Land and autonomy in Costa Rica

Demonstrators carrying banners

Photo: Henry Picado, Friends of the Earth Costa Rica

On August 9 2012 the Indigenous Peoples National Front (FRENAPI) marched in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to commemorate the second anniversary of the violent eviction of indigenous people from the Costa Rican National Assembly.

In 2010 the Assembly's security guards and members of the public forcibly evicted representatives of the indigenous people from the building who were demanding the passing of a Bill that recognizes their autonomy to govern and live within their territories. The Bill has been waiting to be analysed by the legislators for 30 years.

On August 8 they premièred a documentary called “Autonomy, Land and Freedom” outside the National Assembly building. This describes the indigenous struggle for autonomy that has been taking place for more than 18 years.

The different indigenous organizations say they have been building autonomy in their own communities, without waiting for the National Assembly to pass the Bill.

Under the slogan “We are not asking, we are demanding”, FRENAPI also gathered indigenous and non-indigenous people outside the Supreme Court of Justice to denounce its silence about the human rights violations suffered by the indigenous people. This is part of the lack of state recognition of their right to self-determination.

Pablo Sibar from the Teribe tribe said the legislators "call us poor indigenous people, communities that never develop, that do not plan for the future. The Minister of the Environment, Rene Castro, recently said ‘it’s just that the indigenous want to go back to wearing grass skirts’. How can a Minister say something so foolish?"

Law Number 6172 protects the native people of Costa Rica but doesn't grant them territorial autonomy. It says that the Community Development Associations found in almost every town in Costa Rica should function in indigenous communities as well.

The indigenous people want to return to their traditional organizations and gain autonomy. Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) passed in 1989 gives indigenous people the right to do this.

However, Law Number 6172 isn't in line with the ILO convention. Costa Rica’s Constitutional Hall has already ruled on this, but the National Assembly won't pass the Bill that would do this.

Land ownership is at the heart of the conflict. Some of the land is owned by indigenous people, and some was given to farmers, business organizations, the government and foreign developers. The public utility company, ICE, plans to develop dozens of hydroelectric projects on indigenous lands. The indigenous people don't want hydroelectric dams on their land.