• Indigenous peoples in 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.
  • Peoples

    2.4 per cent of Costa Rica’s total population are indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    Costa Rica voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007.
  • Challenges

    Many indigenous peoples continue to be displaced and landless as a result of the long term armed conflict in Colombia.

The Indigenous World 2021: Costa Rica

Eight Indigenous Peoples live in Costa Rica: the Huetar, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Brunka, Ngäbe, Bröran and Chorotega, constituting 2.4% of the total population. According to the 2010 National Census, a little over 100,000 people self-identify as Indigenous.

Twenty-four (24) Indigenous territories cover some 6.7% of the national territory (3,344 km2) although this is only the formal area stated in the decrees establishing the territories as a large proportion has been invaded by non-indigenous settlers.

In a country where nearly 20% of the general population lives below the poverty line, this percentage attains alarming heights in the case of the country’s Indigenous Peoples: Cabécar 94.3%; Ngäbe 87.0%; Bröran 85.0%; Bribri 70.8%; Brunka 60.7%; Maleku 44.3%; Chorotega 35.5% and Huetar 34.2%.

Costa Rica ratified ILO Convention 169 in April 1993 and added recognition of its multiculturalism to the Political Constitution of the Republic in August 2015.

The Indigenous Law of 1977, in turn, recognised the traditional Indigenous organisations. However, a later regulation imposed a completely alien status on their traditional power structures: the Associations for Integral Indigenous Development (ADII), under the supervision of the National Directorate for Community Development, an entity that is incapable of understanding either cultural diversity, Indigenous rights or an intercultural approach.

The National Commission for Indigenous Affairs has been in place since 1973. The fact that it recognises the ADII as territorial representatives, together with its welfarist approach, has eroded its legitimacy. This has resulted in its limited recognition among Indigenous people and its relegation from institutional policies.

Among the Indigenous organisations that enjoy national and regional legitimacy and which are working to defend Indigenous rights, the following are noteworthy: the National Indigenous Roundtable of Costa Rica (MNICR), the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAPI), the Indigenous Bribri-Cabécar Network (RIBCA), the Pacific Ngäbe Association, the Regional Aboriginal Association of Dikes (ARADIKES), the National Forum of Indigenous Women, and the Inter-University Indigenous Movement.

More than a quarter of a century waiting for the Law on the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples

The draft Law on the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples was published in the Official Gazette in 1994.[1] And yet 2020 marked the 26th anniversary of parliament’s refusal to discuss it and the Executive’s failure to prioritise it, even though its enactment has been a promise in the run-up to several elections. Strong resistance of a racist nature persists, as well as strong opposition from the private sector and the conservative political parties who believe it would pose a threat to extractive investments and who furthermore do not accept a concept of territory that does not view land as a commodity.

The struggle for land: more violent this year

Costa Rica’s Indigenous lands were titled without prior regularisation (saneamiento) or physical demarcation. The 24 territories have been established by various executive decrees passed since the 1950s. The Indigenous Law of 1977 allocated an annual budget for the purchase of non-indigenous lands within the boundaries of those territories. However, the state has not, to date, fulfilled its commitment in this regard. On the contrary, it has tolerated the invasion and dispossession of Indigenous lands by local landowners and politicians.

Indigenous organisations, notably the MNICR and FRENAPI, have been demanding the regularisation of their lands for decades. The Institute for Rural Development (INDER) commenced the process in 2016 but, three years on, the only progress it had made was to have surveyed less than 5% of the total area.

In March 2020, INDER reported that it had 193 files ready for the administrative expropriation and compensation procedure. Eight months later, in November 2020, the Ombudsman's Office confirmed that no expropriations had yet taken place on Indigenous territories. At the end of the year, INDER's Board of Directors authorised the creation of a trust to commence in 2021 with the sum of 500 million colones (approximately USD 800,000), an amount that will be increased by 80% of the institution’s non-tax revenues for 2022 and 2023, and by 50% for 2024, 2025 and 2026. The Ombudsman's Office stated in this regard that it would “push this issue with INDER because the response received is not satisfactory in terms of honouring the state's debt to Indigenous Peoples for the return of their ancestral lands”.[2] By FRENAPI’s calculation, the annual allocation amount would only be sufficient in a few cases to cover the compensation payments required in a single territory.

The delay in the studies and the lack of political will to carry out the regularisation and evict illegal occupants has resulted in the emergence and consolidation of a land recovery movement which, since 2011, has been evicting illegal occupants itself.

