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Water Security in the Sixaola River Basin Adrián Martinez Blanco and Diana Ubico Durán
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Past Research Summary
Water Security in the Sixaola River Basin
Adrián Martinez Blanco and Diana Ubico Durán
April 30, 2014
The Sixaola River Basin crosses the border between Costa Rica and Panama, and is home to Yorkín and Bribrí communities, raising legal and social challenges for equitable and secure water management. This paper outlines some of these challenges and makes recommendations for reducing human vulnerability to hazards (particularly floods) and for improving relationships among stakeholders.

Executive Summary

This paper analyzes the water security of the Sixaola River Basin, a trans-boundary basin between Costa Rica and Panama in Central America. Considering the breadth of the scope of the water security concept, this paper is focused mainly on the aspects of human vulnerability to hazards and the power relationships between the different stakeholders in the water governance of the Sixaola River Basin.

The primary sources of information used in this analysis are a field trip made to the Yorkín community (in the Costa Rican side) and a personal interview with the Technical Officer from the Water Management Unit in the IUCN – Costa Rica. Both encounters took place in November 2013. During the visit we had the opportunity to talk with people from the indigenous community as well with professionals of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); we also obtained primary data from observation. During the personal interview, more detailed information about the work of the IUCN in the Sixaola River Basin was obtained. However, a more in-depth study of the perspectives of the stakeholders would provide a more accurate and complete picture.

The analysis starts with a description of the key actors, their roles and the legal framework around the water governance of the basin. We begin with the first international agreement between Panama and Costa Rica (1979) and then we go through the legal framework evolution until the present. After that, we identify some important challenges regarding water security in the Sixaola River Basin. The first challenge refers to the issue of the meaning of water security to the Yorkín community. The second challenge refers to the human vulnerability to hazards, more specifically in what has been done to mitigate the impacts of floods. Finally, the third challenge refers to the Binational Commission in terms of a more equitable representation of stakeholders in order to balance the power relationships in decision making processes. This last point is focused mainly on how a more equitable participation of women, civil society and indigenous communities is crucial to achieve a balanced approach. Finally, to make a synthesis, we mention some key ideas and interventions that we consider are crucial in the way towards a greater water security of the Sixaola River Basin.


Water security is a concept that has gained increased attention in recent years at national and international levels (Cook and Bakker, 2012; Lautze and Manthrithilake, 2012). The increased tensions over livelihoods and environment sustainability due to the effects of climate change, population growth and inadequate water governance policies among others, have led to an increased attention over effective water governance and management.

Some international organizations have among their duties to promote research on and implementation of water security policies, for example the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the UN-Water, the World Water Council (WWC) and the Global Water Partnership (GWP). The latter states that “water security, at any level from the household to the global, means that every person has access to enough safe water at affordable cost to lead a clean, healthy and productive life, while ensuring that the natural environment is protected and enhanced” (GWP, 2000).

Although definitions of water security may vary depending on different authors and different geographical locations, four intertwined aspects of water security have been identified as overarching themes: water availability; human vulnerability to hazards; human needs and sustainability (Cook and Bakker, 2012).

An alternative but complementary framing of water governance is integrated water resources management (IWRM), defined by the Global Water Partnership as “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” (GWP, 2000). Though it may seem a complete and accurate definition, strong critiques have been made around it because of its lack of practicability for implementation (Biswas, 2004).

The third principle of the Dublin Principles of 1992 recognizes the role of women in water management, stating that “women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water” (World Meteorological Organization, n.d.). The GWP reinforces the argument stating that “gender equity and women´s empowerment in water resources management is accepted as one of the essential pillars to poverty eradication and sustainable development” (GWP, 2011). This acknowledgement of the role of women in regards to communities’ access to water has become essential during the implementation IWRM in some parts of the world, as women have become key actors in this process. This fact has led to the recent establishment of international organizations dedicated exclusively to promote women´s equitable development in relation to water sanitation. Some of these organizations are Women of Water Partnership; Gender and Water Alliance and Global Women´s Water Initiative.

This paper analyzes the water security of the Sixaola River Basin, a trans-boundary basin between Costa Rica and Panama in Central America. Despite the fact that the water security concept implies the analysis of the four aspects mentioned before, this paper will focus on the human vulnerability to hazards and the power relationships in the water governance held by the Binational Commission of the Sixaola River Basin. In the latter case, we argue for a similarity of the Binational Commission to a bureaucracy of water, in the specific sense of how the relationships of power are managed. This focus was selected due to the relevance that they have in relation to “socionature”, a concept we will describe in a later section, and due to the availability of information.

The importance of the elements mentioned before lies in the following facts: a) in the year 2008 an increase of the water flow due to the continuing strong rains ended up in a flood of the area of Yorkín which left significant damages to community, to their crops and to the environment; b) the indigenous group of Bribrí that lives at Yorkín has been organizing itself for many years searching for new ways to maintain their livelihoods; much of this organizing work has reportedly been done by women; and c) currently there are different stakeholders working towards sustainable development in the Sixaola River Basin.

The Sixaola River is a natural boundary between Costa Rica and Panama. Both countries have had traditionally peaceful relationships, with the only exception of an armed conflict in 1921 called “La Guerra de Coto” and which only lasted some weeks. After that event, no new armed conflicts have occurred and currently, neither Costa Rica nor Panama has military forces.

The south Caribbean of Costa Rica and the north Caribe of Panama are the converging areas of the Sixaola River Basin. It also includes the Talamanca mountain range (Costa Rica) and the Central mountain range of Panama. The drainage area of the Sixaola River Basin is of 2.848,3 km2. From this area, 19% is concentrated in Panamanian territory while 81% is in Costa Rican territory (Mideplan, 2003).

People who profit from the water of this basin include local people of Panama as well as local people of Costa Rica; indigenous communities like the Bribrí, Cabécar and Teribe (Naso). In the case of the Bribrí community for example, they occupy Costa Rican and Panamanian territory; indeed, normally these communities have identification cards from both countries. Also, there are transnational companies that benefit from the waters of the Sixaola River.

Figure No. 1 Sixaola River Basin.

Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Costa Rica.

This research paper has two main sources of information. The first one is a two-day field trip to the Bribrí indigenous community in Yorkín of Talamanca (Costa Rica) in November 2013. This was part of the activities of the “Water Security and Peace” course of the University for Peace. During this visit we had the opportunity to obtain primary data from people of the indigenous community as well as from professionals from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who are working in a project of water governance in this place and with this community.

The second main source of information is a personal interview with Mr. Pedro Cordero Pérez, Technical Officer from the Water Management Unit in the IUCN – Costa Rica. This interview took place in November 7th, 2013 and most of the discussion was around the two projects that IUCN are currently developing in the Sixaola River Basin: a) the BRIDGE project and b) the Water Management for the Climate Change Adaptation project.

Basin Governance and Key Actors

The Sixaola River Basin was initially governed through a 1979 Agreement to conduct Border Cooperation. This initial framework had various Binational Technical Commissions that dealt with the different sectors of the economic and social activities. The objectives of this Agreement were to increase the integration of the different activities that are present in this region. Due to the experience gathered at the Binational Technical Commissions is that a new agreement had to be created according to the new realities and goals in regards to cooperation and border development (Law Number 7518, 1995).

The 3rd of May of 1992 in Sixaola the “Agreement with Panama of Cooperation for Border Development and its Annex was signed between the Government of the Republic of Panama and the Government of the Republic of Costa Rica”. This was later ratified by the Costa Rican Congress through the approval of the law number 7518 on the 10th of July of 1995.

This agreement is currently valid but the condition of non-withdraw that binded parties in clause 14th expired since the initial 10 years have passed. This means that starting from 2002 any of the parties could renounce it. It is important to notice that 22 years have passed since the creation of this treaty and both parts still recognize it. (Law Number 7518, 1995, Article 14)

In order to accomplish these goals the agreement creates a Permanent Binational Commission that shall be presided by the Ministers of Planning. (Law Number 7518, 1995, Article 2) All the programs, projects or activities that are created based on this agreement must be channeled through the Ministers of Planning and of International Relations of both countries (Law Number 7518, 1995, Article 3). It is important to highlight that the agreement allows for funding come from the signatories, international organizations, cooperating governments and national/international NGOs (Law Number 7518, 1995, Article 3).

According to the Annex I of the Agreement the Binational Commission is integrated by the Ministers of Planning, the representatives of the institutions involved in programs, projects or activities related to this Agreement and the local government officials. The article 4 of the Annex I establishes as one of the functions of the Agreement to assign and approve along with the Technical Sectoral Binational Commissions, any program, project or activity. This create the basic platform for any binational activity that be carried out in the Panama- Costa Rica border, thus it includes any binational project that involves the Sixaola River Basin and its surrounding communities and government institutions. It is clear that in this agreement there is no mention of the indigenous government as it relates to their autonomy and right to decide their own priorities for development according to article 7 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) 169 International Convention of which Costa Rica is part of since 2nd of April 1993. Thus, the ILO C169 is posterior to the treaty causing it to prevail as a national ratified law in Costa Rica, lex posterior derogat prior and lex specialis derogat generali, making it necessary for the Costa Rican government to adjust the binational agreement or renounce it in order to meet its obligations with the indigenous population (C169, 1989, Article 7) (Akehurst, 1976).

Also, the binational agreement is gender neutral since it makes no consideration of gender, nor mentions women's perspectives. It is important to notice that in Costa Rica there is a government institute for women and this is not part of the commission institutional framework ( As observed by Zwarteveen (2008): “The fact that the people referred to in irrigation texts and policies are men remains implicit, is assumed, or does not appear to matter for their irrigation behaviour (because that behaviour is derived from some universal human nature that is gender-neutral or pre-gendered). The 'manhood' or masculinity of irrigation actors is taken for granted rather than explored or questioned.”

Thus, two major stakeholders of the development of the border region and specially the Sixaola River Basin are left out from the main framework of coordination: Women and Indigenous peoples. There is an important relationship between these two factors since gender in the culture of the Bribrí seems a relevant issue and it is expressed in the means of organization: a matriarchal society. Would it be possible to extrapolate and talk about culture neutrality in this Binational Treaty and Bureaucratic organization? Since it does mention cultural diversity nor its content express it, instead a heavy hegemonic perspective is clearly enunciated by this legal text.

In fact the role that women play in the Bribrí community is viewed not from a patriarchal society paradigm but from a different conception of gender views, values and rights of women. “These activities are vital to the community and equally important as men’s activities. Individual families help each other, men and women sharing tasks, food, and shelter as needed. Not a barter system, but certainly a system of interdependence and mutual obligation. Kinship relationships are based on matrilocal residence and women tend to have ‘ownership’ over the home” (Rojas, 2009, Pg 3). This perception of Gender in the Indigenous socio-nature (Swyngedouw, 1999) reality is key to understanding how the indigenous community as a shareholder behaves and what their interests are (Stribrawpa, personal interview, October 31st and November 1st, 2013) (Rojas, 2009). However, “Making an issue of masculinity, therefore, means not only focusing on men, but on the institutions, cultures and practices that sustain gender inequality along with other forms of domination such as race and class. This will involve questioning symbolic as well as material dimensions of power. It means working on, and recognizing the connections between, the personal and the professional, the politics of institutions and the global system” (White, 1997).

IUCN is sponsoring in the Sixaola River Basin an initiative of the Panama and Costa Rica Government to manage the water resource: the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama. This commission is a special “Technical Sectoral Binational Commissions” as they are mentioned in the agreement-law and then created by an unpublished accord called Operative Accord for the functioning of the Agreement between the Republics of Costa Rica and Panama about Cooperation for Border Development and its Annex. The fact that the Accord was not formally published questions its efficacy and/or validity due to the formality of Costa Rican Administrative law.

In this unpublished accord the presidents of the Binational regulate different topics including the way Technical Sectoral Binational Commissions are going to work which falls into their powers as it is stated on article 1 number 7 of Annex 1. The accords divides the border region by cantons or municipalities and also the areas of work, in which natural resources are taken in count (MIDEPLAN, 2012, Article 4&5).

It is important to notice that even though the Binational Permanent Commission was created by law and operates as an institution under the principle of legality, it did not issue a formal decree to ratify the Accord, even though the accord itself in article 10 requires ratification for binational acts. This may in turn question the validity of the Accord itself regulations that may emerged from it. It is also interesting that it mentions only once women and twice the indigenous people, in the sense that they have to participate actively, democratically and in an efficient manner.(MIDEPLAN, 2012, Article 18) It is very curious the language used by the Presidents of the Permanent Commission since they command that in the annual operative plan must state that citizens and groups must be allowed to participate, and in a separate idea estates “including groups of the indigenous zone” (MIDEPLAN, 2012, Article 18, Paragraph 1). The inclusion seems correct but the dichotomy of the notion of citizen and its clear differentiation may serve as an example of socio-political realities and power imbalances that require further study.

The Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama is created as one of 3 different special Technical Sectoral Binational Commissions by article 5 of the Accord. This Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama operates under the framework of the Agreement of Cooperation and Border Development and it is integrated by the following members:

Table No. 1 Binational Commission (IUCN, n.d a).

This commission is undergoing changes in order for its members to represent more adequately each sector and will be meeting on the 18th of November 2013 to carry out this changes (Cordero, P. Personal interview, November 7th, 2013). However, as records shows in the meeting of the 10 of October 2013 the commission was integrated by 8 males and 6 women, out of this only one male was from civil society and all of the women and the rest of the men belonged to government or NGO institutions. (IUCN, 2013 f) How will this foreseen changes towards a more equitable representation of “Civil Society”, Indigenous Government and Gender participation? How may this change the power balance within this level of governance? This is a questions pending to be answered.

From the interviews we had with the officer form IUCN (Cordero, P. Personal interview, November 7th, 2013) and a meeting with a group of the Transboundary Watershed Champions of the Sixaola River basin (Transboundary Watershed Champions interview, November 2nd, 2013) we learned that there were changes been made to the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama and one of them was the new bylaw (IUCN, 2013e). However, this bylaw has not been formally published either, as the Accord and the legal system requires.

This bylaw intends to put in operation the integration of a broader spectrum of civil society into this bureaucratic structure. The objective of the bylaw is to serve as a Statute for the Special Commission, and start working in the water management of the River Basin. The Bylaw for the Establishment of the Statute of the Binational Commission of the Sixaola River Basin was created on the 14 of January 2013 (IUCN, 2013e). One of the many functions that this commission has is to create, coordinate, supervise, control and follow the plans of management, programs, projects and activities for the Integrated Management of the Binational Sixaola River Basin (IUCN, 2013e, Article 6 letter a&e). Thus, it is clear that at this level of governance the hidrobureacracy have chosen and the IUCN is supporting, the use of the IWRM tool or process in the Sixaola River Basin.

Under the structure described in Table 1 the indigenous government and civil society (referring exclusively to communal organizations) are given a place within this the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama. It is important to recall from the field visit that was conducted to the community of Yorkín, which is part of the Bribrí territory in Costa Rica, that their local indigenous organization is also a Communal Development Association. Hence, it is subject to the organizational requirements and supervision that the Costa Rican 3859 law imposes in its article 2 (Law Number 3859, 1967).

The 3859 law of Community Development imposes a structure of organization, which according to the conversation and explanation given by the Yorkín Community Members does not fit in with their traditional organization (Stribrawpa, personal interview, October 31st and November 1st, 2013). In the Bribrí community the organization is a matriarchy which differs greatly from mainstream Costa Rican and Panamanian culture and gender views. This in turn has gender implications that do affect cultural and political traditions of indigenous people in the Sixaola River Basin, for example an imposed gender role is placed through the non autonomous method of participation, required by the law 8901 of Minimum Percentage of Women that must integrate the Boards of Associations, Unions and Solidarity Associations. This law designates that women and men have to be 50 - 50 in every board of directors. (Law Number 8901, 2010, Article 4). Therefore, not only it establishes a board of directors scheme within the Communal Development Association as requested by the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama, but also institutes a gender participation limit, which does not necessarily responds to Bribrí traditions or decisions. It is noticeable that from the field trip conducted to Yorkín the communal association that was encountered had its board comprised of only women as a way to honour them, but this paradigms are not considered in the structure of the ¨Technical Sectoral Binational Commission¨ nor in the Agreement.

The Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama as a ¨Technical Sectoral Binational Commission¨ is functioning under the BRIDGE - IUCN project. IUCN is an international NGO and its project is funded by the Hydro Diplomacy Programme of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which falls within the framework of the Binational Agreement for development of projects. The BRIDGE project “is a catalyst for South-South cooperation between riparian states since it promotes opportunities for bilateral dialogue and joint work that includes stakeholders concerned with watershed management, from the local to the international level” (IUCN, 2013b, Pg 1). According to the IUCN analysis of the Sixaola River Basin the Costa Rican and Panamanian government are prioritizing this basin and pushing to implement sustainable development policies. (IUCN, 2013b) Hence, it is clear that a consensuated development agenda is present in the Binational Commission and it is supported by the IUCN.

