• Indigenous peoples in Costa Rica

    Indigenous peoples in Costa Rica

    Costa Rica has 24 indigenous territories inhabited by eight different peoples. Although Costa Rica has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169, rights to land and self-determination is still a struggle for the country’s indigenous population.
  • Peoples

    2.4 per cent of Costa Rica’s total population are indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    Costa Rica voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007.
  • Challenges

    Many indigenous peoples continue to be displaced and landless as a result of the long term armed conflict in Colombia.

Indigenous World 2020: Costa Rica

There are eight Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica: the Huetar, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Brunka, Ngäbe, Bröran and Chorotega, and they represent 2.4% of the total population. According to the 2010 National Census, a little over 100,000 people thus self-identify as Indigenous.

Twenty-four Indigenous territories occupy around 6.7% of the national territory (3,344 km2) although this is an area that only has a legal existence. Almost all of the Indigenous territories are occupied, in different percentages, by non-indigenous settlers.

In a country where around 20% of the population live below the poverty line, the figures in relation to Indigenous Peoples are alarming: Cabécar 94.3; Ngäbe 87.0; Bröran 85.0; Bribri 70.8; Brunka 60.7; Maleku 44.3; Chorotega 35.5; and Huetar

  • This significant inequality clearly demonstrates the social exclusion suffered by the country’s Indigenous

ILO Convention 169 was ratified in April 1993. The country’s multicultural nature was added into the Republic’s Political Constitution in August 2015.

The 1977 Indigenous Law recognised the Indigenous traditional organisations. However, subsequent implementing regulations imposed a completely foreign form over their traditional power structures: the Indigenous Integral Development Association (ADII), under the supervision of the National Directorate for Community Development, an institution that is completely unable to understand cultural diversity, Indigenous rights or an intercultural approach.

The National Commission for Indigenous Affairs has been in place since 1973. The fact that it recognises the ADII as territorial representatives, together with its welfarist approach, has eroded its legitimacy. This has resulted in limited recognition among Indigenous people and a failure to produce any institutional policies.

The Indigenous territorial organisations have a nationally representative body, the National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica, which actively participates in spaces for strategic dialogue on Indigenous rights: consultation, biodiversity, climate change, education and health, among other themes. The National Front for Indigenous Peoples is another movement that focuses on defending land and autonomy as a priority.

Costa Rica’s Indigenous Peoples and climate change

Costa Rica’s Indigenous Peoples have long been working systematically on climate change-related issues, particularly through the National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica and the Bribri Cabécar Indigenous Network.1

In 2019, during the pre-COP 25 (preparatory meeting for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change) and together with the Central American Indigenous Council, the Coordinating Council of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, the Meso-American Alliance of Peoples and Forests and the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, among others, organised the “Indigenous Maloca”, a space for dialogue including the direct and ongoing involvement of the Indigenous Caucus. The Maloca was an open space for Indigenous Peoples and local communities from around the world to discuss issues related to adaptation, mitigation, REDD+, nature-based solutions, the blue economy, Nationally Determined Contributions, Indigenous women’s participation, territorial governance, Indigenous and local community knowledge.2

The objectives of the Maloca were:

  • To establish a platform for an exchange of knowledge around issues of mitigation and adaptation, with a particular focus on Indigenous and traditional
  • To establish dialogue between negotiators and other government officials and international bodies in order to improve recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’

The Maloca also considered structural issues in relation to the different agenda items, in particular the importance of legalising, regularising and consolidating Indigenous territories around the world and Indigenous Peoples’ right to govern their lands and natural resources, including the social management of water.

The National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica and the Bribri Cabécar Indigenous Network participated actively in the national dialogue spaces on biodiversity, climate change and the formulation and implementation of mitigation and adaptation policies.

A quarter of a century waiting for the Law on Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomous Development

Twenty-five years have now passed since the legislative process for the draft bill of law on Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomous Development was published in the Official Journal in 1994, and Parliament is still refusing to discuss it, with the government giving it no priority. This strong resistance is in part due to the continuing racist attitude that persists in the country, as well as the opposition of the private sector, which see the right to self-determination as a risk to extractive industries. The 20142025 National Policy for a Society Free from Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia,3 which should have come into force in 2015, is still awaiting implementation.

The struggle for land continues, but now more violently

In Costa Rica, as in other countries on the continent, Indigenous lands have been titled without prior consolidation or physical demarcation. Conflicts therefore remain in relation to non-indigenous settlers and this is preventing full ownership and governance of the territories according to traditional Indigenous systems. This is an obstacle that means deforestation cannot be prevented and, consequently, climate change mitigation cannot be achieved.

The Indigenous organisations have been demanding the consolidation of their lands for decades. The government did commence the process in 2016 but, in December 2019, the Rural Development Institute reported that only 12,000 hectares had thus far been surveyed, i.e. less than 5% of the total area of Indigenous territories and without any analysis of the conflicts aside from their topographical or legal characteristics.4 Nor has any consolidation commenced. The institute stated in 2019 that this would be complete within two years. The lack of any comprehensive analysis of the conflicts and the fact that more than 90% of the Indigenous territories still remains to be measured therefore raises clear doubts as to this assertion.

The delay in studies and the lack of political will to undertake the consolidation and evict illegal settlers has resulted in a land recovery movement emerging which has, since 2011, been evicting the illegal settlers with their own means.

Sergio Rojas, an Indigenous Bribri leader from the Salitre territory and one of the founders of the National Indigenous Peoples’ Front (FRENAPI), was murdered on 18 March 2019. Only hours earlier, he had been to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to report the threats being made against himself and other members of his community by landowners and illegal settlers on Indigenous lands.5

The precautionary measures passed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in April 2015 have still not been implemented and, in 2019, leaders and community members involved in these land recoveries continued to be threatened.6

On 23 April 2019, the Indigenous lawyer and Brunka leader, Hugo Lázaro Estrada, was arrested by officers from the Judicial Investigation Unit. An illegal settler on the Yimba Cájc territory had denounced him for threats. The Indigenous Prosecutor acted prematurely and ordered his immediate arrest. He was publicly exposed in Buenos Aires as an example of what might happen to other Indigenous individuals if they continue their demands for rights and land recovery. Although he was later released, this sent out an intimidating message.

Land recoveries intensified in 2019, particularly on the Cabécar de China Kichá territory, the Bröran Térraba territory, the Bribri Salitre territory and the Brunka Yimba Cájc territory.

As of the end of December 2019, investigations into Sergio Rojas’ murder were at a standstill and the land recovery movements were continuing to receive death threats.

Progress during 2019

Significant progress can be seen in the Indigenous Peoples’ Consultation Mechanism, enacted in 2018: the Technical Consultation Unit was established in 2019 under the Ministry of Justice and Peace, albeit with limited financial and logistical resources. Twenty-two territories joined the Consultation Mechanism in 2019 and six Territorial Indigenous Consultation Bodies were formed: Boruca, Cabagra, Yimba Cájc, Zapatón, Maleku and Alto Laguna. These bodies act as contact points for the government during consultation processes. Among other things, during the year they received and processed 16 consultation requests, commenced six consultation processes on infrastructure, education and drinking water and conducted awareness raising and training activities for officials of public and local authority institutions.7

The Ministry of the Presidency initiated the process of formulating a public policy for Indigenous Peoples in 2019, convening workshops with Indigenous leaders and public institutions. The achievements by the end of the year seemed fairly minor compared with the needs, however, and did not offer a culturally relevant view of development. Quite the contrary, Western development concepts were being repeated with no intercultural approach.8

The Ministry of Justice issued guidelines on the provision of prison care for Indigenous persons deprived of their liberty.9

In August 2019, the Civil Registry of the Supreme Electoral Court officially set up a database to establish membership of the Bröran people on the basis of 12 native lineages. This database was produced at the request of the Indigenous authorities and in coordination with the Bröran Council of Elders.10

A right to use ancestral lands was agreed with the National Protected Areas System in 2017 and strengthened in 2019 when the Brunka people managed to put a halt to the construction of a tourist dock in a traditional area where múrice (snails used for dye) are gathered. The Maleku people also consolidated their traditional rights of use over the Caño Negro protected area.11

In 2019, the Brunka people managed to get symbols from their culture and words from their language that were being used by big brands without prior authorisation removed from the market. This was an important precedent because it was the first time that the Intellectual Property Register had recognised these rights to Indigenous Peoples.12 In 2019, the Ministry of Education authorised the use of traditional dress among Indigenous children of the Ngäbe people when attending pre-school.13

In August 2019, the Banco Hipotecario de la Vivienda (Home Mortgage Bank) and the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements provided 196 new homes in a traditional Cabécar style. These are architectural solutions that respect the environment, traditions and customs of the native peoples.14

Future outlook

There was significant progress and also setbacks in Indigenous rights in Costa Rica in 2019. Progress in terms of the application of the Consultation Mechanism, the recognition of ancestral rights of use over their territory and the production of the Bröran people’s database, an international precedent that now makes it possible to determine who the rights holders in a territory are and to avoid outside intervention in internal political decision-making, something the Bröran had suffered on their territory for decades. The importance of having begun to draft a public policy for Indigenous Peoples should also be noted.

