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  • Jess Breitfeller

Territorial Rights, Invasion, & Conflict



Photo Credit: Delfino


Over the past year, colleagues and I have watched as on-going land recuperation efforts in southern Costa Rica have spurred increased tenure insecurity, conflict, and violence. Last Monday evening, February 24, indigenous leader and land activist, Jehry Rivera, was murdered in Térraba. His death comes less than a year after the Bribrí leader, Sergio Rojas was killed in the neighboring territory of Salitre. Rivera and Rojas, among others, have fought tirelessly for years to recover their communities’ traditional lands.


Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica represent approximately 2.5% of the total population, divided into 8 distinct cultural groups across 24 legally-recognized territories. The National Indigenous Law, Ley Indígena Costarricense, established the country’s indigenous reserves in 1977, declaring them “inalienable and imprescriptible, non-transferable, and exclusive for the indigenous com­munities that inhabit them.”[1] Despite this, an estimated 43% of the total lands located in the country’s 24 titled indigenous territories continue to be occupied by non-indigenous farmers.[2]


The drivers underlying illegal occupation are historical and complex. In short, most argue that the Ley Indígena was never properly implemented. Others claim that the state-appointed Indigenous Development Associations, or ADIs, may have knowingly enrolled non-indigenous finqueros as indigenous, allowing them to occupy customary lands in exchange for monetary benefit. Land recuperation efforts began Bribrí territory of Salitre in 2011 and quickly spread neighboring reserves of Cabagra and Térraba. But without full support from the state, recuperation turned violent and retaliative.


These conflicts were condemned by the United Nations, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), who called upon the national government to take measures to protect indigenous lives and property. Since that time, the state has arguably made strides forward in terms of the indigenous right to consultation; however, the issue of territorial land rights and tenure remains unresolved.[3]

Land and resource rights are fundamental to culture, identity, livelihood. Moving forward, the government has a legal and moral obligation to protect and uphold these rights as well as the basic human right to life and the right to self-determination.


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[1] Ley Indígena 1977, Artículo 3.

[2] MacKay, Fergus and Alancay Morales Garro. 2014. “Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ Territorial Rights: The example of Costa Rica.” England: Forest Peoples Programme. https://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2014/02/violationsterritorialrightscostaricaenglishfeb2014.pdf.

[3] International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). 2019. “Indigenous World 2019: Costa Rica.” https://www.iwgia.org/en/costa-rica/3377-iw2019-costa-rica.html.

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