• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Costa Rica

Eight Indigenous Peoples live in Costa Rica: the Huetar, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Brunka, Ngäbe, Bröran, and Chorotega, where they constitute 2.4% of the population. According to the 2010 National Census, a little over 100,000 people recognise themselves as Indigenous.

Although almost 7% of the national territory (3,344 km²) is formally covered by 24 Indigenous territories, this area actually only appears in the decrees establishing them and a large proportion has been invaded by non-indigenous occupants. In a country where nearly 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, this percentage reaches alarming figures in the case of Indigenous Peoples: Cabécar 94.3%; Ngäbe 87%; 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 1993 and added recognition of its multicultural nature to the Political Constitution of the Republic in 2015. Even so, in his preliminary report of 2021, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples indicated that “Indigenous peoples and their collective rights are still not explicitly recognized in the Constitution”.[i]

Indigenous Law 6172 of 1977, in turn, recognised traditional Indigenous organisations. However, a subsequent regulation imposed a status that was completely alien to their traditional power structures: the Indigenous Integral Development Associations (ADII), under the supervision of the National Directorate of Community Development, an entity that has no capacity to understand cultural diversity, Indigenous rights or an intercultural approach.

Among the Indigenous organisations that enjoy national and regional legitimacy and act in defence of their rights are the Mesa Nacional Indígena de Costa Rica, the Frente Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (FRENAPI), the Red Indígena Bribri-Cabécar, the Asociación Ngäbe del Pacífico, the Asociación Regional Aborigen del Dikes, the Foro Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas and the Movimiento Indígena Interuniversitario.

Women reclaiming land

Indigenous women played a leading role in the land recovery movement in Costa Rica in 2021. Faced with the State's disinterest and inaction in this regard, the movement has been evicting illegal settlers from within the boundaries of Indigenous land titles since 2010. Women have been particularly involved in this internal regularisation in the Salitre, Térraba, Cabagra, China Kichá and Guatuso territories, including some recoveries undertaken solely by women. The violent response from these illegal occupants, farmers and their supporters, including government authorities, was more intense this year than previous ones.

In this regard, those recovering the land have received death threats, and threats against their children and their property. In China Kichá, farmers and their armed assassins blocked the entrances to the Indigenous territory and directly threatened the women and their daughters with sexual violence. The police and government responded by advising the Indigenous community members not to provoke the armed farmers and to respect their position in the interest of democratic coexistence.

Organisations of Indigenous women reclaiming territories, from Térraba, Salitre, Cabagra and China Kichá, have joined forces and shared their experiences of struggle to produce –with the support of the United Nations Population Fund– the “Agenda of Indigenous Women in Defence of Southern Territories”,[ii] which “forms a consultation tool for authorities and public officials from various institutions who are responsible for ensuring compliance with the human rights of Indigenous women, through institutional actions and public policies”. This document highlights women’s involvement in the land recovery process and the fact that, for them, land rights and food security lie at the heart of Indigenous demands.

The UN Special Rapporteur's report on Costa Rica[iii] indicates his concern at the approach of the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (National Child Welfare Agency / PANI) with regard to “indigenous children involved in land reclamation processes”, who are being removed from their families.

Abduction of Indigenous children continues

The Indigenous World 2019[iv] cited the Cabécar women's denunciation of PANI's policy of violently removing Indigenous children from their families amidst allegations of alcoholism and domestic violence, and then placing them in foster care without any foresight or strategy aimed at respecting their culture. As the complaint established, the Cabécar children were sent to non-indigenous homes where they were mocked for not speaking Spanish, for their skin colour, and for their different customs generally.

The Executive President of PANI responded to the complaint a few months later by offering to request the technical assistance of the National Directorate of Community Development (DINADECO) on intercultural issues. This institution is known specifically for its lack of sensitivity to cultural diversity and for the conflicts it frequently creates with the communities by intervening in their internal affairs without showing any respect for Indigenous legislation or rights.

According to leaders from Alto Chirripó, whose names have not been cited to avoid reprisals, the kidnappings continued in 2021, PANI's aggression against the Cabécar families intensified and no intercultural capacity was created within this institution.

