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COSTA RICA
Indigenous discrimination
Bryan Kay
12/21/2007
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Country´s isolated indigenous communities forgotten by the state and even international organizations, some members say.

Héctor Sánchez stops his taxi in the middle of a country road deep inside Bri Bri country and ushers inside a client who has waved him down.
The young man, a member of the Bri Bri indigenous group, is heading into town and joins another two fares the taxi driver has already picked up en route.

Sánchez drives the mile or so to the municipal capital — also called Bri Bri — and drops off his fares, one after the other.

The young man, the last to disembark, pulls out a 10,000-colon note (about US$20) to pay the mere 500 (about $1) fare.

Sánchez waves him away. “Later, there’s no hurry. Adios,” he says. It’s a gesture seldom, if ever, witnessed in the bustling capital, San José.

But Sánchez is in Talamanca, the southeastern region of Costa Rica that is home to the native Bri Bri and their protected reserve, an area where he made his home 15 years ago.

He may be a white Costa Rican, but he could not be further removed from the heavily Westernized culture of urban Costa Rica.

He was attracted, he says, by the area’s tranquility. The Bri Bri, he adds, welcomed him with open arms, treating him as an equal.

That privilege, say members of the Bri Bri, is not one often afforded in San José, especially by the government, especially to them.

The Bri Bri have long campaigned for equal rights and a better deal from state coffers.

Economic discrimination
Community leaders recount dozens discrimination allegations, from simple mistreatment in everyday activities such as taking a bus, to cash supposedly destined for Talamanca never arriving, including donations said to have come from European Union countries for new ambulances.

They also point to the disparity in quality of services between their region and elsewhere. Talamanca is one of the poorest cantons, or districts — if not the poorest — in the country, according to economic indicators.
But despite their efforts, the Bri Bri, along with other, smaller indigenous groups in the area, have recently recorded yet another alleged affront to their peoples.

This time they have identified the perpetrator as the administrator of the local Red Cross, an organization which is supposed to serve the public in times of need, and, ultimately, emergency.

The Bri Bri have a list of complaints before the Public Defender of Inhabitants, a central government body, detailing incidents which, they claim, include abuses, discrimination and mistreatment.

In one example, a member of the community who sought the assistance of an ambulance for his wife was told one was not available after calling the local service operator.

But when he arrived in Bri Bri, which houses the Red Cross building, he saw one parked outside the local school.

Another complaint alleges that international donations earmarked for indigenous groups in Talamanca were never received by the supposed beneficiaries.

The administrator denied he was to blame, but he did not write off the allegations, and said it was part of a campaign of persecution by a small band of people.

But Timoteo Jackson, a Bri Bri indigenous community leader, said the Red Cross incident is just the latest in a long line of discriminatory acts against his people.

“We have had this problem [with the Red Cross] for many years,” he explained. “There is so much discrimination for us. “When I go to Ecuador and say I am a Bri Bri of Talamanca they are surprised and show respect.”

Everyday acts
Saray Ramirez Vindas, a San Jose-based journalist and a Bri Bri, said she has suffered some despicable acts of discrimination. She explained how on one occasion she was asked to leave a restaurant purely because of the color of her skin. A staff member even made the suggestion she was a prostitute and ordered her — and her colleague from the United States — to vacate the premises quietly.

”It has happened to me so many times,” she said. “You know when something might be about to happen because you are stared at and studied. ”When I see someone who looks like a Bri Bri or other indigenous, I always make a point of saying hello or helping them.”
Part of Talamanca’s downfall is that it is practically cut off from the rest of the country.

According to Jackson, there are around 14,000 indigenous Costa Ricans in the area, but many do not speak Spanish.

The region stretches inland from the Caribbean coast over mountains covered by thick jungle. Its rolling valleys are carpeted with regimented lines of banana plantations, one of the primary areas of employment. Vehicles heading from the coast to the heart of Bri Bri country must first negotiate an uneven dirt track through the hilly terrain, climbing and descending as the contours of the land unfold.

A complaint was lodged about four years ago about the state of the roads in Talamanca, yet their primitively prevails today.

Hidden among the trees the Bri Bri co-exist peacefully with their lush surroundings, many of them in traditional thatch-roofed houses built on stilts.

Sociologist Maycol Morales Pita, himself a Bri Bri, says he has been on the receiving end of the prejudice shown towards native Costa Ricans.
The nearest hospital is in the port city of Limon, about a one hour or more journey over patchy road surface.

“The Red Cross situation is discrimination with another face,” he said.


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Timoteo Jackson outside his home in Watsi, also a Bri Bri welcome center. (Photo: Bryan Kay)
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