INTERVIEW WITH JUANITA SEGUNDO SANCHEZ AND GLORIA MAYORGA BALMA: "We Can Survive and Prosper"; Without taking strong steps now,
Juanita Segundo S nchez and Gloria Mayorga Balma are Bribri Indians. They live in Costa Rica's Kék"Ldi Reserve, which was established in 1977. The area is officially known as the Cocles Reserve, but its residents prefer the Bribri name Kék"Ldi and have initiated proceedings to change it legally. Its indigenous population is less than 200 people.
Juanita Segundo S nchez, a member of the yëyëwak clan, served on the Kék"Ldi Reserve Citizens Board from 1970 to 1987. She is a founding member of the Kék"Ldi Reserve Community Development association and was its president from 1989 to 1991. Also a founding member of the Kék"Ldi Reserve Community Development Association, Gloria Mayorga Balma was treasurer from 1989 to 1991. She is a member of the clan L"g'wak.
Along with Paula Palmer, the interviewer, Juanita Segundo S nchez and Glora Mayorga Balma wrote Taking Care of Sib"'s Gifts: An Environmental Treatise from Costa Rica's Kék"Ldi Indigenous Reserve. It is available in Spanish, Dutch, and English; a new Spanish edition is on the way. Palmer, a sociologist, works with black and Indian organizations in Costa Rica. She has written "What Happen?": A Folk-History of Costa Rica's Talamanca Coast and edited Nuestra Talamanca Ayer y Hoy. Her work with the Kék"Ldi people has been supported in part by cultural Survival.
The main question for the Bribri is whether we will continue to exist as an indigenous community, whether we will maintain our cultural integrity and identity. Without taking clear and precise steps now, most of the people in the Kék"Ldi Reserve would survive as individuals, because there are mechanismss for survival in Costa Rica, but we face extinction as a culturally distinct group. Since we formed the Kék"Ldi Reserve Community Development Association in 1987, we have worked consciously and conscientiously to assure a future for ourselves as an indigenous community.
Three things are necessary for the survival of our people in the Kék"Ldi Reserve. They are all related: if we achieve two and not the other one, we can't maintain our cultural integrity.
First, we are teaching the children all the ancient knowledge of our people, the teachings our first ancestors learned directly from Sib" (God) about how we are to live. Since all our children are influenced by non-indigenous cultures - through the public schools, for example, and in the towns around the reserve and when people come to visit or work with us here - they are always tempted to follow the path of those people. They can't help but think, "Oh, I wish I could watch television. I wish I could drive a car. I want to go to disco dances and play soccer. I could make a lot of money working for the banana company; why should I stay here and take care of my forest? Why should I want to be Indian?"
The children aren't at fault; it is the adults who neglect their duty to teach the children to be proud of their own culture. That is why we started the Kék"Ldi Cultural School, to carry on the teaching that many parents are neglecting. We meet with the children every Sunday. We give them lunch, and we teach them everything that is ours, the history of our people, the special roles of the /awapa/ (shamans) and the other specialists who conduct the different traditional ceremonies. We teach them how to behave in regard to the spirits in the forest, how to respect the supernatural beings who own all living things on earth. We teach them about Sib" and all his works and all his laws so they understand that we have our own religion and that it is not true that indigenous people don't know God. We also teach them how to use the resources of the forest according to Sib"'s laws, how to make thatch and baskets and string bags and calabash bowls and mastate blankets, how to use medicinal plants. We hope some children will be interested enough to decide to become /awapa/ and other ceremonial leaders. If not, there will be no future for our people.
The second necessary work for our survival as a people is to protect the forest. In the forest, Sib" gave us everything we need to live. It is the home also of many spirits who are the owners of all the different plants and animals. All these things were created and have their place in the forest. Sib" taught the first clans how to live in peace with the plants and animals of the forest and their spiritual owners. He taught us how to cultivate and where to cultivate.
Now that so little forest is left, these teachings are more important than ever. We have seen how non-indigenous people destroy the forests and all the natural resources. Squatters have cut down hundreds of acres of forest in Kék"Ldi Reserve in the last 15 years. It is up to us to make sure we protect the forests that are left. It makes no sense to teach the children Sib"'s laws and let the forest be cut down. To live as /dts"/ (literally corn seeds, planted by Sib"), we must live with the forest.
