San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bill Divides Indigenous Groups

Legislators and government officials have been heading out into Costa Rica’s rugged back country – in some cases, mounting horses and filing into helicopters – in an historic attempt to give Costa Rica’s most isolated, excluded minorities a stake in a bill designed to improve their lot.

However, the process has caused division within the indigenous community itself. Though advocates say the Law for Autonomous Development of Indigenous Communities would be a shot in the arm for the nation’s 70,000 indigenous citizens, who have been snubbed politically for centuries, it would eliminate some existing indigenous organizations to build new ones from scratch. This proposed change has pitted indigenous factions currently in power against those seeking reform.

This week, as the government prepared to wrap up its massive month-long tour to the nation’s two dozen indigenous territories to get their feedback on the bill as required by law, the active opposition to the bill showed its face in protest when busloads of indigenous people arrived in San José, where the bill was being discussed in the Legislative Assembly.

“It would be detrimental for us,” said Rubi Lia as she headed toward the assembly with a rolled-up protest sign beneath her arm. She traveled seven hours by foot, bus and taxi to arrive in the nation’s capital from the indigenous community Jameikarí near the Caribbean coast.

Residents of the nation’s 24 indigenous territories face scant access to healthcare, soaring illiteracy rates, and widespread poverty (TT, Sept. 16, Oct. 14, 2005). More than a third of the land that was set aside for indigenous populations in 1972 has been slowly usurped by nonindigenous owners, according to the Agricultural Development Institute (IDA).

The bill would shed existing state institutions serving indigenous communities and give the indigenous a chance to build their own governments; require hospitals to provide translators for non-Spanish-speaking indigenous patients; incorporate indigenous cultural elements in school curricula; provide better access to housing for isolated indigenous communities; and return lost territory to indigenous hands.

Critics say the law, which new legislators salvaged from political death in the assembly archives upon taking office in May, is being championed by nonindigenous legislators and organizations, and would just be more toothless language.

“Indigenous people are already guaranteed rights under the law, but their rights aren’t being guaranteed,” Víctor Mena, one of several indigenous leaders in the community of Quitirrisí, north of San José, who tried to block legislators from holding the consultation in their community this week, told The Tico Times.

“We’re protesting because (the law) wasn’t made by indigenous people … it was made by legislators,” said Genaro Gutiérrez Reyes, interim executive director of the National Commission on Indigenous Affairs (CONAI), at Tuesday’s gathering.

But supporters of the bill maintain there has never been so much support for the project, and that no other legislation has involved so much direct indigenous input.

“Eighty percent of that law was written by indigenous people themselves,” said Pablo Sibar, a member of the National Indigenous Table, a nongovernmental group that helped organize the consultation and is pushing the bill.

The 57-member Legislative Assembly has no indigenous members. Indigenous people make up about 2% of the population.

Lawmakers are expected to incorporate the suggestions they received during the consultation process, which involved 2,200 indigenous people and will conclude next week, into the proposal’s final draft before the legislature votes on the bill in first debate. A public forum about the bill will be held Sept. 8, and indigenous delegates elected at each consultation will meet in San José to give final suggestions Sept. 21.

On Oct. 12, the assembly plans to convene in the Caribbean region of Talamanca, which has a large indigenous population, to vote on the bill in the second and final debate.

The Right to Involvement

In 1992, Costa Rica endorsed a n international law that requires the government to consult each indigenous community and get recommendations when legislation or administrative changes would affect the communities.

The consultation has been applied before in the decade-long attempt to reform governmental institutions for indigenous communities, although questions remain as to what legislation the consultation should be used for.

(For example, the assembly is analyzing whether the consultation would be required in the case of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).)

The rigorous month-long consultation tour gave legislators a taste of the geographical isolation many indigenous communities face, and brought to light the lack of unity between two dozen territories with different histories and languages – some still spoken, some extinct – as they try to develop common legislation.

The legislators received a mixed response. In the consultation in Talamanca, hundreds showed up for the legislators’ visit, and many communities have expressed support.

In other communities, strong opposition to the bill has been voiced, and in Quitirrisí, on a green Central Valley mountaintop, it was apparent this past weekend that internal power struggles between indigenous factions is another mountain that the indigenous population must climb to reach a higher state of autonomy.

On Saturday, Quitirrisí leaders attempted to block legislators from entering the town to hold the consultation, and later called the consultation “illegal” because it lacked their approval.

“(The law) would take away our representation,” said Victor Mena, president of the Association of Integral Development, a group that would be stripped of its authority if the new law passes.

National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Ofelia Taitelbaum, the president of the Social Affairs Commission, said the consultation is being carried out with or without the support of local leaders.

“In the majority of territories we’ve had the consultation (with the support of local leaders). If there is opposition, we’ll try to do it with those who are willing,” she told The Tico Times at Saturday’s event.

The official opposition to the consultation was accompanied by a low turnout in Quitirrisí. Scarcely more than a dozen citizens in this community of nearly 2,000 trickled into the New School of Quitirrisí elementary school.

Legislators introduced the bill to those in attendance. Participants then split up into groups to read the legislation and present questions to legislators and government officials.

At the end of the consultation, participants selected a delegate to represent Quitirrisí at the assembly next month.

Some community members, like Rafael Angel Hernández, said the consultation wasn’t advertised.

“These things happen and nobody knows. If they had invited me I would have gone,” said the subsistence farmer as he dried out beans in his front yard just down the dirt road from where the consultation was taking place.

Institutions in Conflict

Two government-sponsored institutions serving indigenous communities would lose authority if the law is passed. One is the Association for Integral Development, and the other is CONAI, which helped organize Tuesday’s protest.

CONAI is a 32-year-old institution designed to provide legal and social services to indigenous communities. It has been plagued by investigations of former directors and allegations of corruption.

Former CONAI director Claudio Debehault, who was investigated for his accounting practices, said at the protest that CONAI has had its problems but is “beginning to learn from its mistakes.” He said the new legislation is a “coup d’etat” on indigenous administrators and is being pushed by a “confused mix of interest” that will set indigenous communities “back to zero.”

Sibar, of the National Indigenous Table, said that in its 34 years of existence, the only thing CONAI has done for the indigenous people has been to create an “enormous bureaucracy.”

“I feel that once the Association for Integral Development and CONAI are no longer in power, the indigenous people will have more power,” Sibar said.

Debehault said the law is being pushed by the National Indigenous Table and other nongovernmental groups who want to knock CONAI out of power so they can receive government funding.

After being confronted by the Association for Integral Development in Quitirrisí Saturday, Taitelbaum said internal conflicts within indigenous communities “are to the detriment of indigenous communities.”

As political power plays took place a stone’s throw from his home, Hernandez organized the beans he would end up eating. He said the government has done nothing for the community.

“Here, the government can’t be seen. The community is losing because it doesn’t know any better,” he said.


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