In the Indigenous territory of Duchí (Alto Chirripó by its official name), a group of women leaders have, with the support of a lawyer who offered his services pro bono, and after several years of numerous administrative and legal proceedings, obtained legal status for their organisation, the Kajala Batca Association of Indigenous Women, with the aim of strengthening their identity and worldview. This organisation has repeated its position of denouncing PANI for its constant aggression and lack of understanding of Indigenous parenting. The ethnocidal desires of this institution are notorious: this is an institution which, in the 21st century, is continuing to implement actions similar to those of the Indigenous boarding schools of previous centuries in Canada and Australia.

The barriers faced by the women of Duchí in obtaining legal recognition demonstrates the resistance that is encountered when attempting to form organisations to defend the culture and rights of women, a resistance that can only be explained by discrimination against Indigenous Peoples. Legal status is facilitated to production organisations but when the application is for the purpose of defending self-determination and rights, they face endless paperwork and rejection.

New challenges in the face of diversity

Ethnic and cultural diversity has increased in the country since the 1980s due to in-migration, notably from Nicaragua, and particularly the Miskito region, which also encompasses a significant part of the department of Gracias a Dios in Honduras. Members of the Miskito people have settled in Costa Rica, most of them in a neighbourhood in Pavas district, to the west of the capital, which is the centre of reference for them in relation to the rest of the country and a channel of communication with their communities of origin, both in Nicaragua and Honduras.

Unofficial sources estimate the Miskito population to number more than 2,000 individuals, of which some 1,500 are concentrated in Pavas, in a neighbourhood already identified by other urban dwellers as Miskito. The number is likely to be higher, in part because the 2011 national census records more than 8,000 Indigenous foreigners.

The Miskito people have organised themselves into the International Multiethnic Indigenous Miskito Association of Costa Rica and their current presence, identity and demand for rights is a challenge to a country that has only ever recognised rural Indigenous Peoples with territories that public institutions insist on calling “reserves”.[v]

Further delay in 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.[vi] 2021 therefore marked 27 years of Parliament’s refusal to discuss this bill. Nor has the Executive Branch prioritised it even though its enactment has been promised during several electoral campaigns. There is still strong racist resistance among congressmen and women and fierce opposition from the private sector and conservative political parties who believe it is risky for extractive investments and who furthermore do not accept a concept of territory that does not consider land to be a commodity.

Continuing imposition of organisational forms alien to Indigenous systems

As mentioned in previous years, the State continues to violate Indigenous Law 6172 of 1977 and Convention 169 by imposing a particular form of organisation on Indigenous territories. In 2021, the Special Rapporteur stated in his preliminary report: As they “are imposed state institutions [they are] not suitable to guarantee the representation of indigenous peoples’ communities, which are governed by their own system of governance. This is leading to a weakening of the traditional structures of representation (...)”.[vii]

The struggle for land: more violence and impunity against Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous lands in Costa Rica were titled without prior regularisation (saneamiento) or physical demarcation. Twenty-four territories have been established through various executive decrees 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, as of 2021, the State had not fulfilled this commitment and, in contrast, was tolerating the invasion and dispossession of Indigenous lands by landowners and local politicians.

The land regularisation process initiated in 2016 made no significant progress in 2021. This is largely due to the insufficient resources allocated to this work and partly due to the limited capacities of the Rural Development Institute, which has not yet understood that land regularisation processes and associated conflicts go beyond the topographical and legal dimensions and have historical, social, cultural and political complexities that require an interdisciplinary approach and an intercultural and intersectional approach that are outside of its area of expertise.

The budget allocated for payment of compensation to eligible settlers is insufficient and eviction orders for illegal occupants are being halted by judges who are tolerant of the violence being meted out by landowners and their thugs against those recovering the land. During 2021, in China Kichá, an Indigenous territory of the Cabécar people, farmers and their henchmen, all armed, blocked the entrances to the territory demanding that the reclaimed lands be returned to them and threatening the Indigenous people with death. The government’s response was to advise the Indigenous people not to create conflict and not to attack the armed thugs. No action was taken to stop the racist demonstration.

The precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in April 2015 have not yet been implemented six years on and leaders and residents involved in land recoveries continue to be threatened. The murder of Sergio Rojas, Bribri Indigenous leader of the Salitre territory and one of the founders of FRENAPI, was archived in 2020 and reopened in early 2021 due to several appeals filed by Indigenous organisations. It has not yet been investigated, however, and the murder remains unpunished. In 2020, Jerhy Rivera Rivera, a Bröran Indigenous leader, was also murdered. His murderers remained at large by decision of the Criminal Court of Buenos Aires de Puntarenas[viii] and the trial, as of 31 December 2021, had not yet taken place.

