María Suárez Toro, Escribana
At present, the land conflict between the peoples of the mountainous Keköldi* Indigenous Reserve and the State, regarding the nearby coastal zone of Cocles near Puerto Viejo in Talamanca, what might look like a case of indigenous peoples against Afro-Costa Ricans is really one of government oversight when assigning land in the creation of the Keköldi Indigenous Reserve in 1977 that, ignored the fact that the land in Cocles was occupied by Afro Costa Ricans for the last 100 years.
After two years of conflict in court, a process of out of court conciliation was requested by the KEKOLDI in the middle of 2013 but in August of this year the government rejected such process.
What is means is that although the case is between the Costa Rican State and the KEKOLDI, those inhabitants that are affected by the case because they live and have historical land rights of the contested territory (see map) will have to become part of the case, at least in so far as they have to be heard by the court regarding the case.
A community conflict created by multiple government´s mistakes
In 2011 a meeting of over 150 Costa Rican citizens and inhabitants of many other nationalities worldwide met in the public school of Cocles to share information about a land claim by the nearby indigenous Keköldi.
The Keköldi Reserve is claiming the coastal land inhabited at the present by many members of the group that met that day.
After three hours of information sharing among homemakers, entrepreneurs, ecologists, activists, lawyers and fisherpeople among others, the group asked ASO MUJERES** in their community of Cocles to coordinate their struggle to be heard by government officials and society at large regarding the indigenous claim to their land.
They discovered that the present claim is the result of years of mistake after mistake by government policies that in 1977. That year, when the Keköldi Reserve was created, it erroneously included inside the Reserve the coastal cacao farms in the Cocles area, which had been settled by Afro Caribbean peoples for more than 100 years.
The original allocation of that part of the coastal land to the Keköldi was delineated by the government based on aerial photos and never confirmed by an onsite visit to verify the “facts” in the airplane pictures that showed no houses in the 1,000 hectares coastal land. The hundreds of houses were shaded under the cacao plants of the Afro and the three they uses to provide shade to the cacao plantations themselves.
Area of Cocles in dispute, foto by Escribana
When local Afro Costa Rican community leaders who lived there became aware of this grave error by the government in the late 1970’s, they travelled to San José in an attempt to rectify the error. Government officials informed them that there was nothing that could be done to change the decision.
Throughout the next decades, newer Costa Rican and foreign migrants and investors arrived to live alongside Afro-descendants. Afro population sold them some of the coastal land to these Costa Rican, European, Canadian and United States North Americans and other Latin American small entrepreneurs that have built homes, small eco-tourism businesses. Costa Rican oligarchs and new rich also bought large extensions of land for speculation.
They all “co-habit” (live together) the coastal land alongside a community of Afro Costa Rican descendants who have stayed in the area where they inherited land from their ancestors who came from Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panamá and Colombia more than a century before establishing themselves in unoccupied coastal lands, where they fished and farmed, coconut and cacao.
Eventually they all lobbied the government for a Presidential Decree that would free the Cocles land from the original mistake that assigned the land the Keköldi Reserve.
The Decree was adopted in 1996 by participation of indigenous authorities. The National Indigenous Commission (CONAI) participated in fixing the mistake by the government. CONAI is in charge of overseeing government policy about indigenous peoples.
CONAI drafted a petition asking the government to eliminate the Cocles area (in dispute with their Afro neighbors) from their Reserve. The reasons stated were that they did not want their relationship with the Afro community living in Cocles to deteriorate.
In their argument, CONAI issues a statement that recognized that “the indigenous peoples had not lived in that area occupied by Afros and other dwellers for over 200 years.”
In order to arrive at that stance CONAI developed a consultation process similar to the process that was established by the International Labor Organization (ILO) Covenant 169 concerning the need for consultation to indigenous peoples n any project that affects them. The Convention was ratified by Costa Rica in 1993.
Thus the President of Costa Rica at the time issued Decree 25296-G in 1996 that removed the coastal areas of Cocles from the Indigenous Keköldi Reserve and increased the total Reserve lands by giving the Reserve lands along the southwest border towards Carbón.
However, in order to make this change with justice to the Keköldi also, the government has to take other measures. In the Indigenous Law of 1977, reduction of reserves is strictly prohibited. Thus, in the new Presidential Decree, the 1,000 hectares in Cocles that were removed from the Keköldi Reserve to be given back to the Afro Costa Ricans and others were replaced by giving the Keköldi another 1000 hectares on the south western border of the Reserve in the mountainous end of the Reserve known as Carbon.