During a recovery process, the movement settles people in camps on lands illegally occupied by non-indigenous people within the territory’s boundaries. The non-indigenous invaders, however, then denounce the Indigenous people for usurpation of their own lands and, with a speed never achieved when the boot is on the other foot, obtain eviction orders and the mobilisation of squads of riot police. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was able to verify this on meeting with representatives of the Bröran people at the recovered Crun Shurin farm in the Indigenous Territory of Térraba when:


...the security forces came to notify them of an eviction order. A curious fact is that the Buenos Aires land claims judge who issues these eviction orders is married to the daughter of a landowner who illegally owns land in Térraba (...). Such family ties, verifiable through the Civil Registry, raise legitimate doubts as to the neutrality or impartiality of the judge (...) Indigenous people are the victims of all kinds of aggression from landowners, including murder, and yet the state does not take the necessary measures to effectively investigate, prosecute or punish those responsible. [3]

The violence against Indigenous people fighting for their land intensified in 2020 but the issue has been described by the state as a mere series of isolated events. This is simply not true: these are gangs organised by landowners and encouraged by the local media to openly spread racist messages in a country where public expressions of racism do not seem to be a crime. The National Front of Indigenous Peoples thus stated in a press release:

...contrary to what the state alleges in response to the communication sent by UN special rapporteurs to Costa Rica, the murder of Indigenous leader Sergio Rojas Ortiz was not an isolated event: it took place in a context of widespread violence that is well known to the state (...) and was encouraged by various media and by the Municipal Council of Buenos Aires in Puntarenas, which went so far as to declare Sergio Rojas (by means of Ordinary Act 31-2012 of 11 August 2012) persona non grata in the canton of Buenos Aires.[4]

The precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in April 2015 have not yet been implemented five years on and, as of 2020, the leaders and people involved in recovering lands were continuing to be threatened. In March 2019, Sergio Rojas, an Indigenous Bribri leader from the Salitre territory, and one of the founders of FRENAPI, was murdered. On 26 September 2020, the justice system decided to close the case (File 19-000178-0990-PE) due to an alleged lack of evidence. With this decision, Sergio's crime will go unpunished and a message will be sent to invaders of Indigenous lands and their hitmen that their crimes will not even be investigated.

Violence in the Bröran de Térraba territory has intensified since the start of 2020. Several of its leaders have received death threats. On 24 February 2020, Jerhy Rivera Rivera was murdered with five shots to the back after participating in a meeting to defend the territorial rights of his people. He had been receiving threats since 2013. The murderer was caught by the police at the scene of the crime. However, despite the fact that the confessed killer and his brother were identified and prosecuted, both were released following a ruling by the Buenos Aires Criminal Court in Puntarenas.[5]

We strongly condemn the crime against Mr. Jerhy Rivera Rivera, Indigenous Bröran, on the night of 24 February 2020 at approximately 9 pm, committed by Eduardo Varela Rojas. We note that, although the police were close to the scene, their actions were insufficient to prevent the confrontation and his subsequent murder. We condemn the savage acts of vandalism carried out by dozens of non-indigenous people in the centre of Bröran Térraba community during the night and early morning with the biased impunity of the security forces, as well as their movements, since in many cases they travel around in in the cabs of cars and trucks without documents, or without license plates, under the impassive gaze of the authorities.[6]

Land recoveries intensified significantly in the Cabécar territory of China Kichá in 2020 where, in October, a judge issued an eviction order against those reclaiming their own land while the entrance to their territory was blocked by armed landowners. Recoveries are continuing in the territories of Bröran de Térraba, Bribri de Salitre, Brunka de Yimba Cájc and Maleku de Guatuso.

It is clear that the structural causes of Indigenous Peoples’ social, political, economic and cultural exclusion, notably in relation to territorial rights and self-determination, continue to be an outstanding issue in 2020 and that there is still resistance within institutions and the judicial system to address these causes from a rights-based perspective.

Indigenous Peoples in the context of a pandemic

The government’s action plan for addressing COVID-19 in the Indigenous territories of Costa Rica was focused around four lines of action: community participation; prevention; dealing with suspected cases; and care of infected patients.

The MNICR and territorial organisations had begun to take measures to prevent infection from the very start, taking into account the recommendations of the Ministry of Health and supplementing them with their own actions, for example checkpoints on entering and leaving their territories, in exercise of their right to self-determination. In addition, MNICR lobbied to make sure that Indigenous Peoples were supported. While the first case of COVID-19 in the country was recorded in March, it was not until the end of June that cases were detected in Indigenous territories, thanks in large part to the measures that they themselves had implemented. As of December 2020, based on reports from territorial and community leaders, the MNICR had counted nearly 600 cases in Indigenous territories and 30 deaths. The state does not keep disaggregated records of Indigenous cases despite repeated requests by the MNICR.

