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Fighting for recognition

Indigenous Costa Ricans push for rights

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The blare of a conch shell horn, used by indigenous Costa Ricans, bounces off the concrete buildings in this capital city’s legislative and judicial district. A few blocks away, the horn of a nearly dilapidated train honks just as loudly, creating what seems like a call-and-response. The indigenous residents protesting here outside the Legislative Assembly begin to chuckle — as if to say, at last, somebody, or something, is replying to their pleas.

Some 250 members of Costa Rica’s different indigenous groups — communities with names like Brunca, Bribri and Terraba — traveled hundreds of miles from their rural villages to the capital last month to press lawmakers to pass an indigenous rights bill that hasn't budged for 15 years. A dozen representatives have been rallying here for two months.

Unlike some of its Latin American neighbors, Costa Rica is not well known for its indigenous population. But here, too, they suffered a painfully familiar history, starting with the late-16th century Spanish colonization, which drove many natives into remote areas such as the hills of the southeastern Talamanca region. The area is rich with biodiversity — it has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage site — but it's also home to some of the country’s poorest communities. Estimated at 60,000 people (according to the 2000 census), the indigenous population now resides largely in the southeast and southwest regions.

The proposed law, according to its proponents, would empower this historically marginalized group, helping to preserve their rights to land, natural medicine and their overall way of life. It would also, they say, put the country in line with the International Labor Organization's (ILO) convention on indigenous rights, which Costa Rica signed in 1992.

“The reason we’re here to protest is to see if (the government) will approve the law for autonomous development of indigenous communities, which will make improvements mainly in the areas of land and cultural recovery,” said Jose Marino Delgado, a 40-year-old who joined the crowd here last month from the southwestern indigenous community of Salitre. Delgado went on to make a similar statement in his native language of Bribri, and translated it into Spanish.

Experts on Indian issues would consider Delgado one of the fortunate ones for being bilingual. Four of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous languages have all but vanished, being replaced by Spanish, according to Gabriela Pino, of National University’s (UNA) research department. Indigenous leaders hope that the new legislation would enhance recognition for their languages and help keep them from disappearing.

Who would oppose the passage of a law meant to remedy this? It turns out that some of the bill's fiercest opponents are a group of indigenous people.

“A bill for the autonomy of indigenous communities … very nice name. But what I ask them is, is that autonomy real? It is not real,” said Luis Fernando Mena, a Huetar Indian and a member of the National Commission on Indigenous Affairs (CONAI). CONAI serves as the government's indigenous arm, overseeing development and deciding how state resources are to be used in Costa Rica's 24 indigenous territories.