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Indigenous peoples claim territorial rights
John McPhaul
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Bri-bri and Teribe communities suffer attacks aimed to abandoning their land reserve.

On Sept. 17, 2012, Costa Rica’s Bri-bri Indigenous leader Sergio Rojas arrived in a taxi to the Salitre Indigenous Reserve in the Talamanca mountains, in the southwestern part of the country, when an unidentified assailant fired six shots into the car.

Rojas escaped injury but the attack stands out as the most serious incident in the ongoing effort of non-indigenous land holders to dislodge indigenous Bri-bri and Teribe families from their ancestral homeland.

The attacks on the indigenous community by club wielding non-indigenous who burnt their modest homes and crops in a series of incidents beginning in 2012, prompted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in April of this year to order the Costa Rican government to take “precautionary measures” to stem the violence.

In issuing its ruling, which noted that the indigenous have held title to the land since 1956, the IAHRC said that the gravity of the situation exists in view of “a series of continuous cycles of threats, harassment and acts of violence against members of the Teribe and Bri-bri communities of Salitre,” and that the Indigenous “find themselves in a grave and urgent situation since their lives and personal integrity are threatened and are at risk.”

According to the IACHR ruling, in the Salitre area around 60 percent of the Bri-bri land has been taken over by outsiders rising to between 80 to 88 percent of land belonging to the Teribe.

Beginning in July of 2012, Rojas organized Bri-bri and Teribe indigenous families to reoccupy land in the 11,700 hectare Salitre Indigenous Reserve, which under the 1977 Indigenous Law belonged to them. According to Rojas, Salitre’s indigenous previously lived in numerous families per house in the reserve or in the slums of the regional hub of Buenos Aires about 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 to  Latinamerica Press.

The indigenous complained that the public security officials have stood by and done nothing about the attacks and, on at least one occasion, the police actually participated in the forced removal of indigenous from their land.

Precautionary measures
 In response to the IACHR precautionary measures order, issued at the petition of the non-profit Forest People Programme, the government tripled the number of police officers dispatched to the reserve, to 60 officers, and have tried to promote a dialogue between the sides in conflict.

But Costa Rica’s Communications Minister Mauricio Herrera told Latinamerica Press  that the task of  bringing the sides to agreement is complicated by divisions within the 1,800 indigenous in the reserve and the lack of clarity over who have a right to stay in the reserve and who must leave, who is entitled to compensation and who is not.

 “You have situations where Bri-bris are married to non-indigenous people,” said Herrera. “And you have other situations where a Bri-bri is married to a Cabecar [an indigenous group closely related to the Bri-bri].”

Herrera explained that the Bri-bri have a matrilineal society, meaning that only those whose mother are Bri-bri are considered to be “of clan” or truly Bri-bri and disputes have arisen over who can be included in decision making of the Salitre Intergral Indigenous Development Association (ADI), which Rojas presides.

Rojas’ strong positions in favor of applying Bri-bri social norms have put him at odds with other indigenous members of the community as described by Herrera and indigenous not of a Bri-bri clan have accused Rojas of intimidating them and threatening to force them out of the reserve.

While one indigenous group complained that the government did not consult them before applying the precautionary measures, Herrera said that is because the indigenous are divided into various factions and the government did consult with several leaders in the community and that negotiations have been complicated by the insistence some indigenous leaders in sticking to a fixed position.

“It is hard to come to a solution, when one of the sides is intransigent,” said Herrera.

But Rojas said that indigenous welcome mixed families, though he added that they must abide by the decisions of the ADI, and all the indigenous leaders only ask that the government apply the law. He denied intimidating other indigenous.

“What we want is for them to apply the legislation that protects our rights,” said Rojas.

In August 2012, a month before Rojas was shot at, the Buenos Aires Municipal Council declared Rojas persona non grata.

The problem, says Minor Mora, a member of the Buenos Aires Municipal Council, lies in the fact that the goverment failed to compensate land owners in 1977 and since then the population has grown to about 3,200 “whites.”

Mora said that many of the white occupants are by no means wealthy and that consideration for their interests must be taken into consideration.

“Removing so many people from the land would create a new set of social and humanitarian problems,” said Mora to Latinamerica Press.

But Amilcar Castañeda, an anthropologist from the National Distance University, said that much of the land is claimed by non-indigenous absentee “owners” from Buenos Aires who pay caretakers to watch the land.

Compensation to landowners
Though the 11,700 hectares of land had been guaranteed to the indigenous by the 1977 Indigenous Law, the failure of the government to compensate landowners or control the illegal sale of the land to “white” outsiders resulted in the displacement of the indigenous community.

Those who had land prior 1977 could be entitled to compensation while those who squatted on the land or were sold the land with nothing more than an illegal bill of sale would not.

Mora also said certain interests he did not name were concerned about cashing in on the government program which compensates land owners for not cutting down forest as part of Costa Rica’s carbon-neutral effort.

In November 2014, Rojas was jailed for seven months in “precautionary detention,” accused of  allegedly embezzled of 554 million colones (US$1 million) assigned to the carbon-neutral fund managed by the ADI, according to press reports. Rojas — considered by his followers as “political prisoner” — said that any charges were filed against him and the 30 million colones ($56,285) bail set for him was politically motivated because of his role in the Salitre land dispute.

“In two years and eight months since the process began in which the 11 directors of ADI have been investigated, they haven’t been able to demonstrate that the supposed charges they are accused of occurred nor any connection with them,” Rojas’ attorney Rubén Chacón told the press.

Costa Rica’s indigenous, estimated at around 60,000 representing eight distinct ethnic groups, remain the poorest and most marginalized sector of Costa Rican society.

Living in remote areas of the country, often far from vital services, the indigenous communities consistently rank at the bottom of the country’s human development indices. Indigenous groups like the Teribe has seen their culture decimated and have little left of their language.

The Bri-bri and the closely related Cabecar groups have been able to retain more of their culture and language, thanks in large part to the remoteness of their villages in the rugged, virtually inaccessible zones of the Talamanca mountains, which traverse Costa Rica’s border with Panama in the south.

For 20 years the Costa Rican congress has postponed the passage of a Indigenous Peoples Autonomous Development Law that would give recognition and legal respect of the State to forms of indigenous social organization, social representation and administration of their territories.
—Latinamerica Press.


The Bri-bri poeple demand recovery of their land occupied by no-indigenous people. (Photo:
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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