Following murder of Indigenous leader, Costa Rican government and Indigenous groups hold talks

In April this year (2019), we added to the TVOD website a report about the assassination of Sergio Rojas, President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre in southern Costa Rica. As a follow-up, we can now report that the office of Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has issued an official statement that bilateral negotiations between the government and the Bribri and Teribe indigenous peoples are ongoing. Rojas was also the coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica.

Following the killing of Rojas, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) urged the Costa Rican government to take all necessary actions to resolve the killing of the land rights defender as well as to guarantee the protection of the people of Salitre. Costa Rica’s deputy minister stressed the commitment of the government to comply with precautionary measures established by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and “to continue in a constructive process of dialogue and respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples within the framework of the Inter-American Human Rights System.”

Rojas was one of the beneficiaries of the IACHR’s precautionary measure. Vanessa Jimenez, the lawyer who filed the case before the IACHR, noted that the Costa Rican state is responsible for not enacting the precautionary measures. There have been ongoing land ownership conflicts involving 12,000 hectares of land that were distributed to the Indigenous peoples of the southern region of Costa Rica under a 1977 Indigenous edict.

Rojas (pictured below) was murdered on 18th March this year (2019) and it is believed that the gunmen who killed him did so due to his defence of the Bribri’s struggle to regain their rights over the 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica that was originally pledged to them by a 1938 agreement with the government.

Sergio Rojas


Indigenous Costa Rican activist murdered

In Chapter 9 of The Violence of Development website we try to represent the scale and nature of the threat of violence suffered by Central American people. Undoubtedly, out of the seven Central American countries, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador feature more frequently than the other four, but the following report of the assassination of Costa Rican indigenous leader Jehry Rivera makes it clear that rights activists throughout all the Central American nations are vulnerable as targets if they try to defend their rights and object against the interests of the powerful.

z jehry rivera rivera

Jehry Rivera Rivera (shown right), an indigenous leader from Térraba in southern Costa Rica, was shot dead in February this year. His murder shocked Costa Rica and is associated with land disputes between the Terribe indigenous people and land owners. The Terribe were occupying and reclaiming land used by ranchers.

The assassination took place in an area in which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had issued protective measures for the indigenous population as a result of the constant threats they had been receiving from land owners who were seeking to appropriate their territory.

Rivera’s assassination occurred almost a year after the attack on another Costa Rican indigenous leader, Sergio Rojas, who was also killed by hitmen despite protective measures that had been issued for him.

The Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) suggested that

“this crime against the indigenous rights defender Jehry Rivera splashes with blood the hypocrisy of the Costa Rican state, which claims to protect human rights, but its policies leave all indigenous peoples abandoned and forgotten. Although Costa Rican legislation recognises these lands as part of the indigenous territories, governments do not apply the law. They protect the interests of racist groups.”

Human rights defenders also criticised the Costa Rican corporate media for its negative reports on land recoveries carried out by indigenous peoples. The media ignore the fact that companies have been invading and appropriating indigenous territories for years. Many journalists even encourage violence against those attempting to recover their land.

Representatives of the affected communities claimed that the inaction of the government enabled the violence and gives impunity to those committing the violence.

Our contacts in the village of Longo Maï in the south of Costa Rica have provided us with some background information on indigenous issues in Costa Rica related to this case and this was translated for us from the original German by Kerstin Hansen.

Indigenous peoples make up about 2 per cent of the Costa Rican population (approximately 100,000 people) and there are 24 indigenous territories and 8 indigenous ethnic groups in the country.

The biggest problems in these territories are caused by megaprojects such as hydroelectric dams. In the south, invasions of indigenous territories have been particularly common: for instance, 88 per cent of the Terribe’s territory is not occupied by the Terribe. In the China Kicha territory (which is very close to Longo Maï) this loss of land is even higher (97 per cent). Yet in 1977 a law was passed making it illegal to sell land in these territories, and this was reinforced by the United Nations ILO 169 declaration that was signed by Costa Rica.