There was no progress in the resolution of land conflicts in 2021, and regularisation was characterised by its sluggishness and institutional misunderstanding of the complexity of the issue. According to FRENAPI, some territories such as Térraba are 70% occupied by non-indigenous invaders while in China Kichá, for example, it is 95%. At the same time, the Indigenous land recovery movement is being attacked with impunity by farmers, and judges have halted all evictions of illegal occupants from Indigenous territories such that the plundering continues.

It is particularly important to note that Indigenous leaders such as Pablo Síbar Síbar, president of FRENAPI, continued to receive death threats throughout the year. In Pablo's case, his home and land suffered arson attacks that were never investigated by the State.

Future prospects

2021 was a year of significant setbacks with regard to Indigenous rights in Costa Rica. As indicated above, apart from the provision of infrastructure, the State made no progress in resolving structural issues, largely land and territorial rights and the autonomous management of natural resources. The right to self-determination continued to be violated on a daily basis through the imposition of organisational structures alien to Indigenous cultures and their supervision by an institution with no intercultural approach and discriminatory practices towards Indigenous forms of decision-making.

As indicated last year, land grabbers continue to act with impunity, threatening and killing without the State taking any action to put an end to the problem.

In 2021, with funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, the State began the participatory formulation of a public policy for Indigenous Peoples. To coordinate the process, it hired a professional cooperative that soon demonstrated its lack of knowledge of Indigenous issues and rights. It ended with its contract being terminated. It is unclear what will happen now in this regard.

There will be a change of government in 2022 and only one of the candidates has expressed any concern for the structural aspects of Indigenous rights; the rest have limited themselves to proposing welfare strategies. The candidate with the highest voting intentions at the end of 2021, former President José María Figueres, violated the principle of consultation during his term of office (1994-1998) when he reduced the Bribri de Kéköldi Indigenous territory, even though Convention 169 was already in force. In 2020, a court ruling forced the State to return the land taken in 1996 and to compensate the Kéköldi people. There was no progress in complying with this ruling in 2021.

Carlos Camacho-Nassar is an anthropologist and geographer. He has conducted studies on Indigenous rights, particularly on territorial issues and their associated conflicts in South America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has published several texts on the subject. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bettina Durocher PhD is an agricultural engineer, intercultural mediator and researcher. She has conducted and published studies on women's and Indigenous knowledge of food security and inclusive climate resilience. She works as a consultant specialising in gender equality and women's rights in humanitarian and international development programmes in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[i] Francisco Calí Tzay, “End of mission statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Calí Tzay at the conclusion of his visit to Costa Rica”. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, December 2021.


[ii] UNFPA. Agenda de mujeres indígenas en defensa de los territorios del sur [Agenda of Indigenous Women in Defence of Southern Territories]. UNFPA, April 2021 https://costarica.unfpa.org/es/publications/agenda-de-mujeres-ind%C3%ADgenas-en-defensa-de-los-territorios-del-sur#:~:text=Esta%20agenda%20%2D%2Dconstruida%20por,social%20y%20cultural%20de%20los

[iii] Francisco Calí Tzay. Ibid.

[iv] IWGIA. The Indigenous World 2019. IWGIA, April 2019.


[v] Millaray Villalobos Rojas, “La población indígena miskita nicaragüense y el estado costarricense: regularización migratoria y empleo formal” [The Nicaraguan Indigenous Miskita Population and the Costa Rican State: migratory regularisation and formal employment]. Revista Trama, Volume 7, Issue 1, January-June 2018. Interview with Elsser Brown, regional director of MOPAWI, Miskito NGO, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras, September 2021. https://www.uned.ac.cr/acontecer/a-diario/deporte-y-cultura/3784-institucion-realizo-el-foro-la-comunidad-miskita-en-costa-rica-voces-vivencias-y-visiones#:~:text=Los%20ind%C3%ADgenas%20Miskitos%20a%20parte,costa%20de%20habla%20este%20lenguaje. Various interviews with Indigenous leaders and university researchers.

[vi] Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Costa Rica. Draft Law on the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples. File No. 14,352. http://proyectos.conare.ac.cr/asamblea/14352%203M137.pdf

[vii] Francisco Calí Tzay. Ibid.

[viii] “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



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

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Indigenous World

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

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