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Fighting for recognition

Indigenous Costa Ricans push for rights

According to Mena, CONAI offers real autonomy. Its board of directors is all indigenous, and its assembly consists of delegates chosen from each of the 24 indigenous territories. Mena alleged that a handful of his fellow natives "were used by non-indigenous people," such as NGOs, in drafting the bill.

But the commission has its own detractors. Reform advocates criticize the commission for allowing too many problems too persist — including land-grabbing and the disappearance of languages. In some territories, up to half of the land meant to be indigenous-owned has wound up in non-indigenous hands, said Gustavo Cabrera, a member of the San Jose chapter of the Peace and Justice Service Foundation (SERPAJ). Also, the commission's opponents say it breeches the ILO convention by allowing the central government to decide the indigenous communities' future.

"Indigenous communities should not have a state institution interfering in their way of life," Cabrera said. The current draft proposal before lawmakers would allow indigenous groups to create Territorial Indigenous Councils that would be recognized, but not dictated, by the central government.

It's unclear how many Costa Ricans are linked through ancestry to indigenous communities. Ticos in the Central Valley, where the nation's capital is located, are as much as 30 percent indigenous, according to DNA research led by Ramiro Barrantes, a biology professor at the University of Costa Rica.

But beyond blood, Pino acknowledges Ticos know little else. Vestiges of the pre-Colombian populations remain in the glowing jade and gold works on display in San Jose museums and the mysterious, perfectly round stone spheres of varying sizes that pop up around the country. However, “if you ask a Costa Rican what food we eat that indigenous people eat, they’ll have difficulty answering. We know little about our ancestral history ... It’s not part of what we feel as our identity,” Pino said.

And lack of knowledge has fueled a generalized sense of indigenous “invisibility,” she explained, saying, “We used to say — now I think it’s changed a bit — that the Indians had disappeared."

Whether the law goes through or not, Pino believes it will take effort on the part of non-indigenous Ticos to bring the heirs of the land's native ancestors into the social and political fold. Otherwise, the conch horn's sound might fall on deaf ears.

"What Costa Rica needs for a better recovery of its identity is to welcome the indigenous in as rightful but integral citizens," she said. "The indigenous people are part of us, part of our culture, part of our present, not just past history."

More GlobalPost dispatches about Costa Rica:

The sloths of Costa Rica

Poisonous pineapples?

The rice and beans war

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