Some of that land in Carbon was comprised of forest. Other parts had been settled by families creating subsistence farming by Costa Ricans displaced from other regions in Costa Rica, and although they had set up homesteads on these lands they never obtained rightful titles and in theory the land was part of the national patrimony.
In trying to do justice to the Keköldi Reserve, the government created a new problem by once again decreeing lands to the indigenous community without assisting in the relocation of the non-indigenous small farmers. Thus, some of the land continued to be occupied by farmers although it had legally allocated to the Keköldi Reserve.
That solved the conflict with the Afro and other non-indigenous inhabitants of Cocles for the time being. Notwithstanding, at the time a group of residents from the Keköldi reserve brought a constitutional court challenge to the 1996 decree arguing that CONAI lacked the authority to act as valid representative of the Keköldi indigenous and that the consultation pursuant to ILO Covenant 169 should have been held on site directly with the entire population.
What constitutes due consultation is an issue, however, the fact remains that the reserve boundaries were never demarcated on site and some of the inhabitants who had settled on the newly designated Keköldi lands were not made aware that they would never be able to title their claims. The government made no efforts to compensate or relocate these people and the Keköldi were left to fight for their newly designated territory.
This led the Keköldi obtaining legal counsel to file a legal case in 2011 to reclaim the territory of Carbon, now occupied by small farmers, but also by foreigners who bought the land from the small farmers. In Italian businessman - Idolo Augustine Mastronei – claiming that he had bought land in Carbón in an auction, violently evicted a group of Bribri indigenous families from “his” land of 50 hectares. His security guards, accompanied by officers of the judiciary of the government, violently entered the Keköldi Indigenous Reserve to forcibly remove the Bribri. A local court resolved the ownership of the land against Mastronei respecting the 1996 Keköldi borders.
In the judge´s resolution about this case, it is stated that Carbón belongs to the Reserve and “the Keköldi can also claim Cocles back is they wish to do so.”
This is how the legal conflict with the Afro Caribbean population and other recent inhabitants reemerged. The outcome of the case gave the land of Carbon back to the Keköldi and the judge of the court told them that they could also claim Cocles.
A lawyer and retired agrarian court judge, Danilo Chaverri, together with the then President of the Association de Desarrollo de Keköldi, Demetrio Mayorga, filed the case demanding that Cocles once again become part of the Reserve. This led the Keköldi to extend their case to include that coastal land.
What might look like a case of indigenous peoples against Afro-Costa Ricans is really one of government oversight when assigning land in the creation of the Bribri Keköldi Indigenous Reserve in 1977 that overlooked the fact that the land in Cocles was occupied by Afro Costa Ricans for the last 100 years.
Underlying the historical relationship between the Afro Costa Ricans and the indigenous people in the Reserve, there has been conflict over land, but it is mostly characterized by living together, sharing, trading and mutual respect.
However, the social, cultural and economic needs of both groups have been historically ignored and marginalized by government policies and plans.
Talamanca has one of the lowest Human Development standards in the country, according to United Nations reports in the last decade. Yet the area is characterized by a number of natural and indigenous reserves (90% of the Talamanca land), including the Gandoca-Manzanillo Mixed Wildlife Refuge created in 1985.
In 1982, Cahuita was declared a National Park to protect important endangered coral reefs. sea turtle nesting takes place on the beaches of Tuba Creek, Puerto Vargas, Playa Negra and Gandoca. There are also the Talamanca-Bribri Reserve, the Talamanca-Cabecar Reserve, the Keköldi Bribri Reserve, and the Hitoy Ceare Biological reserve as well as the bi-national Amistad Park.
The area in dispute now – Cocles - is populated by a combination of housing belonging to the descendants of the original Afro population, homes of people that have bought land from them in the course of the last 50 years and newcomers continue to arrive.
Small scale hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, small eco-tourism businesses (horse rental, surfboard rentals, guided nature walks through rainforest trails dolphin watching, bird watching, turtle watching, diving instruction, kayak rentals, Spanish classes, hair braiding, laundry, food services, fishing, dance classes, etc.) and one five star hotel characterize the zone.
The vast mountain lands in Talamanca, occupied by the native Bribri and Cabecar peoples and the coastal lands occupied by Afro Costa Ricans and others are located in areas that are highly desirable by transnational and national corporations for the extraction of oil and minerals and for big corporate tourist businesses.
