San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bribrí men injured in land dispute

Three members of the indigenous Bribrí tribe were left nursing injuries in a Buenos Aires hospital following a violent confrontation with farmers last Friday over land rights.

The disputed 30 hectares of farmland in Salitre, near La Amistad International Park in southern Costa Rica, has been in contention since March when someone erected a fence partitioning the land from the farm. The fence-builders have not been identified, as both the Bribrí and the land’s former residents have denied blame.

According to a police report, eight Bribrí families moved onto the land last Thursday, claiming the area is indigenous territory. The National Indigenous Roundtable, composed of representatives from Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups, issued a statement the same day declaring their reclamation of the land. At 11 p.m. last Friday, the farm’s non-indigenous occupants entered the property.

“They came in with guns and knives,” said Felipe Figueroa, a Bribrí land reclamation coordinator for the area. “They broke things, they took food and they killed the animals.”

In the fight that ensued two brothers with the last names Ortiz Delgado and a third person with the last names Obando Delgado were sent to the hospital, two with stab wounds and one with a bullet wound to the leg.

In a statement released by the roundtable on Wednesday, the group cites the government’s failure to live up to their end of a month-long truce agreement reached in October. According to the agreement, indigenous residents of Salitre would not attempt to reclaim any territory for a month in return for the government’s promise to formulate a plan redistributing indigenous land. In November, the government filed for an extension, which indigenous representatives refused to grant.

“There are administrative paths for land reclamation,” said Jorico Jasukawa, stationed with the United Nations in Salitre, “but they are often a source of frustration for the indigenous people because they are very slow.”

The National Indigenous Roundtable defended its actions based on the Indigenous Law of 1977, which promised the return of lands to indigenous groups that were usurped by non-indigenous residents. The law stipulates that non-indigenous residents cannot reside or own property within designated indigenous lands.

“First and foremost we are Costa Ricans, and the Costa Rican law recognizes us as owners of these lands,” Figueroa said. “These people are not the owners, the Bribrí are the owners.”

In their Wednesday statement the members of the roundtable also declared the initiation of “a recovery of their lands,” claiming that over the past seven months both the Bribrí and the Maleku, another Costa Rican indigenous group, have reclaimed approximately 160 acres of land through occupation. 

“The government has not given us any other way for us to get back our land,” said Eliecer Álvarez, a Maleku and delegate for the Protection of the Law of the Development of the Indigenous Peoples. “The only way to get back the land is to occupy it.”

In Salitre, a government commission has been formed to mediate the dispute. Despite the fact that it has existed for months, the commission has yet to release a decision regarding the rightful ownership of the land. In the meantime police have been stationed in the area in an attempt to mitigate any further violence while the Bribrí hold their ground.

“What is going to happen? What is going to happen is we are going to stay here until the government can evaluate the situation,” Figueroa said. “We may be at risk of another attack, but we will stay here, in our houses. We really don’t have a choice.”

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