In 2012, I lived in Talamanca, Costa Rica. There, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of women and men who taught me about living off the land. These are the people who have taught me most about Indigenous rights, particularly those rights related to the management of natural resources and food.
Courtesy of Google Maps
The Bribri people have lived in Talamanca since time immemorial. In 1977, the Costa Rican government created a Reserva Indigena for the Talamanca Bribri people (43,690 hectares) and appointed local governments for this Bribri Territory. In 1982, “La Amistad International Park” was created bordering and overlapping with the Bribri Indigenous Territory. Also in 1982, La Amistad International Park and the Bribri Territory were proclaimed a United Nations Biosphere Reserve called La Reserva Biosfera La Amistad.
In 2012, I worked with people from the Kalom ã community. For many of my colleagues in this community hunting was a way of life. People hunted for many reasons that are themselves are connected. For example, hunting was a way of finding foods and medicines but it was also recreation. In addition, walking hunting paths was a way of teaching youth about the land.
My colleagues taught me that hunting was as a process whereby people communicate with beings in other worlds to ask permission to take animals. These beings include Sibö̀ (the creator) and other beings that protect animals. Asking permission to hunt is one way to show respect for Sibö̀ and other beings. Another way of respecting these beings is to hunt only what they need for food or medicine. For example, the Kalom ã residents I worked with, both young and Elder, explained that they did not hunt and sell forest meat. Instead, animals are hunted for household consumption and sharing among families.
Kalom ã residents' access to hunting was affected by the hunting law that was implemented when the La Amistad protected area was created. This hunting law has resulted in a management plant that dictates what people can hunt, where they can hunt, and how hunting should take place. Specifically, there is only one area of the protected area where Bribri hunting is permitted and even then, they can only hunt animals that are not endangered and they can only hunt using traditional bow and arrow techniques; this despite the fact that many people use rifles and have done so for many years.
Bribri people have acted differently towards protected area hunting regulation. For example, some of my colleagues explained to me that the hunting ban was the reason why they no longer hunt. A few female colleagues shared that because of these laws they are scared to send their sons out to hunt. For other residents, the hunting ban did not stop them from hunting.
Generally speaking, the hunting ban was not well received. One reason it was not well received was because it was imposition on Bribri people's rights to food. I learned how Bribri people have their own ways of thinking about hunting and living off the land that are different from the Costa Rican government's ways of managing forests. In fact, Kalom ã Elders created what they call the original hunting laws. These original hunting laws resulted from meetings among Bribri Elders who had convened to talk about hunting rules, based on Bribri values, because of their concern about changes in animal populations in their communities. Although Elders hunting laws were being observed in Kalom ã when the Costa Rican government hunting ban went into effect, these Elders laws were not considered in protected area managment.
Another reason hunting bans have not been well received is because they minimize the importance of traditional authority and Indigenous decision-making mechanisms. The original Elder hunting laws are a case in point. Although these Bribri laws existed before the Costa Rican state hunting ban, the Elders laws, recommendations, and teachings were not considered in the Costa Rican state legislation.
On the other hand, there are some Kalom ã residents that support aspects of the hunting ban. For example, one Elder explained that government laws might help to control hunting by people who live outside of Coroma but go there to hunt animal meat for sale; this Elder made it clear that these laws should, however, not be applied to all aspects of Indigenous hunting because hunting, sharing, and eating forest meat is part of what it means to be Bribri.
When I gave a presentation on this topic earlier this year at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, I received both positive and negative feedback. Some conference attendees were keen to discuss how to best respect the rights to food of Bribri people living in and around protected areas. Other attendees were concerned that Indigenous rights to food were not compatible with aspects of biodiversity conservation legislation. One attendee said it was unlikely that conservation biologists would ever accept hunting in protected areas, especially when endangered species are being hunted. Although the hunting of endangered species is a valid concern, it is important to acknowledge that hunting is a right for Indigenous people in Costa Rica. And, this right is not limited to the act of hunting; it includes the right to making decisions about how to manage Bribri food systems.
All too often we focus on one way of looking at land-use. In the case of my recent conference experience, I learned that many people strongly associate protected forests with conservation of biological species. So, how can we have a discussion about different ways of understanding the land? One way is to think about it from a human rights perspective. As a researcher, it is my goal to use my research to help the public become familiar with human rights to land, to food, and to decision-making. And, I hope the more familiar we are with human rights policies, the better chance we have of convincing policy makers to act on them.