In Langscape Magazine Articles

Legal Rights and Spiritual Responsibilities: Indigenous Land Struggles in Costa Rica

July 19, 2023
Indigenous Peoples fight for their land rights to uphold their inherent responsibilities to the earth.

WORDS Felipe Montoya, Gilbert González, Ana María Martínez, Julie Hard, and Mathieu Poirier | IMAGES Felipe Montoya

A mural at Yimba Cajc.

Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) for many; Niña Iriria (Girl Iriria) for the Bribri. “She is a being, like us. We care for her, just as she provides for us,” declares Bribri Elder Lesner Figueroa. Shown here is a mural at Yimba Cajc, Indigenous village of the Brunka people, painted by Indigenous students in the village.


“Many people call her Mother Earth, but for us Bribri, she is the Girl Iriria. When Sibö made the Creation, he made the Girl Iriria. From that moment on, it is the responsibility of all the Bribri clans to protect the Girl Iriria. She is a being, just like us. And it is up to us to take care of her, just as she provides for us.” These were some of the words that Bribri Elder Lesner Figueroa from the TwaDiWak clan shared with us in January 2022 while we were producing We Walk the Earth, a documentary on Indigenous territorial struggles in southern Costa Rica. 

“Don’t call us Indigenous,” Figueroa added, “call us Bribri. The same for the others: call us Maleku, call us Cabécar, call us Bröran. People think we are all the same ethnicity. But we are many different ethnicities, with different cultures, worldviews, and practices.” Costa Rica has eight officially recognized Indigenous Peoples with different languages, cosmologies, and productive practices: the Bribri and Cabécar in the Talamanca Mountain Range; the Ngäbe, Brunka, and Bröran in the southern Pacific region; the Huetar in the Central Valley; the Maleku in the northern Atlantic region; and the Chorotega in the northern Pacific region. While diverse, these Indigenous communities all share several features, not the least of which is their struggle to recover ownership, control, and stewardship over the Indigenous Territories that are rightfully theirs.

There are 8 Indigenous Peoples with 24 Indigenous Territories in Costa Rica.

There are 8 Indigenous Peoples with 24 Indigenous Territories in Costa Rica. “Don’t call us Indigenous,” explains Bribri Elder Lesner Figueroa; instead, he argues, each group should be called by its own name: Bribri, Cabécar, Brunka, Maleku, Bröran, Ngäbe, Huetar, or Chorotega.


In 1977, the government of Costa Rica legislated the creation of twenty-four Indigenous Territories for the country’s eight Indigenous Peoples. Costa Rica — a relatively small country with a land base of 51,000 sq km and with a relatively small Indigenous population of just over 100,000 people, according to the latest census (2010), or barely 2.4% of the total population — set aside a total of 3,344 sq km, or roughly 6.7% of the national land base, to establish these territories.

Some might argue that this was a generous piece of legislation for Indigenous Peoples and a progressive one as compared to what was happening elsewhere in the world. But as Bröran Elder Elides Rivera expressed, this act may also be perceived as a continuation of the colonial practice of reducciones (“reductions”) of Indigenous lands that has been carried out ever since the European conquest over 500 years ago, when all of Costa Rica’s territory was occupied by Indigenous Peoples and when there were many more Indigenous groups before they, too, were “reduced” to the remaining eight ethnicities.

Elides Rivera, Bröran Elder

“This can be seen as continuing the ‘reductions’ of Indigenous lands that has occurred ever since the European conquest over 500 years ago,” Elides Rivera, Bröran Elder, points out.


Nonetheless, the 1977 legislation, referred to as the Indigenous Law, established that at least these twenty-four Indigenous Territories belong solely and exclusively to the Indigenous Peoples who inhabit them. Should there be non-Indigenous landowners occupying parts of these territories from before 1977, the State has the obligation to expropriate and pay for these lands to return them to the rightful Indigenous owners. Any purchase of land by non-Indigenous persons in Indigenous Territories after 1977 is illegal and subject to forced removal by the State. Almost half a century after the promulgation of the Indigenous Law, however, much of the Indigenous Territories remains in the hands of non-Indigenous illegal occupiers. Indigenous communities struggling to have the Indigenous Law respected and their territories returned to them face inaction from the State, violence, and impunity.

Indigenous communities struggling to have the Indigenous Law respected and their territories returned to them face inaction from the State, violence, and impunity.

Enrique Rivera, the oldest of the Bröran Elders we interviewed, recounted how as a young boy he was impressed by the words of a Guatemalan Indigenous man who told stories of future land struggles that were to come. “I was in third grade,” Enrique recalled. “My mind said I had to fight for it. So, ever since I was little, it has been a very arduous struggle. From the heart, fighting.”

Enrique Rivera.

“We cannot relinquish that vitally important relationship with the land that Sibö, or God, gave us,” says Enrique Rivera, Bröran Elder.


Enrique fought for the Indigenous Law of 1977. He walked the territories to gather Indigenous perspectives and to explain the reaches of the law. He fought against logging companies that came to harvest lumber on Indigenous lands and was jailed for that. He took part in the successful struggle against the construction of the Boruca Hydroelectric Dam, slated to be the largest in Central America, confronting powerful economic interests. He then had to fight against the construction of the El Diquís Hydroelectric Dam, a reiteration of the Boruca Dam.

