Teribe Tribe of Costa Rica Fights for Indigenous Autonomy, End to Hydroelectric Projects


Pablo Sibar, a grassroots leader from the Teribe native tribe of Costa Rica celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9th with a protest before the National Assembly. He has been doing so over the last ten years, sometimes at the steps of the Assembly, others just outside the Presidential Office in Zapote. Mr. Sibar wants the voice of his people heard on a legislative proposal that has been stuck at the Assembly for the last thirty years: autonomy for the indigenous people of Costa Rica.

In an interview with journalist Fernando Francia of digital newspaper El Pais, Mr. Sibar spoke about the frustrations his people have faced over the last few decades with the proposed Indigenous Autonomy Law. There have been many empty promises made by the legislators who are elected, ousted, or retire before the project stalls. It is the oldest legislative project in the National Assembly, a fact that is shocking even for Costa Rica’s standards of red tape.

Speaking to El Pais, Mr. Sibar explained the impasse that intricate and inefficient lawmaking has created for the indigenous people of Costa Rica. It starts with Law Number 6172, which is already in place to protect the native people of Costa Rica but stops short at granting territorial autonomy. That law dictates that the Community Development Associations that can be found in just about every town in this country should function in indigenous communities as well, an essentially egalitarian mandate.

What Mr. Sibar, the Teribe and other native Costa Ricans are fighting for is the right to return to their traditional organizations and gain tribal independence. Many indigenous peoples around the world enjoy such autonomy thanks to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) of 1989. The ILO is an international body approved by the United Nations.

Law Number 6172 is not aligned with the ILO’s convention, which creates a conundrum. Costa Rica’s Constitutional Hall (Sala Cuarta) has already ruled on the matter: until the National Assembly decides to align with the ILO, the indigenous people cannot form tribal organizations to supplant the Community Development Associations. The impasse has created tense situations in the past. Tribal councils have approved resolutions to form organizations and take lands, two actions that have resulted in conflict among the non-native Ticos who live and work in the same communities. Fuerza Publica officers have been called in to restore order and break up fistfights in the Southern Zone.

The taking of territories is at the heart of the conflict. Some lands are owned by the indigenous and some are deeded to other interests, including farmers, business organizations, the government, foreign developers, etc. The national public utility company, ICE, has plans to develop dozens of hydroelectric projects in indigenous lands in the future. These indigenous regions have a lot of potential for mining, farming, ecotourism, resort development, and more.

The Teribe people extend from Costa Rica to Panama, where they have taken a stand against hydroelectric projects in their communities.  Mr. Sibar thinks his people deserve autonomy and the right to take advantage of their lands:

“They call us poor indigenous people, communities that never develop, that do not plan for the future. The Minister of the Environment Rene Castro not too long ago said: ‘it’s just that the indigenous want to go back to wearing grass skirts’. How can a Minister speak such foolishness?

Do you know what it’s like to sleep on this boulevard of stones (for the protest), when we have our communities, our forests, a different life altogether?

When we talk about autonomy, we are not just thinking about the indigenous peoples. We are thinking about Costa Rica and the diversity that can enrich this country.”

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