San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Indigenous Autonomy Law Failed to Advance

A bill supporters say would give would give indigenous communities more say in their fate came out of the closet this year, after more than 10 years of floating around Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly.

Sparking both protest and enthusiasm, the Law of Autonomous Development of Indigenous Communities would dismantle two social service institutions, the National Commission on Indigenous Affairs (CONAI) and the Association of Integral Development, allowing communities to represent themselves in a national commission.

It would also bring indigenous languages and traditional medicine to the public health system, promote teaching of indigenous culture in schools and help indigenous communities recover stolen land.

More than a third of the land set aside in 1972 for indigenous reserves has gone to others, according to the Agricultural Development Institute (IDA), a government agency that announced a plan in February to recover these 130,000 hectares within 15 years.

“This has historically been a country of whites and the indigenous have never moved into any institutional spaces… If we’re going to move ahead it’s important that we have autonomy over our own development,” said Pablo Sibar, leader of the non-governmental National Indigenous Table, which supports the Autonomy Law.

In July and August, legislators, none of whom are indigenous, presented the bill to 2,500 of nearly 70,000 Costa Ricans who are. The “consultation” was required by an International Labor Organization (ILO) agreement Costa Rica signed in 1992, and it brought lawmakers to each of the 24 indigenous territories.

Some consultees, particularly in the southwest-of-San-José Quitirrisí Territory, attempted to block the process by dissuading local participation.

Leaders of the institutions to be axed said the Autonomy Law would take away their representation (Victor Mena, President of the Association of Integral Development) and is contradictory for not being written by indigenous people (Genaro Gutiérrez Reyes, interim director of CONAI).

At yearend, the bill had not seen a legislative vote, contrary to earlier predictions. In November, it passed from the legislature’s Social Affairs Commission to the Department of Technical Services, which was charged to determine the legality of modifications proposed by a late September forum of indigenous representatives. Principal changes: rejection of a “National Indigenous Institute” in favor of direct relations between the government and each territory, and a legal provision to throw out bad representatives.

Some legislators and indigenous leaders, citing the ILO agreement, said approval of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) should also be subject to indigenous consultation, but the International Relations and Foreign Commerce Commission of the Legislative Assembly decided to the contrary.

In August, Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado said living conditions for indigenous people have worsened; according to a government survey, only 27% of those living in indigenous territories have “good” housing.

In health, the Social Security System (Caja) repeated declarations of previous years that indigenous peoples’ health is sharply worse than that of other Costa Ricans. In August, Caja announced a ¢45-million (about $87,000) allotment in next year’s budget for medical brigades in Talamanca, one of the country’s most remote and most indigenous jurisdictions, home to approximately 15,000 Bribrí and Cabécar people.

The Caja gathered Caribbean-slope indigenous leaders and representatives of several public services in September, proposing mutual cooperation to install hanging footbridges, spring water pipes and public telephones in rural parts of indigenous territories.

On the QuitirrisíTerritory, 30 kilometers from San José, the Foundation for Social and Cultural Development of Costa Rican Indigenous Ethnicities (FUNDEICO) began work on a cultural center that would also house indigenous people studying at San José universities.

Costa Rica is home to eight indigenous groups, most of them with their own language: the Bribrí, Brunca, Cabécar, Chorotega, Huetar, Maleku, Guaymí (or Ngöbe) and Teribe.


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