Nonetheless, the violence of the land grabbers continues in relation to those who are trying to recover their territories and the investigation into the terrible murder of Sergio Rojas, Indigenous leader of the Bribri people, has got nowhere. The state continues to see land consolidation as a topographical and legal issue and seems unable to understand or act upon the complexity of the conflicts. The resources allocated are clearly insufficient and nor has any concrete action been taken to evict and indemnify, where appropriate, the non-indigenous settlers.

There clearly needs to be increased resources allocated to the Consultation Mechanism, together with the inclusion of an ethnically and culturally relevant perspective when formulating the public policy, not forgetting that an institutional structure to implement this will be necessary.


Notes and references

  1. Interview with Alejandra Loría, Commission for Biodiversity Management. San José, January
  2. Interview with Jaime Valverde Rojas, director of the Indigenous Rights and Climate Change Observatory (www.oddiicc.org). San José, December
  3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, Government of Costa Rica, “Politica Nacional Para Una Sociedad Libre de Racismo, Discriminación Racial y Xenofobia, 2014-2025”. Available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/ CESCR/Shared%20Documents/CRI/INT_CESCR_ADR_CRI_22761_E.pdf
  4. Presidency of the Republic of Costa Rica, ”El Plan de Recuperación de Territorios Indígenas del Inder muestra resultados concretos”. 21 March 2019: https://presidencia.go.cr/comunicados/2019/03/el-plan-de-recuperacion-de- territorios-indigenas-del-inder-muestra-resultados-concretos/
  5. On issues of land and the murder of Sergio Rojas, see: Ombudsman. Annual work report 2018-2019. San José, Ombudsman, pp 78-80.
  6. Ibíd. pp 30-31.
  7. National Directorate for Alternative Conflict Resolution. Information on the work conducted by the Technical Indigenous Consultation Unit San José, Ministry of Justice and Paz, 2019. Internal report. National Directorate for Alternative Conflict Resolution. Implementation report. General Indigenous Peoples’ Consultation Mechanism. Ministry of Justice and Paz, San José, 2019. Interviews with Franklin Paniagua, director of the Technical Consultation Unit and Kathy Piedra, anthropologist.
  8. Annual work report 2018-2019. San José, Ombudsman, 2019. pp 74-75.
  9. Ibíd. p
  10. Presidency of the Republic of Costa Rica, “Costa Rica Garantiza Derecho A La Autodeterminación Y Reconocimiento De La Identidad De Los Pueblos Indígenas”. 9 August 2019: https://presidencia.go.cr/comunicados/2019/08/costa-rica-garantiza-derecho-a-la-autodeterminacion-y-reconocimiento-de- la-identidad-de-los-pueblos-indigenas/
  11. Interview with Cristhian González, San José, January
  12. Protección del conocimiento tradicional de los Pueblos Indígenas y Campesinos”. National Commission for Biodiversity Management (CONAGEBIO), last accessed 14 February 2020: https://www.conagebio.go.cr/ Conagebio/public/permisosInfoPueblos.html and interview with Cristhian González.
  13. Indígenas podrán asistir a preescolar utilizando vestido tradicional”. El Mundo, 10 April 2019: https://www.elmundo.cr/costa-rica/indigenas-podran-asistir-a- preescolar-utilizando-vestido-tradicional/
  14. Presidency of the Republic of Costa Rica, “Gobierno entrega 196 casas adaptadas a la cultura cabécar”. 31 August 2019: https://presidencia.go.cr/ comunicados/2019/08/gobierno-entrega-196-casas-adaptadas-a-la-cultura- cabecar/

Carlos Camacho-Nassar. Anthropologist and geographer, member of the Indigenous Rights and Climate Change Observatory. He has conducted studies into Indigenous rights, particularly territorial issues and their associated conflicts in South America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has published a number of works on this issue. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

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