Enrique also fought to establish the Law of Indigenous Autonomy, to once and for all rid Indigenous Territories of so many threats from large-scale projects that threatened their well-being. His was a life of struggle dedicated to securing their Indigenous lands. In his words, “A person without land, we can see, wanders about aimlessly, worried about what to do. But those of us with our plot of land, we can raise our legs crossed, as we say — so calm because we have a place to walk. We feel that our generation walks.”

‘An Indigenous person without land is a dead person. That’s what our grandparents would say.’

As Yamileth Figueroa, a Bribri woman, aptly put it, “An Indigenous person without land is a dead person. That’s what our grandparents would say.” She and many other Indigenous activists — mostly women — have been involved in a process of recovering Indigenous lands from non-Indigenous illegal occupants.

Yamileth Figueroa

“An Indigenous person without land is a dead person. That’s what our grandparents would say,” Yamileth Figueroa, a Bribri woman engaged in land recovery struggles, aptly puts it.


Pablo Síbar, a Bröran Elder, recalled that after waiting for almost half a century for the Costa Rican government to follow through with its legislation and being confronted with passive silence and even active discrimination — as occurred in 2010, when a delegation from all the Indigenous Territories arrived at the National Assembly to request a hearing and a firm sentence on the Bill on Indigenous Autonomy, only to be dragged out of the Legislative Assembly by security guards — people decided to fight their struggles through direct action from within their territories.

Pablo Síbar, Bröran Elder

“After we were dragged out of the Legislative Assembly, we decided to take our struggles directly to the territories,” recounts Pablo Síbar, Bröran Elder.


Land recoveries in Indigenous Territories involved extensive planning, community consensus, and brave families willing to put their own bodies in harm’s way when setting up camp on properties illegally in the hands of mostly-absent landowners involved in large-scale cattle ranching. These direct-action land recoveries resolved what decades of State inaction never achieved. However, they also generated violent armed retaliations by non-Indigenous ranchers.

In March 2019, Indigenous leader Sergio Rojas was assassinated in his home in the Indigenous Bribri Territory of Salitre. Six months later, in September 2019, the Judiciary shelved the case for supposed lack of evidence. Shortly thereafter, in February 2020, Bröran Indigenous leader Jehry Rivera was shot five times in the back when returning from a land recovery event. His assassin, captured at the scene of the crime, openly and proudly confessed to the murder but was nevertheless set free.

Enrique Rivera and Digna Rivera, Bröran Elders.

Enrique Rivera and Digna Rivera, Bröran Elders and fighters for Indigenous rights, at the grave of their assassinated son Jehry Rivera, himself an Indigenous leader.


Yet, because “an Indigenous person without land is a dead person,” the struggle to recover Indigenous Territories persists. And it continues not only for their own welfare. As Pablo Síbar, the Bröran Elder, explained, “We do these land recoveries because the land is our life, it is the life of our children, the life of the fauna. When we arrived here, this land was dry and lifeless. Not a single bird nor a single fruit tree was there to be found. Only grass, grass, grass. But now, after recovering the land, there is a cool breeze, birds and animals abound, and we cultivate food. Where we recover the land, there is life, there is joy. We recover the land not only for us but for the entire planet.”

Pablo Síbar, Bröran Elder.

“We recover the land not only for us but for the entire planet,” says Bröran Elder Pablo Síbar.


As so many of the Indigenous people interviewed, both young and old, unequivocally expressed, the right to their territories is firmly established in national legislation through the Indigenous Law of 1977. However, the responsibilities they have to the earth come from a greater power. For some, it is Sibö, or the father of Creation, who put Indigenous Peoples on the land to care for Mother Earth and reciprocate her gifts of food, medicine, and shelter by, in turn, caring for her and protecting her. For others, Earth is the Girl Iriria, created by Sibö, as another being with whom the Bribri people coexist, bound by the social-spiritual norms of mutual respect and care.

Ultimately, it is the spiritual responsibilities derived from their Indigenous cosmogonies that move them to fight for their rights.

Ultimately, it is the spiritual responsibilities derived from their Indigenous cosmogonies, which explain their origins, their place on earth, and their relationship to the lands they inhabit, that move them to fight for their rights established by the laws of the Costa Rican State. It is from their spiritual responsibilities to Earth — Mother Earth, the Girl Iriria — that they derive the power to struggle for their earthly right to the legally established Indigenous Territories.

Gilbert González, Brunka Elder.

Gilbert González, a Brunka Elder, looks across the Térraba River valley to the Indigenous Territories beyond.


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Felipe Montoya is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist with over twenty-five years of experience working with peasant and Indigenous communities in rural Costa Rica. He is now engaged in producing documentaries with the Grounded Project, a collaboration between the Faculty of Health and the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University.

Gilbert González is a Brunka Elder, intellectual, and activist from the Indigenous community of Boruca in southern Costa Rica. He is the director of CEDIN (Center for Indigenous Development), an organization dedicated to the promotion of Indigenous rights in the country.

Ana María Martínez is a Colombian academic with a PhD in climate change education and graduate degrees in environmental law and ecological management and conservation. She has worked alongside Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon region and forms part of York University’s Grounded Project.

Julie Hard is a director of international relations in the Faculty of Health at York University. She is responsible for building and managing programs that aim to create opportunities for the development of institutional partnerships globally and participates in the university’s Grounded Project.

Mathieu Poirier is an assistant professor in York University’s School of Global Health, a York research chair in global health equity with an interest in the social determinants of health and well-being, and a member of the WHO Collaborating Centre on the Global Governance of Antimicrobial Resistance. He is involved in the Grounded Project.

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