Long-running Caribbean dispute centers on who is a native

Gerardo Vargas Varela Franklin Villa Nueva

Roger Maxi Cruz stood patiently but resolutely outside of a community meeting Saturday where about 50 residents of the Reserva Indígena Kekoldi in Talamanca had gathered for an emergency meeting.

Most of them came to air their grievances to political figures that they expected would attend. The residents said they lost some of their property and are being denied the right to vote on reservation affairs by the current native administration.

The Talamanca mayor, Melvin Cordero, and national lawmaker José María Villalta Florez-Estrada of Frente Amplio were expected to attend, but only Gerardo Vargas Varela, a Frente Amplio candidate made it in the end.

However, Maxi attended the meeting to hear solutions about growing violence on the reserve against those residents deemed non-native.

Maxi was attacked six months ago because he is a non-native and lives on the reservation with his Bribri wife and their children. He pulled up his shirt before the meeting and showed a long scar he has on his back from being slashed with a machete in that incident.

“You should be able to live with whomever you choose, whether she is black, Chinese or white,” he said.

This was about a month after the attack some members of the Asociación Keköldi ordered him to let them in his house to look around. Maxi said that they claimed to have a right to enter because he was not Kekoldi, but he refused them access.

A resident of the Caribbean coast said that he got this scar in a dispute over who can live on a native reserve.

“I will defend my rights and I will defend the rights of my children,” said Maxi. “I defended the rights of my family, and now I’m in problems.”

The Kekoldi Association governs the affairs of the tribe including dispensing money that the tribe receives from government and non-governmental organizations.

These are reports about a group on the reserve that have harassed and sometimes become violent towards Ticos, expats and other non-Bribri individuals who live on the land there.

Argentinean expat Edwin Salem has been calling on politicians and the news media to cover the situation over the past months. He said that some hostile persons have been trespassing on his property, setting his horses loose and even cut one of his horses across the face with a machete.

He has also done his own investigation and has recorded video interviews of native people living on the reserve who have had their houses burned down.

“They’re burning houses of non-indigenous that are titled to the land and cutting down their crops,” said Salem. “Greed has brought violence and corruption into the territory and the government hasn’t helped even when they’re trying to help.”

Salem and several other community members also recorded an interview with a woman who said that her home was attacked and she was kidnapped for a day and raped.

Edwin Salem is an Argentinean expat who spent years living in California before buying a piece of land outside of Puerto Viejo 20 years ago. At the time he did not know that half of his 18-hectare piece of land is actually in Kekoldi territory.

“If I look at it as a foreigner without knowing anything about the situation with that part of the farm, I got screwed,” said Salem of the purchase.

The problem for numerous expats and Ticos living near Puerto Viejo is that the government set aside areas in Talamanca for native tribes decades ago.

According to another expat in the area named Benjamin Archer Moore, the Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal pays the governing organization of these tribes a certain amount of money per hectare to not clear or farm the land but leave it as undisturbed forest.

According to Moore and Salem, this money is unregulated.
“When you start giving money without some control, things start to happen,” said Moore in an earlier telephone interview.

Many of the native people who came to the meeting are from another native group called the Cabécar. They and even some Bribri claim that their affiliation with the association has been revoked in the past year, meaning that they cannot vote on the leaders of the reserve, they have no say in the affairs of the reserve and they have no say on how government money is spent.

“The directorate has negated the affiliation of the majority of the indigenous of the Kekoldi community,” said Franklin Villa Nueva after the meeting.

Villa has filed Sala IV cases with numerous government agencies, including one to the forestry fund to stop payment to the Kekoldi altogether until the issues are resolved. If this worked, it would deny him and all of his native neighbors a key revenue stream.

Although Maxi, Villa and most participants were frustrated by how the meeting did not result in solutions, no one disputed the presence of violence on the reservation.

“It didn’t produce a ruling,” said Maxi.

Vargas, the Frente Amplio candidate, called on all sides to compromise at the meeting and called for a dialogue between the factions.

“Nobody can get 100 percent of what they’re seeking,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Vargas, a priest, described the conflict as a territorial dispute where the Bribri want the Cabécars and non-native individuals to leave.

Villa said after the meeting that he and the others wanted these political figures to pressure the reserve’s administration to allow everyone to vote and to stop the sporadic violence that has been occurring.

“We hoped that Gerardo Vargas and that Villalta would help us,” said Villa.

Vargas and other representatives of the municipal government assured residents they would hold meetings to bring both sides together to resolve the situation, but that open dialogue was the best solution.

This entry was posted in Costa Rica News. Bookmark the permalink.