HomeNewsAn unsolved homicide amid Costa Rica’s Indigenous land disputes | Indigenous Rights

An unsolved homicide amid Costa Rica’s Indigenous land disputes | Indigenous Rights


It was about three hours after sundown on March 18, 2019, when a resident of Yeri, a distant Indigenous settlement close to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, heard the sound of gunfire from his neighbour’s residence. When two policemen arrived on the crime scene a few hours later, they discovered a 59-year-old man mendacity in his bed room with seven 9mm bullet wounds throughout his again.

Information unfold shortly of the homicide of Sergio Rojas, essentially the most distinguished Indigenous chief within the nation’s current historical past.

Carlos Alvarado, the president of Costa Rica on the time, described Rojas’s dying as “tragic”, not just for Indigenous peoples but additionally for the entire nation.

Rojas, the chief of the Bribri tribe, had fought to reclaim Indigenous ancestral land, the overwhelming majority of which had been illegally occupied since at the very least the Sixties.

Land is important to the histories and identities of Indigenous individuals all over the world, together with these in Costa Rica. Their relationship to a given territory is usually familial and non secular, to not point out important to sustaining their agricultural livelihoods and life-style near nature. Rojas fought not just for land as an financial useful resource, however for what he believed to be the cultural integrity and dignity of his individuals.

However he had been a controversial determine.

In 2010, he launched a marketing campaign to reclaim land, ensuing within the seizure of 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of farms and houses owned by individuals his followers didn’t recognise as Indigenous.

On the time of his dying, he was being investigated by the native Public Prosecutor’s Workplace for allegedly misappropriating practically $800,000 price of funds as president of the native governing physique.

A photo of the grave of Sergio Rojas, with a cross on a little hill and a flower near the cross.
The grave of Sergio Rojas every week after his burial in April 2019. Throughout the Indigenous territory of Salitre, the neighborhood mourns his dying, though debate continues to encompass his life. Lots of Rojas’s Indigenous neighbours didn’t approve of his strategies and say they like peaceable methods of preserving their tradition [Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]

Contentious historical past

Rojas’s legacy is undergirded by a protracted and complicated historical past of competition over land in Costa Rica.

Authorized recognition of Costa Rica’s 24 Indigenous territories has been a protracted and convoluted course of because the Nineteen Thirties. A scarcity of constitutional assurances for property and cultural rights spurred a long time of stress, which led to the gunfire that took Rojas’s life.

On the coronary heart of the violence has been a 1977 regulation that sowed confusion about who may personal property in Indigenous areas. The nation’s eight tribes, who make up 2 p.c of Costa Rica’s inhabitants of 5 million, dwell principally in self-governed, distant corners of the nation the place poverty is excessive, entry to social providers is minimal, and disputes over territory are left unmitigated by authorities or police forces.

The regulation gave the Bribri and one other tribe, the Teribe, authorized rights to 11,700 hectares (29,000 acres) of land with out allocating funds to compensate displaced non-Indigenous residents, regardless of a obscure stipulation that they might obtain fee.

The failure of the federal government to compensate landowners or management the unlawful sale of land to outsiders has resulted within the displacement of individuals on each side of the disputes.

In the meantime, debate about who is taken into account Indigenous is sort of as contentious because the battle for land tenure itself. Tribes have various distinctive qualifiers for certification, a course of fraught with disputes – the Bribri, for instance, insist on categorical proof of a Bribri mom, whereas the Teribe settle for Teribe lineage on both the maternal or paternal facet inside six generations.

An illustration of a map of the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica.
[Olivier Kugler/DAWNING]

Unsolved homicide

Rojas, who grew to become a lightning rod on this battle, suffered a earlier try on his life in 2012 when somebody fired at his automobile.

In response, the Inter-American Fee on Human Rights – a regional physique with ethical authority however little enamel – in 2015 ordered the Costa Rican authorities to undertake precautionary measures to guard the Bribri and different Indigenous individuals and examine any hazard they confronted. Critics have mentioned that no efficient safeguards had been put in place, significantly within the case of Rojas.

His homicide stays unresolved, more and more mired in controversy. In September 2020, investigators supervised by the Lawyer Common’s Workplace introduced the dismissal of the case, arguing an absence of enough proof after 18 months of secretive work.

No official suspects had been produced by the investigation, though the wrongdoer is extensively thought of by Indigenous activists to be both a political adversary of Rojas or an individual displaced by land invasions.

Following a public outcry, the tiny court docket in Buenos Aires, the small capital of the Puntarenas area the place Rojas lived and died, declared it might resume the probe. In January 2021, a human rights fee inside the Legislative Meeting within the Costa Rican capital San José urged the central authorities to reopen the case. Nothing tangible has transpired since.

Who decides who’s Indigenous?

Right now, Rojas’s followers argue that authorities inaction leaves them no choice however to forcefully invade property inhabited by these they deem non-Indigenous. “I’ll cease at nothing to proceed Rojas’s legacy,” says Felipe Figueroa, who took over to guide the land reclamation motion after his dying.

“We’re prepared with weapons if mandatory,” explains Jeffrey Villanueva, an Indigenous chief impressed by Rojas.

On the alternative facet, those that have misplaced their land really feel deserted by the federal government. “My combat is towards the federal government for not compensating me as promised by regulation,” says William Vega. Fifteen males with machetes who thought of him non-Indigenous seized his property 10 years in the past.

On the court docket in Buenos Aires, lots of of instances mount from all sides of the battle associated to land reclamation, together with tried murder, land misappropriation, and assault with a weapon.

Jean Carlo Cespedes, one in every of two judges within the area who preside over Indigenous land rights instances, mentioned the central query within the persevering with feuds is who has the best to outline who’s Indigenous.

A number of organisations in every territory declare to certify identification, which suggests “everybody has an interpretation of the regulation designed to assist their facet,” based on Cespedes. Nobody centralised physique has the ability to resolve most disputes.

With out options from nationwide leaders, the combat continues, essentially the most seen battle enjoying out between Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours. But Indigenous individuals are not essentially united of their pursuit of justice – some proceed Rojas’s legacy whereas others disagree with it. Others who think about themselves to be Indigenous will not be recognised as such.

In distant communities removed from San José and the court docket, stress simmers between neighbours.

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