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.
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."
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