The MNICR negotiated the cooperation of humanitarian aid in food and health products and, with the support of FIAY/CICA/ GIZ and the World Bank, more than 800 packages were obtained comprising a total of 13,000 food and COVID-19 prevention products, which were distributed in most of the Indigenous territories. It was not possible to reach some territories due to administrative issues with the suppliers that could not be corrected. In addition, with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, resources and food have been allocated to address the COVID-19 emergency in Indigenous territories through the Social Protection Platform, with the participation of various state institutions.[7]

Progress during 2020

With funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Vice-Ministry of Political Affairs and Social Dialogue under the Ministry of the Presidency published a Guide for the Institutional Care of Costa Rica’s Indigenous Peoples[8] in 2020 aimed at “facilitating an awareness among public officials”[9] as regards their relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Although it could have represented an important step forward, however, the document actually went no further than describing Indigenous Peoples from a culturalist perspective, summarising national and international legislation, and recommending paternalistic care.

The General Mechanism for Consultation with Indigenous Peoples, promulgated in 2018, is continuing its institutional implementation process via the formation of Territorial Bodies for Indigenous Consultation. However, the allocation of technical and financial resources to the Technical Unit for Indigenous Consultation under the Ministry of Justice and Peace remains insufficient.

For its part, the National Institute for Water Supply and Sewage Systems has begun an assessment of the water situation in the country's Indigenous territories in order to establish the basis for an institutional policy of working with Indigenous Peoples and to draw up a specific ethnically- and culturally-sensitive action plan.

Future prospects

In terms of Indigenous rights in Costa Rica, 2020 offered progress in some areas alongside significant setbacks in others. Areas of progress included the commencement of an assessment of the water situation on Indigenous territories, the continuation of the culturally-appropriate housing programme of the Banco Hipotecario de la Vivienda and increased public investment on Indigenous territories, notably in areas of social assistance and educational infrastructure.

Structural issues, however, remain unresolved. Land grabbers continue to act with impunity, threatening and killing, and the state is taking no steps to end the problem. This lack of progress is largely due to the fact that the state continues to consider land recovery as a topographical and legal issue, failing to understand the complex historical, political and socio-cultural reality of the conflicts. Although research by the Universidad Nacional a Distancia (National Distance Learning University) and Costa Rica University is providing strategic information, INDER has been unable to take advantage of this due to a lack of professionals qualified in intercultural conflict analysis and resolution. Nor are there any concrete actions for the eviction and compensation of non-indigenous occupants when necessary.


Carlos Camacho-Nassar. Anthropologist and geographer, member of the Indigenous Rights and Climate Change Observatory. He has conducted studies into Indigenous rights, particularly territorial issues and their associated conflicts in South America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has published a number of works on this issue. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Costa Rica. “Law on the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples (File No. 14,352),” 2010.


[2] “Defensoría exige al INDER acelerar expropiación legal de tierras en favor de pueblos indígenas" [Ombudsman demands INDER speed up land expropriations for Indigenous Peoples] El país, Costa Rica, 13 November 2020. http://www.elpais.cr/2020/11/13/defensoria-exige-al-inder-acelerar-expropiacion-legal-de-tierras-en-favor-de-pueblos-indigenas/?fbclid=IwAR1lKlND8Wfr6Ll7EBxt0hystHLdMVHE5kcch4emKP9QLoJOu6zm1RUccvc

[3] Rinaldi Karine, “En Costa Rica los indígenas arriesgan sus vidas porque el Estado no cumple la ley” [Indigenous people in Costa Rica are risking their lives because the state is not complying with the law] Delfino, 14 December 2020. https://delfino.cr/2020/12/en-costa-rica-los-indigenas-arriesgan-sus-vidas-porque-el-estado-no-cumple-la-ley

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Térraba lleva dos días bajo ataque, nuevas amenazas de muerte, incendios y vandalismo” [Térraba has been under attack for two days, with new death threats, fires and vandalism] Informa-Tico, 4 March 2020. https://www.informa-tico.com/4-03-2020/terraba-lleva-dos-dias-ataque-nuevas-amenazas-muerte-incendios-vandalismo?fbclid=IwAR0fz9K2rqWvwauQ2vys2gqEP2bavAWFwQUSolNrD9Yb9Nx82HyaCnQn_Ww

[6] Council of Bröran Elders, “Urgent Press Release, Bröran de Térraba Indigenous Territory”, 25 February 2020.

[7] National Indigenous Roundtable of Costa Rica, “Avanzamos hacia el buen vivir.” 2020 Report. San José, MNICR, 2020. pp 1-2.

[8] Volio, Astrid Fischel, Gilberto Guzmán Saborío and Ana Maritza Barahona Martínez, “Guía para la atención institucional de los pueblos indígenas de Costa Rica”, San José, Fundación Ciudadanía Activa, IDB, 2020.

[9] Ibid. Page 5.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand