Costa Rica

Indigenous peoples in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has 24 indigenous territories inhabited by eight different peoples. Although Costa Rica has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169, rights to land and self-determination is still a struggle for the country’s indigenous population. 

Although the 1977 Indigenous Law recognises the traditional indigenous organisations, the concept of Integral Development Associations (ADIs) has been imposed on them and is completely alien to the indigenous peoples’ traditional power structures. The ADIs depend on the supervision, approval and willingness of the National Department for Community Development, a state body that does not have the capacity to understand cultural diversity, indigenous rights, differences between peoples and territories or an intercultural approach.

Indigenous peoples in Costa Rica

The indigenous peoples of Costa Rica make up 2% of the total population. According to the 2010 census, around 100,000 people self-recognise as indigenous.

Costa Rica’s 24 indigenous territories account for some 6.7% of the national territory, and eight different peoples live in them. Seven of these indigenous peoples are of Chibchense origin, that is the Huetar, the Maleku, the Bribri, the Cabécar, the Brunca, the Ngöbe, and the Teribe. The eight peoples are of Meso-American origin, the Chorotega, who live in Matambú.

Main challenges for Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples

Indigenous territorial rights are constantly violated in the country and more than half the area of some territories are occupied by non-indigenous settlers. In Costa Rica, the indigenous lands have been titled without a prior process of regularisation, and the state hasn't taken any action to rectify the current situation.

The issue of indigenous rights in Costa Rica and, in particular, the rights to land and self-determination, is facing fierce resistance from those who hold political and economic power. Although concrete progress was made in 2016 in terms of the government’s consultation of indigenous peoples and the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) were fulfilled, the indigenous rights agenda continues to suffer delays.

This relates particularly to Congress’s consideration of the Law on Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomous Development, which, two decades on, has still not been discussed. The lack of discussion of the law is mainly due to strong racist resistance and opposition from the private sector, which considers the right to self-determination and self-management of indigenous territories to be a risk to extractive investments. Additionally, the national policy for a Society Free from Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia (2014-2025), which should have commenced in 2015, is still awaiting implementation.

Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination continues to be denied by the state. The draft bill of a law on indigenous peoples’ autonomous development has still not been discussed in the Congress, despite being submitted more than two decades ago.

Potential progress for Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples

The process of an indigenous consultation mechanism began in 2016 and has experienced significant progress during 2017. Workshops, regional assemblies and national meetings were held with the indigenous territories to discuss the consultation procedure. At the end of 2017, together with a technical team from the Ministry of the Presidency, an Indigenous Drafting Commission reviewed the results of the process and produced a final draft for discussion in February 2018.

Since 2014, the University of Costa Ria has been carrying out an institutional plan to promote and ensure the admission of students from indigenous communities from around the country. This plan also seeks that new indigenous students remain in the university. In 2017, the university was involved in mentoring around 400 indigenous students in high school. Moreover, the institution saw 32 new indigenous students coming from all different territories in the country.

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Om IWGIA

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