojas.

--John McPhaul is a Costa Rican-American freelance writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rica. During his many years in Costa Rica, the land of his birth, he wrote for the Miami Herald, Time Magazine and Costa Rica's The Tico Times among other publications.

Photo courtesy of Ma LiEs/Flickr.