For the last 40 years, however, practically all Costa Rican governments have failed to enforce the legal measures to ensure indigenous autonomy. In the last ten years indigenous peoples have therefore taken matters increasingly into their own hands to reclaim lands. In March 2019, one of their activists, Sergio Rojas, was killed by twelve bullets. A few days ago, Jehry Rivera was murdered in Térraba.

And the following statement from the village supports the views expressed above by Costa Rican rights defenders.

“This is proof of institutionalist racism, a relic of colonialism, and an unbelievably cynical discourse which presents this country as an ecologist’s paradise to the outside world while failing to seriously protect ethnic groups who follow a model of ecologically sound agricultural practices and ‘buen vivir’.”

Sources

  • Telesur, 25 February 2020, ‘Costa Rica: Jehry Rivera Dies While Defending Indigenous Lands’.
  • Telesur, 27 February 2020, ‘Costa Rican Indigenous Denounce Government Inaction Regarding Murders’.
  • Franfurter Rundschau, February 2020, ‘Indigenous activist murdered in Costa Rica’.
  • Roland Spendlingwimmer, 27 February 2020, personal communication.
  • Agencia Delfino.cr, February 2020, Untitled news release.

Costa Rican Indigenous Rights Defender Murdered

The following is a summary of reports from Telesur and other press sources of the assassination of a Costa Rican Indigenous Bribri land rights activist who was shot and killedlast month (March this year, 2019) in his home in Salitre territory.

Bribri territory, Costa Rica

Indigenous land rights defender Sergio Rojas was assassinated by armed gunmen who shot the activist as many as 15 times at around 11:45 pm in his home, according to his neighbours, in southern Costa Rica.

Rojas was President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre and coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica. He was a staunch defender of the Bribri of Salitre Indigenous people who have been fighting for years to regain their rights to over 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica pledged to them by a 1938 government agreement.

This wasn’t the first time Rojas’ life was threatened. In 2012, shortly after the Bribri gained back some of their lands, Rojas was shot at eight times by armed men, but he escaped the shooting unscathed.

The Bribri and other Indigenous peoples have managed to recuperate control of some of their native lands but have become targets of violence from those who oppose their rights and sovereignty. Last December, men armed with guns and machetes held hostage two Bribri women and eight children on land they had recovered in Salitre territory.

According to the women, when police arrived they spoke “aggressively” toward them and asked for their land deeds, which the authorities claimed were invalid. According to the testimonies given to Tree People Programme, the police made no effort to arrest the hostage-takers who escaped.

As this website often reports on the violence and threats suffered by defenders of land rights, environmental rights and human rights in the northern triangle of Central America, it is worth emphasising here that such dangers are also experienced in countries such as Costa Rica whose environment-friendly reputation is high. Capitalist interests will use violence to overcome local objections and resistance wherever it occurs.

Jehry Rivera murder trial

Contributed by Jiri Spendlingwimmer, Costa Rican anthropologist.

Translated by Liz Richmond, who contributed extra material.

In March this year we added to The Violence of Development website a report of the assassination of Jehry Rivera Rivera, an indigenous land defender in Costa Rica. We recently received news of the case from Jiri Spendlingwimmer, an anthropologist and resident of the village of Longo Maï in southern Costa Rica. We are grateful to Jiri and to Liz Richmond for extra information and for the translation.

Jehry Rivera was assassinated by several shots from a firearm on 24 February 2020 in the indigenous territory of Térraba, Buenos Aires, in the southern zone of Costa Rica. The previous night 150 to 200 non-indigenous farmers had organised and formed a mob to surround the town of Térraba, burned land, insulted, harassed and attacked a group of indigenous people who had recovered their ancestral territory. The following table summarises the acts of violence against indigenous people in the southern zone of Costa Rica around the town of Buenos Aires.

