Skip to main content

A Historic Victory in Costa Rica

For the first time in Costa Rican history an indigenous community has successfully sued to recover territory that had been theirs according to earlier rulings.

Along with the fact that this marks the first such victory for any Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica, the community’s leader stated that it opens the door for similar suits from any of the indigenous groups in the nation.

“It is a very important achievement,” asserted Demetrio Mayorga, president of the Kekoldi reservation’s ruling body, the Integral Development Association (ADI), “because for the first time the law is on our side.

“This opens the possibility for the other 24 aboriginal territories to recover their lands, because without them we are not complete,” Mayorga added.

On September 12, the Administrative Tribunal of Contention ordered the relevant federal agencies – the Institute of Agrarian Development (IDA) and the National Commission of Indigenous Affairs (CONAI) – to expropriate more than 11,000 acres of land to be returned to the Bribri community of the Kekoldi reservation—this part of Bribri territory is currently occupied by non-indigenous people.

According to the ruling the IDA and CONAI will have one month to identify the non-indigenous people affected by the ruling, then six months to determine the monetary values of the properties and then one year to effect the moves and transfer of ownership.

Even though the formal transfer is not completed, the community’s attorney is pleased with this development.

“This ruling is historic,” stated Danilo Chaverri Barrantes, attorney for the Bribri community, “because it’s the fist time that they order these institutions to remove non-Indigenous Peoples from these lands, but the most important thing is that they have established that it shall take one year to do so.”

“It is also important,” Chaverri Barrantes noted, “as it is the first time that indigenous people sued the state and … they have never had a hearing before in that sense.”

These recovered lands had been included in a presidential decree of 1977 that had created the Kekoldi reservation, a territory that extends across 14,820 acres. The Bribri people were only able to settle on 1,500 acres of the territory at first, due in part to lawsuits against the executive order. Those lawsuits were then overturned in 1997 and 2001, which technically gave the Bribri the right to those disputed territories but no formal actions were taken to affect the transfers.

In an August press statement prior to the ruling Chaverri Barrantes explained that, “In those 34 years the indigenous people have fought against invasions with few positive results. They are in possession of 3,705 acres but their territory is 14,820 acres. That is to say that there are 11,115 acres of their territory of which they do not currently occupy, and this must be a subject of study.”

Chaverri Barrantes also explained that there are other legal challenges to the original executive order that have not been resolved, and that the transfer process will be delayed until these challenges are settled.