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.