This area is also so close to Panamá and Colombia, that the territory has also become prey for drug trafficking and is now another transit location by sea and land, creating serious social problems of addiction and small scale crime, no different than in the rest of the country.
One characteristic of this area in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is that over the past approximately 12 years, the multi-ethnic (indigenous, Afros and others) have together waged successful campaigns against the advent of oil or mining development by international companies as well as protecting the beach front from a marina resort project in Puerto Viejo.
Additionally in 2000 a Maharishi sect settled in the United States came to Talamanca to try to offer to the Bribri and Cabecar Reserve the creation of an equivalent to what today s now as “model cities”. According to interviews with them and also Bribri, the Maharshi offered to create “with them” a new set laws, a passport in the community, a new economic model where each Bribri and Cabecar family would get a monthly amount of money from the sect in exchange for the production of land, etc. Together Bribri and coastal population expelled the project.
Talamanca as a canton rejected Free Trade Agreements by far in the Referendum that took place in 2007.
Present challenge facing Cocles
In light of the most recent land challenges facing the community due to the claim by the Keköldi in 2011, local people and their local social organizations met with Aso Mujeres in Cocles, in more than five public meetings to decide what to do.
They formed a committee in Cocles, led by ASO Mujeres under the name “Committee of the Affected People” in September 2011 to give voice to the people of the community affected by the new claim of the coastal land by Keköldi.
They want to prevent that the past mistakes by governments be used as an excuse to open the way for exploitation at the expense of the people and their environments and for the indigenous peoples to understand their position about the land claims.
African oral historical narratives, which are documented in a book by Paula Palmer (Wa'apin Man-The Story of the Talamanca Coast of Costa Rica, according to its protagonists, 1977) show that historically the indigenous population came down from the mountains to work temporarily in the cacao farms owned predominantly by Afro Caribbean farmers, and to bring their own products to trade and sell, but their communities were further inland. .
"What now seems a conflict between these populations, has its origins in a series of irregular situations created by the government of Costa Rica, through ignorance or lack of interest in us" said Seidy Ortiz at one of the meetings. She is a fourth-generation Afro-Costa Rican resident of Cocles.
Juanita Segundo Sánchez, leader and member of the Keköldi Development Association of the Reserve, told Escribana in 2011 that she believes that although the Bribri did not occupy the coastal lands as such - because they lived in the highlands - they had trails in the shoreline, which show that they occupied such lands for their mobility. “Our claim to the land has to do with the amount of abuses that have been committed against us too.”
ASO Mujeres and the Keköldi women share concerns of development models that exclude and exploit natural and cultural resources that ensure the livelihoods of longtime inhabitants. They both want the same for their children: to continue to live in the lands where they were born and have access to their rights as citizens and residents and services: water, education, health, pensions, respect for cultural identity, sustainable livelihoods, etc.
That is what motivated Aso Mujeres to create a bulletin ‘Journey Cake’ to share the perspective of their community but in contrast mainstream media in the country only featured the indigenous claim, rendering the Afros and other dwellers n Cocles and Playa Chiquita invisible once again.
As of April 2013 the outcome of this conflict is still to be seen. A reconciliation processes might be under way, as the Kekoldi seem to be ready to undertake an out of court conciliation process. Juanita Sánchez told Escribana on May 1st of this year that although the Kekoldi Board of their Association had not met and the community has not been consulted yet, more than half of the members of the Board of the Association have reached an idea about the need to prevent a court conflict by seeking an out of court agreement with the Costa Rica State so that the areas of Cocles that are populated would remain on the hands of is settlers and the forest land that in unoccupied be returned to them.
Eventually, last April, the KEKOLDI presented a request in court for an out of court conciliation that would settle the dispute without a trial in a negotiated process.
The conciliation process has been rejected by the Instituto de Desarrollo Agrario (IDA) )one of the government organizations in the court case), meaning that the case will have to got to court and as part of it, the inhabitants of Cocles that have not been heard yet have to present their defense in court.
*The Keköldi are part of the Bribri ethnic group in the southern highlands of Costa Rica that were never colonized by the Spaniard Conquista 500 years ago. They presently live in Reserves in the areas where they always lived. One of them is the Keköldi Reserve in the mountains closest to the coastal land of Cocles.
**ASO Mujeres is a not for profit association created in 2010 that promotes organization and empowerment of female entrepreneurs in local development. It has brought together 36 women who run small businesses in Puerto Viejo and surrounding communities in the Southern Caribbean coast of Talamanca in Limón, Costa Rica.