Given the incapacity and bias of the Courts of Justice of Buenos Aires, the judicial process for the murder of Jehry Rivera was assigned to a prosecutor in the capital, San José. It is expected that at some point a trial will be held. Today, however, there are no accused, nor a date for the start of the trial. The same impunity was evident regarding the murder of human rights defender and indigenous leader Sergio Rojas in Bribri de Salitre territory, assassinated in March 2019 – https://theviolenceofdevelopment.com/costa-rican-indigenous-rights-defender-murdered/ and https://theviolenceofdevelopment.com/following-murder-of-indigenous-leader-costa-rican-government-and-indigenous-groups-hold-talks/

Escalation of violence against indigenous land reclaimers

The Ditsö group in Costa Rica is a NGO that seeks to defend indigenous and campesino communities and to protect natural resources. Ditsö reports that between February and March 2020 there has been an escalation in violence against land rights defenders in four indigenous territories: Térraba, China Kichá, Salitre and Cabagra. The Cabécares indigenous people of China Kichá have suffered violent incidents including death threats, mob assaults, detonations of firearms, invasions in recovered land, fires, road blockades, physical assaults and chemical attack.

To illustrate the fact that these are not just recent tensions and incidents, it is worth recalling that in 2013 Jehry suffered a brutal attack for lodging a complaint regarding illegal felling of trees and deforestation in their territory – https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/complicity-and-silence-taking-land-indigenous-peoples-costa-rica

The Costa Rican State, which is at the centre of national and international criticism, has had to make greater effort to try to settle the historical debt with the indigenous peoples and resolve the conflict. In China Kichá, in May 2020, direct intervention was necessary by the Deputy Minister of Public Security Eduardo Solano to guarantee the removal of livestock from a reclaimed farm and to calm the situation.

Land disputes in southern Costa Rica

By Jiri Spendlingwimmer with material from Liz Richmond.

October 2020 

This section of Chapter 8 of The Violence of Development website includes articles on the assassinations of Jehry Rivera and Sergio Rojas, Indigenous Costa Ricans who fought for the rights of their Indigenous communities in the south of the country.  Jiri Spendlingwimmer, a Costa Rican anthropologist, has sent us an update on the trials and on the tense situation in China Kichá, one of the Indigenous territories experiencing the conflicts between the claims of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Jiri’s account was translated by Liz Richmond who added more details about the situation. We are grateful to both Jiri and Liz for the news and article.

 

The case against the Indigenous people of China Kichá

Jiri writes: An eviction is pending against the Indigenous people of China Kicha (20 minutes from Cooperative Longo Mai). For the moment it is suspended due to the pressure of solidarity groups organised throughout Costa Rica – see below.

 

Update on a visit to China Kichá by Jiri Spendlingwimmer (27 Sep 2020)

This week a small delegation from the Movimiento Ríos Vivos (Living Rivers Movement) went to visit and show solidarity with the Indigenous land defenders at the Kono Ju farm, in China Kichá. For me it was my first visit to the territory.

We were surprised at how the police control access to the area; there is a permanent Police post around 1 km before the farm; and the police check each vehicle and person who enters, recording every car registration and personal identity numbers.  They determine who enters, and possibly investigate them.

The land defenders are very brave; they are resisting this very difficult fight whilst under constant threat.  In summer their crops were burnt, along with their water supply hoses. In total there are 38 people, including families with children. They have some necessities such as first aid kits, torches, batteries and face masks.

An eviction date is scheduled for the Konu Ju families for 29 September 2020, however due to the support and solidarity of individuals and groups nationally, there has been a temporary suspension of eviction, declared 25 September 2020.  Albeit temporary it is important, as this legal action will allow for more time.

The government’s reaction was reflected in a statement from the Vice Minister of the Presidency in Citizen Dialogue, Randall Otárola, in which he positioned himself for the temporary suspension of eviction. However he did not propose a concrete alternative solution, or speak in favour of granting the Indigenous land defenders their legitimate territory.

