How The Return Of The Kekoldi’s Indigenous Lands Created Tensions With Neighbors

Apr 12, 2024

While Kekoldi’s original inhabitants have succeeded in swaying Costa Rica’s highest court to grant them the reserve’s original boundaries, a new challenge emerges that puts them at odds with the land’s present owners.

In 1977, a presidential decree led to the creation of what is now the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, a 3,500-hectare protected area comprising lush tropical rainforests, rivers, and diverse wildlife, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. It is also the home of the indigenous Bribri people, who have survived Spanish incursions and maintained their culture and language.

Decades later, non-indigenous Costa Ricans were able to own parcels of land that were originally part of the reserve after another executive decree freed up land near the coast while extending the reserve westward—a decision that the indigenous populace of the reserve resented and led to a series of legal actions that decades later would remain unresolved.

According to Layli Brown Stangeland, the founder of non-profit Afro Costa Rica, the result of "multiple government mistakes" is pitting both indigenous Kekoldi peoples and Afro-descendant communities against the present inhabitants of the 1,244-hectare appropriated by the state in 1996.

"Today, it may seem that this is a case of indigenous people versus settlers, but nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "This issue was caused by past government decrees that did not account for the voices and needs of the reserve's original and rightful owners."

In 2019, Costa Rica's Supreme Court overturned the rulings of the lower courts, which had previously ruled against Kekoldi's indigenous peoples in their lawsuit against the government for the restoration of their territorial borders. Not only did the court rule in favor of restoring the original boundaries, but it also mandated that the lands added after the 1996 executive decree remain part of the reserve.

Stangeland, however, said that while this is a victory for Costa Rica's indigenous peoples, it also created a new problem: enforcement. "The decision created a conflict between the reserve's inhabitants that did not exist before," she lamented, adding that there is currently no resolution as to how the people living in the land that is now part of the reserve will be compensated.

She said that her group fears that the government's lack of action could drag non-indigenous residents—who for decades have lived harmoniously with Kekoldi's indigenous populations—into new legal battles, complicating matters further.

In response, her group, which supports various indigenous and Afro-descendant communities across Costa Rica through knowledge sharing, has spearheaded an informational campaign with the hopes of galvanizing local authorities into action.

"This issue is seldom talked about in the media, social media, or anywhere for that matter, which is why we want to rekindle discussions and spur government action," Stangeland said.

This content is provided in partnership with Afro Costa Rica and is intended for informational purposes only. The views, opinions, and advice expressed in this article are solely those of Afro Costa Rica and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of any other individual, organization, or entity.


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