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Indigenous Peoples

Towards more land access and greater protection for indigenous peoples in Costa Rica

07 December 2021

Activists light candles during a vigil for the murder of Costa Rican indigenous rights activist Sergio Rojas in 2019 © Reuters

"When I was a kid, I believed the United Nations was like some kind of unreachable other planet," says Cristhian González Gómez. "But now I am working with them, indigenous peoples in my country are speaking at the table, and our voices are being heard."

González Gómez is an indigenous leader from Costa Rica's southern Boruca territory. He has been working with UN since 2018, focusing on protecting and promoting the rights of his peoples.

There are eight groups of indigenous peoples in Costa Rica, comprising around 114,000 people, or 2.4% of the population. Despite the legal recognition of indigenous peoples' right to their lands and territories, in practice, there is limited protection afforded for them to exercise these rights, with some indigenous communities attacked as a result of conflict over their land.

Against this backdrop of land takeovers and increasing conflict, threats against indigenous peoples' rights defenders and leaders are ongoing, and pervasive. It was the brutal murder of prominent rights defenders Sergio Rojas in 2019 and Jherry Rivera in 2020 that shocked González Gómez and moved him to continue his fight for indigenous rights.

"Most indigenous leaders, women in particular, have at some point felt fear and anguish over such threats," explains González Gómez. "Yet we have no choice but to get up and move on."

Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples

A new initiative by UN Human Rights – in partnership with the Resident Coordinator's Office and other UN agencies - is aiming to put the rights of indigenous peoples first. It involves a comprehensive prevention strategy, which analyses risks faced by indigenous peoples, and forms part of UN Human Rights' Surge Initiative that was launched in 2019 to address inequalities and strengthen focus on economic, social and cultural rights.

Focusing on access to land in four affected communities in the south of the country, the initiative has brought together indigenous leaders, including women, local and national authorities, as well as the Costa Rican National Human Rights Institution.

Wide-reaching impacts

"This is helping to build bridges of communication between indigenous peoples, including women leaders, and the State," explains Ana Maria Upegui Cuartas. "We have been able to take indigenous rights issues to the highest powers in the country, including the Judiciary."

The issue also has the attention of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, she says, due to precautionary measures taken in 2015 to protect the Terraba and Salitre peoples. This has helped to put indigenous rights on the map in not only Costa Rica, but all throughout the Americas region.

For González Gómez, the impacts of the initiative have been wide-reaching. Indigenous peoples and communities are finally being heard, he says, and UN agencies and the government are making positive changes to respond to their demands.

This week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Cali Tzay, will be visiting the country to assess and advise on priority issues and concerns.

"Accountability is improving," he says. "Government officials are listening to our recommendations and making more concerted efforts to visit our communities. The space to speak has opened up, and we are taking these visits as opportunities to demand our rights."

Taking steps towards equality

Although González Gómez is pleased with the progress of the initiative, he recognises there is a long way to go for Costa Rica's indigenous peoples to achieve equality.

The government needs to continue their dialogue with indigenous peoples, he says, and to keep on placing indigenous rights within policy action and legislation change. He also encourages wider employment of indigenous peoples in national and international institutions, to ensure meaningful and concrete participation in decisions that affect their rights.

The other important step is to have a stronger focus on young people and women.

"We will arrive at a much better place when young people feel they have the tools to stand up for their own rights, and those of their communities," he says. "Indigenous women also require a dedicated space to express their needs and concerns, and to have their voices heard at the policy table.

"That is how I see a future with equality."

This story is part of a series to celebrate Human Rights Day 2021, under the theme "Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights." Join us to help spread the word that we're all human, and all equal. Find out more

Upcoming event in Costa Rica

The 4th Hernan Santa Cruz Dialogue will take place on 8 December 2021 at 9.00-11.45 GMT-6/Costa Rica. The event will focus on environmental rights and their interlinkages with development, sustainability, and peace in the time of COVID-19. The event is organized by UN Human Rights, jointly with the University for Peace (UPEACE) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Register here.