San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bill for Indigenous Autonomy Gains Support

Costa Rican indigenous leaders appear to be enjoying a burst of political support that may help them secure the autonomy some see as long overdue.

At a meeting in the Legislative Assembly May 26, new National Liberation Party legislator Federico Tinoco pledged his support to indigenous leaders and urged them to give unified backing to a proposal that would increase native communities’ abilities to govern themselves.

“You are the ones who are responsible (for winning) this fight,” he told about 30 indigenous leaders and local community members.

Tinoco implored audience members to take advantage of the unity that exists in their communities and the legislature “so that once and for all the indigenous communities will have a law … that allows them to move forward.”

His support for the proposed law has indigenous leaders feeling optimistic.

“In less than a month, (Tinoco) has achieved what many legislators did not,” said Pablo Sibar, a member of the indigenous community of Altos de San Antonio, near the Panamanian border.

The current level of political support is significant because “political will has not existed” before on this issue, he said.

 Like Tinoco, Sibar emphasized the importance of indigenous support for the project.

“We are the ones carrying the flag at this moment,” he said.

The proposed law for Autonomous Development of Indigenous Communities, which has floundered for nearly a decade, is in the Social Affairs Commission of the Legislative Assembly.

It was recently moved to the top of the commission’s docket, and an informal survey of legislators found a consensus in favor of its passage, said Ricardo Sol, director of the civil society and participation division of the Foundation for Peace and Democracy (FUNPADEM).

If passed, the measure would give indigenous groups more political power, gradually return traditional territories to their control, and preserve rights to natural medicine and multicultural education. It also contains provisions that aim to increase access to health care for people in indigenous areas.

According to the 2000 census, there were 63,876 indigenous people living in Costa Rica, or approximately 1.7% of the population.

Most of them live in the remote Talamanca area in the Caribbean zone, the southern Pacific and Panama border.

In some of the nation’s 24 indigenous areas, infant mortality – used by the United Nations as a development indicator – is more than twice the national rate according to a study by the Public Health Ministry (TT, Oct. 14, 2005).

Faustimo Montezuma, from the Abrojos Montezuma community, located just north of Altos de San Antonio near the Panamanian border, said the level of participation the proposed law would give indigenous communities shows the legislature is gaining understanding of the community’s needs.

Now they understand that they need to give power to indigenous people rather than just creating reservations, Montezuma said.

Last week’s meeting marked the second time in two months legislators met with indigenous leaders (TT, April 21). Two more meetings are scheduled for the coming months.

In July, a group of legislators plans to visit each of the 24 indigenous territories to consult with local communities about the proposed law. The lawmakers are expected to incorporate the suggestions they receive into the proposal’s final draft, Sol said.

Then, on Oct. 12 – National Day of Cultures – the assembly will convene in Talamanca to vote on the bill in its second and final debate.

“This is historic. There has never been a meeting of the parliament in an indigenous territory,” said Sibar, asking the crowd to applaud the legislature.

Gerardo Rodríguez, who is from Altos de San Antonio, said he is satisfied with the schedule and hopes things go as planned.

“What we want is for (legislators) to consult with the whole indigenous community, all 24 territories, and to approve the law,” he said.


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