Even if we inculcate indigenous culture and values in our young people and protect the forests left in the reserve, we can't survive as a people if we don't get help immediately to expropriate non-indigenous landowners. To be able to protect the remaining forest in the Kék"Ldi Reserve, we need more land under our own management. The law says we have 8,742 acres, but in fact non-indigenous people own or claim about 75 percent of this land. Unless we can arrange soon to purchase these lands, our young people will have nowhere to work to support their young families. Many young people will be forced to migrate - that will contribute to the extinction of our culture - or they will want to cut down the forest to plant crops because they have no alternative.
The older people, who know Sib"'s laws and respect the spirits of the forest, aren't going to want the young people to destroy the forest, and this will create a conflict between the generations. That's another reason why our cultural education program is important, to show the young people why we must protect the forests and convince them to be patient.
If we can accomplish these three things - teach our children indigenous culture, protect the forests, and buy land inside the reserve - we have very good chances for survival because with the forest and a little land to cultivate we have all we need if we follow Sib"'s laws.
Our economic situation is bad right now because for many years we have depended on cacao, the same as the other small farmers in the area. Since 1978, the monilia disease has greatly reduced the cacao crop and required us to put in a lot more labor. Also, the price for caco has fallen.
Even so, we could still get some income from selling cacao if we could affort to give the farms a good cleaning - chop the undergrowth, prune the cacao trees, and burn the diseases and empty cacao pods. It is so much work, the men can't do it without pay, but it would be worthwhile if we could finance it somehow. Otherwise, most of the men look for work outside the reserve on other farms or with the banana companies, and they leave the women to tend the subsistence crops: beans, plantains, vam cassava.
For the future, the people who work in projects sponsored by the association should begin to benefit economically. We are raising green iguanas with two intentions: to repopulate our reserve with this endangered species and to eventually sell iguanas raised in captivity for their meat, for their hides, and as pets. People who have worked in the project as volunteers will soon have their own iguanas to raise and to sell. We will also begin to harvest the fruits of trees we have been planting in our reforestation project. Individuals who have worked in the nursery voluntarily are planting some of the fruit trees in their farms, so they will soon be able to sell the fruits.
We are also beginning to see tourism as a potential source of income, especially for artisans who can sell baskets and string bags and other crafts to tourists at nearby beaches. We also want to train a few young people to be nature guides for tourists.
Tourism is already a source of income for the association. We receive a percentage of what one nature guide charges to take tourists on walks guide charges to take tourists on walks through the reserve. Tourists and students who visit the iguana project usually leave donations for that project, and tourists buy our book, Taking Care of Sib"'s Gifts, and the profits support association projects.
We are studying the situation with tourism. There is a lot of it in the coastal communities near us. In fact, hotels have been built inside the boundaries of our reserve on property owned by non-indigenous people. We are discussing policies to deal with this situation now and have to consult lawyers as well.
If we decide to bring tourists into the reserve, we have to plan how to control them. We also have to prepare our people to receive them and teach them about indigenous life and culture. Right now there are only three of us who feel confident enough to give talks to groups. We need to give others experience in doing this. Maybe tourism can benefit us in the future, but we have to prepare ourselves for it and move slowly so it doesn't become one more invasion of our land and culture.
Politically, the association will continue with its present policies and projects, hoping to demonstrate to people inside the reserve and to the government and NGOs that we are responsible and dependable and worthy of support. Internally we have divisions; this is normal in any group, so we don't worry about it. Our solution is to keep working and hope that those who oppose us now will eventually be convinced by our works.
We also want to put pressure on CONAI (Costa Rica's National Commission for Indigenous Affairs) so it works as it should. Indigenous people need to assume more power within CONAI and lobby for a larger budget so CONAI can accomplish something.
We want to develop alliances with other indigenous organizations nationally and internationally, to gain strength from unity. The Kék"Ldi Association has established good relations with several NGOs, universities, and other groups. Indigenous groups have to learn to respect each other, too. We need to develop true solidarity, respecting each other's independence but always being ready to support each other as indigenous people. But there are conflicts among different indigenous organizations. Often it seems that white people or white institutions are behind these conflicts, like they put indigenous people to fight among ourselves or exploit and deepen divisions that exist among us. Or one indigenous group refuses to work with another one because that group is friendly with an NGO that the first group doesn't like. We have to stop fighting each other because of white people and their politics. Aside from that, there are political differences among indigenous people; that is just a fact.