On the contrary, Deputy José María Villalta of the Frente Amplio suggests, among other solutions, that the executive power could disobey the orders of the judge, as these are contrary to the International Treaties applicable in Costa Rica regarding the autonomy and rights of Indigenous peoples, which are above national legislation.

At the same time, the Public Ministry dismissed and recommended the closing of the case regarding the cause of homicide of Sergio Rojas, land defender assassinated in March 2019 in the Indigenous territory of Salitre.  This sets a dangerous precedent, as it grants impunity to the murder of Sergio Rojas, and the same could therefore occur with the case of Jehry Rivera. This gives the green light to racism, violence and deaths towards Indigenous people in the process of recovering their territories, which has recently extended from the Southern regions of Costa Rica to the North, in the Indigenous territory of Maleku.

 

The case of Sergio Rojas

Sergio Rojas was assassinated in March 2019. Rojas was President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre and coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica. He was a staunch defender of the Bribri of Salitre Indigenous people who have been fighting for years to regain their rights to over 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica pledged to them by a 1938 government agreement.

Jiri writes: The biggest scandal is that the courts decided to close and file away the case of Sergio Rojas with no further action.  They claim that they cannot determine which of the three suspects is responsible for his murder.

 

 

 

 

Maya Communities Respond to Land Predation and FPIC Violation in Belize

Levi Gahman, Shelda-Jane Smith, and Filiberto Penados

December 15, 2020

We are grateful to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) for permission to reproduce this article on The Violence of Development website. NACLA Report on the Americas is a progressive magazine covering Latin America and its relationship with the United States – nacla.org  More details on the authors, to whom we are also very grateful, are given at the end of the article. The original article can be found at: https://nacla.org/news/2020/12/13/maya-land-fpic-belize

Even after the Maya’s watershed 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice land rights victory, the Government of Belize continues to condone land grabs in Indigenous territory.

Survey workers in an unmarked vehicle place survey pegs without FPIC near Laguna, Belize. (Julian Cho Society)

Maya villages in Toledo District, Belize reported that during October [2020] speculators illegally opened survey lines in an attempted land grab.  The lines were established without Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), cut through forests and corn and cacao fields, and the living spaces and homes of Maya families. The survey activity was reported in a press release issued by the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA).

State-sanctioned FPIC violations against Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan Maya communities have been going on for decades. But these most recent encroachments call into question the Government of Belize (GoB)’s commitment to recognizing Indigenous land rights. They occur five years after the Maya won an unprecedented legal victory in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) regarding the recognition of Indigenous land rights. The 2015 CCJ decision affirmed that communal land tenure of Maya communities is commensurate with property rights found in the Belizean constitution. Since the ruling, however, the GoB has not complied and refused to meaningfully engage in delimiting and protecting Maya lands, which are conditions of the CCJ order.

Maya Alcaldes (traditional leaders) led investigations into the recent unauthorized surveying and found that it involves foreign parties, non-Maya individuals from outside of Toledo District, and speculators from southern Belize. Surveyors were claiming between 30 and 400 acres of land, which contravenes the 2015 CCJ order, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which the GoB adopted in 2007. Land predation of this nature, which violates FPIC, has historically facilitated dispossession, corporate extraction, and environmental damage to Maya lands.

Cease and Desist: The Maya Response

Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan villages are located throughout the southernmost region of Belize, Toledo District. Within Toledo District, there are 39 Maya communities that comprise over 20,000 Maya people. Each community has two traditional leaders, called alcaldes, meaning 78 alcaldes constitute the TAA. The TAA is the main representative body and highest central authority of the Maya people in the region, which has historically had a complex relationship with the national government. The communities are also supported by an autonomous social movement, the MLA, which is made up of Maya land defenders.

