Strengthening Indigenous Cultural Heritage through Capacity Building in Costa Rica

Project Contributors: Hugh Govan with Rigoberto Carrera

There are eight indigenous groups in Costa Rica, numbering some 63,800 people, which comprise 1.7% of the national population. Half of them are now settled in 24 reservations or territories, which cover an area of approximately 325,470ha or 6.3% of Costa Rica. The indigenous groups are: the Cabécar, Bribri, Brunca or Boruca, Térraba, Huetar, Guatuso or Maleku, Chorotega and Ngäbe-Buglé. In 2001, two new reservations were created by law: Altos de San Antonio (for the Ngäbe-Buglé) and China Kichá (for the Cabécar).

The Ngäbe people number some 180,000, principally located in Panama, although around 4000 reside in southern Costa Rica, close to the Panama border. The Ngäbe- Buglé of Costa Rica inhabit five reservations or territories in the south of the country: Coto Brus, Abrojos Montezuma, Conte Burica, Altos de San Antonio and Guaymí de Osa. The 23,600ha of Ngäbe reservations maintain around 70% forest cover, consisting of a rich variety of habitats encompassing three of the five elevational zones found in Costa Rica (tropical, premontane and lower montane) and three of the four humidity provinces (rain, wet and moist). Examples are the tropical very wet forests of the Osa Reservation and the lower montane moist forests of Coto Brus.

The Costa Rican Ngäbe are among the poorest people in the country, but until recently there were almost no development initiatives taking place in their territories. This is due in part to difficulties in funding and cash flow problems. In part, it is also due to their legal status: the Ngäbe were not accepted as equal-rights Costa Rican citizens by Congress until 1993. The Ngäbe face a variety of major challenges, including the occupation of up to 25% of the reservation’s area by non-indigenous settlers, poor access to health services and limited options for the production of food and cash. The abysmal indicators for all these problems are at odds with the generally good quality of life experienced by the majority of Costa Ricans.

Using a co-management approach in collaboration between the Ngäbe people and the NGO Fundación TUVA, the project “Support Project for the Ngäbe Indigenous People” (Proyecto de Apoyo al Pueblo Indígena Ngäbe)  was set up to strengthen the organizational capacity and leadership of the Ngäbe, in order to reverse the loss of their culture, recover traditional political institutions and traditional medicine, support territorial defence and appropriate management practices, and improve continue reading–>

Recovering Landscape Health and Cultural Resilience in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico

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Luís and Tomás Palma gathering native pine seeds for a tree nursery in their Sierra Tarahumara community Credit: David J. Rapport

The Rarámuri people (also known as Tarahumara by non-Rarámuri) are an indigenous group living in the Sierra Tarahumara, a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. This region of high sierras and deep canyons boasts an exceptional ecological diversity, and is home to some of the most resilient indigenous societies in the North American continent. The Rarámuri (about 70,000 people, living mostly in isolated settlements and small villages scattered across the Sierra Tarahumara) speak a distinct language and have maintained a strong identity and vibrant cultural traditions through over five centuries of contact with the now prevailing Spanish-speaking population. They are subsistence farmers, and have traditionally also relied extensively on a variety of wild plant and animal species for food, medicine, and other basic needs.

However, their long-term adaptation to this mountainous region and their ability to sustain their livelihoods and way of life—and ultimately to retain their cultural and linguistic identity—have been severely threatened by rapid environmental, socio-cultural and economic changes brought about by virtually unrestricted mining, logging, ranching, mass tourism and now increasingly the drug trade, all of which have been facilitated by extensive road development and the building of other major infrastructure. These activities have collectively resulted in massive deforestation causing the loss of forest plant and animal species; overgrazing; soil erosion with consequent loss of water resources; frequent droughts and flash floods; water pollution; decrease of arable lands and diminished soil quality and fertility, resulting in lower crop yields and periodic crop failures; displacement from traditional lands; out-migration, especially of the younger generations, due to inability to make a living in the communities; induced social and cultural change; social dislocation and loss of social cohesion; erosion of intergenerational transmission of values, beliefs, knowledge, practices and language; and a variety of health and nutritional issues. Adding to these woes, global warming is s projected to bring long-term drought to the region.

The scale and pace of change are challenging the Rarámuri’s ability to continue to live and develop according to their own worldview and way of life. Many elders and other community members are concerned about the Rarámuri’s future as a distinct people if the erosion of their landscape and culture continues. While stressing their long-standing continue reading–>