Our worst conflict right now is with black and Hispanic farmers who owned the land the government included in our reserve. Naturally they are angry and think it's not fair for them to lose their farms. There have been a lot of misunderstandings and threats of violence. Some of the farmers think that any day a bunch of Indians will invade their properties and try to push them off. But we don't want to make problems for the farmers who are working to feed their families unless they came into the reserve illegally as squatters. We believe we can come to understandings with these neighbors. We have a lot in common with the black farmers who have always been our neighbors here. We want the same things in life: peace, tranquility, and a place to work and raise our families. We hope on that basis we can look for solutions. We could purchase a lot of land in the reserve without interfering with legitimate farmers who want to stay.
For us, everything depends on whether or not we can purchase the land currently held by non-indigenous people in the reserve. It is hard to do very much for economic benefit until we have more land under our management. If we could buy some of the cultivated areas in the reserve, we could develop new agricultural programs. Right now it makes the most sense to work with what we have, which is cacao, by getting some assistance to make the farms as productive as they can be.
We are committed to our programs of cultural education and forest protection, so if we can bring more land under our management, yes, we can survive and prosper as a people. Yes! We feel very positive about this and very determined. Our situation can be much better in 10 years.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Researchers whose values are similar to ours have helped us a lot. For example, biologists helped us start a green iguana nursery, an anthropology student helped us start the Kék"Ldi Cultural School, and Paula Palmer helped us record and publish the traditional knowledge of our elders. Now we have an ecology student experimenting with medicinal plants from the forest that we might be able to cultivate and market. In all these cases, outside researchers helped us start something we have continued on our own. For example, we are financing the school with profits from the sale of our books.
One thing that has really made a positive cultural impact on some of our young adults is the chance to travel to international conferences of indigenous people or even just to different reserves here in Costa Rica. Whenever people from outside show interest in learning about our beliefs and customs, it reinforces our culture, and that is important because we are so accustomed to being ridiculed for our language and our customs. When [Cultural Survival's Central America Program director] Mac Chapin came here to film a video, it made people feel proud to be indigenous. So we will look for opportunities for our young people to interact with other indigenous people and supportive non-indigenous people, such as students.
We will be happy to continue working with researchers on any project that can bring us some benefit, but right now it doesn't make sense to start new projects unless we are sure we will have land to live on. So the most important research right now is about land tenancy and land rights in our reserve. We need this information to be able to seek donations to purchase land and supply the law appropriately in cases of squatter invasions and illegal land sales.
Groups like Cultural Survival could help us raise funds to buy land. This is the main problem in all the reserves in Costa Rica. Cultural Survival has many good projects, and we feel fortunate to have participated in some of them, but how much can they accomplish if indigenous people don't have permanent and secure rights to their land? Help us buy the land and learn the administrative skills to manage it. Then we can talk about other things.
Projects for the Future
Project: Forestry Pilot Plan (OEPF)
The forestry management project was initiated in 1983 by Maya communities that previously worked on their own lands for outside timber companies.
The 16 communities involved have title to 145,000 acres, of which about 60,000 have been designated for permanent forest production. Members administer and manage forestry resources and negotiate with buyers. The labor is provided by the local population of 3,000. Technical assistance comes from 12 consultants who receive salaries based upon a quota of the community's timber sale.
The project is located in a subtropical forest area with significant remaining quantities of mahogany and cedar. Resource-management methods include selective cutting, reforestation, soil enrichment, and a 25-year cutting cycle. Harvesting has begun on species that weren't previously utilized. In the near future, OEPF hopes to buy wood-processing equipment.
Timber sales provide a significant portion of the total budget, enabling the purchase of circular saws and harvesting equipment. Funding also comes from federal, state, and local governments, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, and the U.S. World Wildlife Fund.
Address: Organization de Ejidos Productores Forestales, Edificio PRODEMAY, Felipe Carillo Puerto, Quintana Roo 77200, Mexico
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.