Upon being alerted of the incursions by village leaders, the MLA and TAA issued a formal statement reminding the GoB that it is legally obligated to, “…cease and abstain from any acts, whether by the agents of the government itself or third parties… …that might adversely affect the value, use, or enjoyment of the lands that are used and occupied by the Maya villages, unless such acts are preceded by consultation with [Maya people] in order to obtain their informed consent.”

In an interview reproving the encroachments shortly after they were reported, Maya land defender and MLA spokesperson, Cristina Coc, pointed out that the increase in FPIC violations were coinciding with the run-up to the national election in Belize, which took place on November 11, stating, “…one has to ask the question whether or not it is politically motivated, and whether or not it is related to what we have seen historically in Belize, where around campaign time politicians offer land in exchange for votes.”

Upon denouncing the attempted land grabs at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), the MLA and TAA submitted a request for precautionary measures against the GoB to halt all illegal activity. Rather than an isolated issue related to the ownership of private property, movement activists reiterated that grabbing communal Maya lands poses a grave threat to the material wellbeing and cultural survival of Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan people who are experiencing the slow violence of dispossession and extractivism.

This is a story about Indigenous resistance to ongoing assertions of post-colonial power, capitalist logics, and Western worldviews. The GoB is based upon a Westminster model of governance imposed by British imperialists that has failed former colonies all over the world. Moreover, the GoB has a track record of abetting multinational corporations while repudiating Indigenous people’s claims to communal land ownership, notions of complex tenure, and right to self-determination. Coc, who has bore witness to decades of state-sponsored FPIC violations, summed up the GoB’s persistent penchant for land grabbing by stating, “there’s always been incursions on Mayan land; this is exactly why we went to the courts (CCJ) to seek affirmation of protection.”

 

Denial and Disavowal: The State Response

The GoB’s response to the Maya came on October 30. Patrick Faber, leader of the then ruling United Democratic Party, admitted that, in accordance with the CCJ decision, the presence of surveyors without the consent of the Maya would indeed be illegal. But he dismissed the allegations by the Maya and Coc by stating, “I listened very carefully as Miss Coc spoke and there is no evidence to that [surveying] happening… …She is only telling you what she saw and what people reported is happening but no concrete evidence of anything happening.”

Despite the Maya issuing written reports with photographs to both the Lands and Surveys Department and Attorney General, the GoB rejected the claims by suggesting there was no evidence. Incidentally, for nearly a year in 2015-2016, Coc, along with 12 other Maya activists, were detained, jailed, and dragged through the courts by the GoB after protecting a sacred heritage site against similar incursions. Despite the criminalization, all the charges levied against the Maya environmental defenders were eventually dismissed.

Similar to Faber’s response, Belize’s Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte, implying the Maya were merely trying to make the government look bad, said to Coc, “…if you have a legal issue ma’am, go dah court. To me, you don’t really have a legal issue because if you had a real legal issue, you would go to court, you wouldn’t go to the media.” Peyrefitte then went on to suggest the Maya wanted a “separate country” and that Indigenous people’s self-determination was irrelevant in the face of state power, asserting, “they [the Maya] may not like to hear that… …nothing can stop the executive of the country to do what it feels like it needs to do for the betterment of the country.”

A survey line cut through a forest near the Maya community of Golden Stream. (Julian Cho Society)

The Attorney General’s response ignores the actual allegations of land grabbing being made against the GoB. Instead, Peyrefitte suggests the encroachment claims are irrelevant because “they want their own country,” which is a rhetorical attempt to undermine both Coc’s credibility and the validity of the reports issued by Maya Alcaldes. The state’s evasive response was a divisive disavowal of Maya land rights. And by prioritizing the desires of private capital over Indigenous people’s customary systems, relationships with the environment, and livelihood strategies, which the GoB has a history of, it is also  hostile and dehumanizing.

 

State Authoritarianism vs. Indigenous Autonomy

When we consider the GoB’s response alongside the ongoing struggle for Indigenous land rights in southern Belize, three issues require urgent attention.

