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Indigenous knowledge safe — for now
María Flórez-Estrada, Yorleny Gamboa
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Free trade agreement legislation is finalized without controversial provision on indigenous rights.

Costa Rican lawmakers approved the last of 13 laws to implement the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Central America and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA), concluding just over a year of intense debate and two postponements.

The final law —and one of the most hotly debated — originally included an article that would have risked intellectual property rights for Costa Rica’s indigenous population. But a last-minute omission of the article allowed for the law to pass.

That first version of the proposal, dubbed “the sweeping bill” for the number of issues it grouped, called for allowing private companies to limitless patents of animal and vegetable species, a clear threat to ancient knowledge, specifically of medicinal plants.

The first version was thrown out by the Constitutional Chamber of Costa Rica´s Supreme Court for not including previous consultation of the country´s indigenous peoples, a requirement clearly outlined by the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169 on native peoples for laws or other measures that affect their communities.

Now, CAFTA will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

Threats to ancient knowledge
When lawmakers introduced the bill to give companies open access to patent indigenous traditional knowledge and biodiversity, members of the Awapas (indigenous healers) and the Kekepa Women Council, which guards the traditional, ancestral knowledge of the Talamanca indigenous communities in southeastern Costa Rica, marched to the Legislative Assembly on Oct. 13 demanding that their communities be consulted.

Costa Rica´s eight indigenous ethnicities — Huetares, Malekus, Chorotegas, Bribrís, Cabécares, Borucas, Guaymíes and Teribes — comprise 1.7 percent of the population, or 63,000 people, living in 22 reservations, mainly near the northern and southern borders.

Most of Costa Rica´s indigenous population lives off of agriculture, and others are domestic servants, coffee or banana plantation workers. Most of the reservations lack plumbing and have three or more people living in each room.

“In my opinion as a Quitirrisí woman, they have to take us into consideration for any type of decision,” said Sandra Mena Hernández, leader of the National Network of Indigenous Women. “They have to have a consultation in the development associations because they are the communities´ local government. It seems unfair to me that they don´t take us into consideration because that´s discrimination. Any kind of law that affects us, they must consult us because we have rights too.”

Long road to implementation
The bill divided the lawmakers. The government and lawmakers from the government-aligned National Liberation and Social Christian Unity parties had argued that the delay in the bill´s approval would put the trade pact in jeopardy, and narrowly won a vote to remove this controversial article from the bill amid complaints from the opposition.

But the opposition, headed by the Citizens´ Action Party, or PAC, argued that with the removal of the article, the law was not the same one reviewed and rejected by the Supreme Court. Opposition lawmakers sent the law back to the court on Oct. 17 for a final ruling.

The court ruled that the law with the omission was valid, and government-allied lawmakers who had clamored for a speedy finish to the legislation package were granted their wish.

Costa Rica had already asked Washington for another extension to implement the CAFTA. Washington agreed to move the date from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.

On Oct. 16, the new law — without the intellectual property patent article — was approved in the first vote by a simple majority with 29 votes in favor of the 57 lawmakers, and in the second vote on Nov. 11, securing CAFTA’s implementation at the start of next year.
—Latinamerica Press.

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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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