San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Japanese Embassy Funds Indigenous Schools

One glance at photographs of nine recently built schools in the Chirripó Indigenous Reserve doesn’t convey how improbable their presence truly is. What might be commonplace elsewhere in the country – concrete and wood construction, a few classrooms, indoor toilets – was built with materials airlifted into the remote reserve by helicopters, carried by tractor, horse or human for miles through the jungle, or even whizzed across rivers on zip-lines to sites four, six, even 10 hours on foot from the nearest outpost in the country’s Southern Zone.

The new schools, made possible by a $90,000 donation from the Japanese Embassy in San José, have replaced leaky, ill-equipped thatch or wood huts and ranchos typical of Chirripó’s 61 schools. Ambassador Yoshihiko Sumi and some of the Costa Rican leaders who collaborated with the embassy announced earlier this month that the facilities are ready for operation after approximately one year of construction.

Two of the schools include space for vocational training or health services, and one houses a high-school teleconferencing facility.

All nine schools also include at least two classrooms, indoor bathrooms, a preschool and a small dormitory for teachers or other school personnel, many of whom live at the schools because they are so far from other housing.

Former Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi, now a legislator-elect, got the ball rolling in 2004 when he met with Sumi to describe the needs of the Cabécar people who live in Chirripó. Embassy personnel visited the reserve and the donation was approved within months.

“This is not just one time, one event – it’s a continuous effort,” Sumi told The Tico Times, adding that he hopes to sponsor similar projects in other areas of the country.

The embassy supports approximately 20 non-governmental projects per year in Costa Rica, in addition to the government support provided by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

Echandi, who attended the March 14 event, said the new buildings address the Cabécares’ constitutional rights to education and health care – both of which have been neglected to date, he added.

The private, nonprofit Association for Integral Indigenous Attention, the recipient of the donation, oversaw the project. Its president, Dr. Carlos José Van der Laat, described the seemingly miraculous logistics of the effort during a presentation at the embassy. One of the most difficult aspects of construction was getting materials to the nine sites, which were chosen from the many possible beneficiaries based on conversations with the community regarding which areas had the most severe needs, he said.

Some of the materials could be transported by tractor or horse, but some of the sites are inaccessible even by those means.

With donations of helicopter flights from the National Emergency Commission (CNE), workers airlifted some supplies into the reserve; zip-lines over the ChirripóRiver were also used.

The association asked for help from the community and received an “incredible response” from both men and women, he said: “This is a community that not only needs a great deal, but also gives a great deal as well.”

The region’s weather made the process much more difficult,Van der Laat added with a smile, since “it rained for the entire year.”

The Ombudsman’s Office, Public Health Ministry and Corporación de Supermercados Unidos (CSU), which donated food for the small team of workers, also supported the effort, Van der Laat said.

The illiteracy rate in Costa Rican indigenous areas (26.6%) is more than five times the national rate (4.8%), according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and indigenous students stay in school for an average of 3.4 years – half the national average of 7.6 years.

According to Van der Laat, the illiteracy rate among people over 12 years old in Chirripó is 57%.

The reserve’s 97,000 hectares hold 5,353 inhabitants, scattered throughout the jungle, and approximately 63% of that population is under 19, making its schools essential to the area’s future, he said. (The 2000 census put Costa Rica’s total indigenous population at 64,000.)

Sever iano Fernández, Director of Indigenous Education for the Public Education Ministry, said public education arrived in Chirripó in 1987, when three schools were opened.

One of the schools that benefited from the project was Xinaquichá – also known as China Kichá – the school featured by The Tico Times last year (TT, Sept. 16, Dec. 2, 2005). The new building there has been in use for months. It replaced a thatched-roofed structure where water poured in during the area’s near-daily rains.

Like other Cabécar children, many of China Kichá’s more than 50 students walk an hour or more through the jungle each day to get to class.

For Van der Laat, the embassy’s support for his association’s work has helped ensure that when the students reach their school, they receive the attention they deserve.

“These children have every right to be educated in their own language and continue living as Cabécar,” he said. “But they also (have rights) to the tools to form part of Costa Rican society.”

For more information on the embassy’s work, visit; for more information about the Association for Integral Indigenous Attention, call 541-2139.


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