Firstly, good faith leadership is lacking because the government refuses to investigate the claims of Maya Alcaldes. The GoB insists that because the Maya used the media to raise awareness about FPIC violations, they do not have a ‘real’ issue. This argument is nonsensical and contrived.

Secondly, when Indigenous people report violations to government agencies, agencies are slow to investigate––if they investigate at all. Moreover, arguing Indigenous people must always operate (i.e. “go to court”) and exist on the state’s terms is colonial. This is not an uncommon refrain from the state, though, as the GoB realizes that going to court for rural subsistence-based Maya communities is an expensive and protracted process. Certain government agents also realize that, even if the courts rule against the state, it can get away with violating decisions and rule of law, as it has done before.

Why, when under legal mandate to protect Maya land rights, are the claims discounted without investigation? Furthermore, in addition to photographs and reports, what would satisfy the state’s need for and definition of ‘concrete evidence’?

Lastly, the imperious tones of Faber and Peyrefitte’s responses are not only dismissive, but dangerous––and not only for the Maya. Peyrefitte says, “…nothing can stop the executive of the country to do what it feels like it needs to do for the betterment of the country.” This is authoritarian nationalism par excellence and should concern the whole of Belize.

The GoB’s lack of rights-based leadership and draconian posturing is nothing new. Back in 2015, when the CCJ ruling was passed in favour of the Maya, the GoB’s Attorney General was quick to diminish Maya customary tenure by stating Indigenous land rights “cannot trump the constitutional authority of the government.” Hence, the state appears only to be willing to take the lead on refuting the rights of Indigenous people and fettering Maya autonomy.

Maya leaders afforded the GoB the opportunity to demonstrate good faith adherence to consent processes and strengthen its relationship with Maya communities. It was also a chance for state officials to denounce FPIC violations, prevent deleterious land encroachments, and uphold its obligation to protect customary Maya land rights, as ordered by the CCJ. Instead, the GoB doubted the veracity of the Alcaldes’ reports, attacked the credibility of Maya people, attempted to turn the larger population against the Maya, and declared to all citizens of Belize it could impose upon them whatever it wanted, arbitrarily, for “the betterment of the country.”

 

The Reality of Land Grabs under Covid-19

These encroachments on Maya land during the pandemic threaten their livelihoods, says, MLA spokesperson Cristina Coc:

…not only are farms and milpas being affected, but even residential areas where we have our own villages living. This is concerning because it impacts our livelihood, and we have seen throughout the Covid pandemic how valuable land is, and how valuable the production of land is for the food security of Mayan communities and Belizeans alike.

We recognize that the government cannot feed our people, they cannot employ all of our people, they cannot rescue us from this economic spiral that we’re experiencing. But what we can do is provide full security for our people by protecting their tenure on the land…

…it is very alarming that the government would allow such actions–––the Maya communities have been informed and are aware that there is a standing consent order that affirms our rights and protects ancestral rights to lands and territories.

The authoritarian behaviour and contemptuous rhetoric of the GoB continues to disrupt Indigenous life and close avenues for Maya people to exercise their rights and have their voices heard. It is also signalling to all Belizean people that the state is more than willing to sacrifice the rights and wellbeing of the marginalized at the altar of ‘development.’


Filiberto Penados is Chair of the Julian Cho Society and technical advisor to the Toledo Alcaldes Association and Maya Leaders Alliance. His research focuses on Indigenous future-making.

Shelda-Jane Smith’s research focuses on the conceptual, social, and political dimensions of contemporary psychology and biomedical practice, with an emphasis on youth wellness.

Levi Gahman focuses on emancipatory praxis, environmental defence, and engaged movement research. He is author of Land, God, & Guns: Settler Colonialism & Masculinity (Zed Scholar).

This research was supported by a Heritage, Dignity, and Violence Programme Grant from the British Academy under the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (Award: HDV190078), for which all the authors are co-investigators and collaborators.