San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaders Rally for National Indigenous Day

Costa Rican Indigenous Day gave the country a reason to celebrate the country’s eight native groups on Wednesday. But for indigenous leaders who traveled to San José to meet with future legislators, celebrating came second to working to promote a law to improve these communities – the proposed Law of Autonomous Development of Indigenous Communities was the hot topic at the Legislative Assembly, where indigenous leaders gathered and met with legislators-elect to promote the 10-year-old bill.

The proposed law seeks to return control of indigenous affairs to the indigenous, explained National Indigenous Roundtable coordinator Donald Rojas, a fundamental step in promoting development in the country’s 24 indigenous territories, many of which he said are in a state of “chaos.”

“There’s not adequate health care, education or infrastructure,” Rojas said. “There’s a lack of investment in these communities and no options for improving them in the future. Today you see indigenous people living in the streets of San José, and that’s a sign that something is wrong.”

Statistics corroborate Rojas’ concerns – a Public Health Ministry study of infant mortality found that in some indigenous areas, there were 17 infant deaths per every 1,000 live births between 1995 and 1999, compared to seven deaths per 1,000 births in the rest of Costa Rica (TT, Oct. 14, 2005). This figure has legislators worried about indigenous areas meeting the country’s Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations (see separate story).

If legislative action is not taken to improve conditions for the indigenous, leaders may file a complaint before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Rojas said. A group of indigenous leaders presented the commission with a report on the state of Costa Rica’s indigenous affairs in March 2005, and the commission ordered legislators to act, but did not give them a time frame.

Rojas said indigenous leaders will give lawmakers until March 2007 to implement policies to improve conditions for the indigenous before approaching the commission again.

They’d be satisfied if the Law of Autonomous Development of Indigenous Communities, now in the Social Affairs Committee of the Legislative Assembly, is passed. The law addresses land rights, health and government in indigenous territories and includes a plan for slowly returning the country’s 24 indigenous territories – which, according to Rojas, have either been informally taken over by nearby communities or legally belong to no one – to the indigenous and requires that the government recognize “all forms of organization within indigenous communities” and that “social representation and administration of these territories conform to their own traditions.”

If the committee sends the bill to debate on the legislator’s main floor, it has a chance of being passed this upcoming legislative session, which begins May 1.

Vice-president of the Ngöbe Cultural Association Pablo Sibar added that indigenous communities are losing their identities at the hands of outside control and agreed that returning indigenous lands to these communities is a crucial step.

“This has historically been a country of whites and the indigenous have never moved into any institutional spaces … there are no indigenous people in the legislature,” Sibar said. “If we’re going to move ahead, it’s important that we have autonomy over our development,” Sibar said.

According to the 2000 census, there are 63,876 indigenous people living in Costa Rica, or 1.7% of the population. The country’s eight indigenous groups are the Bribri, Cabécar, Bruncas, Ngöbe, Huetare, Maleku, Chorotega and Teribe.

In the spirit of Costa Rican Indigenous Day, indigenous leaders laid flowers at the foot of a monument honoring Pablo Presbere in the courtyard of a Legislative Assembly building. Presbere fought for the rights of Costa Rica’s native inhabitants before Spanish colonizers killed him July 4, 1710.


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