Costa Rica’s Indigenous Communities Find Themselves Underrepresented and Underserved
If you are a student in Costa Rica’s remote Bribri community, in the Sepecue settlement, getting to school means a two-hour journey by horse, tractor, and boat. The length of the trip, however, may not even be the biggest obstacle. Maybe you can’t even afford the journey in the first place. Unfortunately, government reimbursements will not be of any help to you, as they only cover and compensate for journeys taken by official transportation, which horse, tractor, and boat don’t qualify as.
This is just one example of the types of problems faced by many of Costa Rica’s Indigenous communities, but it demonstrates the core issue they are confronted with in areas like education, healthcare, or water and sanitation. For a long time, they have been underserved by and underrepresented in government and the legislation in place does not really work for their needs. In numbers, this makes Indigenous people the most neglected minority populations in Costa Rica, with an unemployment rate of 60 percent, only 65 percent have access to standardized basic general schooling, with 40 percent of those students having fallen at least one year behind in their education.
RIBCA and The Government In Dialogue
So what can be done to make legislation that is made for and inclusive of Costa Rica’s Indigenous population?
One major step is consulting directly with the communities the legislation should serve. Like the Bribri and Cabecar Indigenous Network (RIBCA) that was created in 2005 with the objective of bringing together the Indigenous communities of the Costa Rican Atlantic slope to give them greater representation and to facilitate dialogue with government institutions. RIBCA brings together a population of around 35,000 people, 35 percent of the country’s Indigenous population.
When Costa Rica became an OGP member in 2012, the country committed to working with reformers and Indigenous leaders to make sure that through their action plans, they would work to meet the needs of the Indigenous communities. Their commitments included presenting information in local languages and requiring all government agencies to engage in meaningful dialogue with the public. Indigenous leader and campaigner Luis Ortiz says the new approach “feels different this time.” This dialogue mechanism eliminated intermediation between Indigenous people and government agencies, and to get the attention of the Presidency of the Republic.
In June 2015, in a workshop held by the organization Yo Soy Gobierno Abierto to gather input for the action plan, RIBCA successfully proposed the strengthening of its forum be included in the 2015-2017 OGP action plan.
Listening to Indigenous Communities and Making Costa Rica More Inclusive
At the beginning of 2015, only three government agencies maintained a direct dialogue with this Indigenous association, but after including the initiative in the action plan, that number increased to 21 state institutions.
When looking at healthcare, education, environment & safety, and sanitation & water, we can see that the plan is yielding results.
The new process has led to the construction of six schools. New doctors assigned to Indigenous areas have been improving access to healthcare. Ten new water sources have been established. Travel allowances now cover all the methods students use to get to school, and night classes are available for those unable to attend during the day. A program was also implemented to support entrepreneur women and increase their access to funds.
Is This the Way to Give All a Voice in Government?
The results are clear: listening to — and hearing — Indigenous voices has created a better environment for policy decisions and has translated into tangible improvements in people‘s lives.
One of the great successes of the 2015-2017 action plan was the involvement of Indigenous people in the planning and development of the strategies to fulfill the commitment. By making the process more inclusive, the solutions were tailored to the exact needs and of the people they were designed by and for, and were able to show a greater deal of cultural sensitivity than might otherwise have been possible. This also helps to build bridges of trust between the government and the Indigenous people.
Where do we go from here? In order to elevate all indigenous voices, it is of great importance that the government promotes the transfer of the experience and the results achieved by the RIBCA to the other 65 percent of the country’s Indigenous population to replicate the dialogue that this commitment seeks to support.
PHOTO Caption: Maricela Fernandez, a community leader promoting gender equality and the protection of the environment, outside of her nonprofit organization.