The BRIDGE -IUCN project is implemented worldwide and in Central America specifically in 3 other river basins and the IUCN has developed a specific method to execute them. They implement this projects with a bottom up – top down approach which tries to engage all the different levels of society that have interest in how this river basin is managed. IUCN views towards politics and power balance could be expressed by this statement about their method and national politics: “The hierarchy of political decision making has been respected as well as the fundamental role of the State, but equal importance has been given to processes at the grassroots, in which local actors formulate and provide feedback on agreements and policies that affect their immediate situation and management of shared watersheds” (IUCN, 2013b, Pg 9). It is important to question how much this acknowledging of the role of the State balances out with the autonomous government that indigenous peoples are struggling to establish, and how the IUCN work may influence this. Considering that the framework of binational cooperation does not take in consideration the Indigenous government.

In light of this we have then to focus on the local governance, but in the perspective of the Yorkín Community. The IUCN has been working in the Yorkín community in two projects a) BRIDGE b) Water Management for the Adaptation to Climate Change (WMACC) (Formerly named Water Governance).

As part of the WMACC project the Yorkín community created a Micro Watershed Committee that is supposed to work in a peripheral manner around the Yorkín Neighbor Association. This Micro Watershed Committee is meant to deal with water management issues as the community starts to perceive water in a different manner as part of the IUCN education and project for adaptation result.(Cordero, P. Personal interview, November 7th,2013) However, beyond this two local Bribi organizations a more complex indigenous structure exists. ADITIBRI ( which is also a Communal Development Association is the superior conflict resolution institution that regulates this sector of the Sixaola River Basin in regards to the indigenous territory.

A more in-depth study is needed to clarify if this hierarchy relationship between the Yorkín committee and the Binational Commission for the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama, affects the traditional clan social structure of the Bribrí.

In relation to the political and water related governance of this section of the Sixaola River Basin in the indigenous territory, ADITIBRI, represent the highest level of autonomous regional organization for the Bribrí (Cordero, P. Personal interview, November 7th, 2013). However, we must consider that the reaches of the Bribrí people and its territory extend beyond ADITIBRI, since this is a transborder people or nation. In other words, the Bribrí people have a broader jurisdiction in their perspective. Even though, their political organization is divided and translated into two different communal organizations to represent the border divide, this only reinforces the Panama and Costa Rican government views and does not recognize their status as a Tribal People (C169, 1989, Article 1) which distance itself greatly from only a Communal Development Association.

Thus, the non participation of ADITIBRI and of its Panamanian counterpart in the Binational Agreement, questions the autonomy of the indigenous territory and the validity of the development agenda. This lack of unfulfilled autonomy is an obstacle for the BRIDGE project and Binational Commission of the Sixaola River Basin Costa Rica - Panama since it affects the legitimacy of the actions that may be taken under this circumstance.

The civil society of Costa Rica is also introducing itself into the water management stage. A law project has been introduced to the congress as part of a popular initiative (Law Number 8491, 2006). This represent a direct action of 5% of the population of Costa Rica to support a new the Law for the Integrated Management of the Water Resource (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010). The non indigenous civil society are proposing a completely new regime of integrated and participatory management through which water access be guaranteed in quantity and quality in a universal, equitable and solidary manner, while regulating the sustainable use and its protection. (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 1) This law proposal mentions women once in its principles article 2 letter g) by stating that it will ensure their participation in a balance manner in the supply, management, decision making, use, and protection of the water resource.(Law Project Number 17.742, 2010) However, it does not mention how will this take place nor the approach to management has any consideration to their specific view or mentions gender issues in any other ways, making it gender neutral or just not considering gender as a priority.

On the same article but letter m) it is stated that the State will guarantee the participation of the indigenous communities in the decision making and application of their knowledge and traditional practices for the integrated water resource management in their territories (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010). This complies with article 15 of the ILO C169 to the extent that some participation is meant to happen (C169, 1989). However, the Costa Rican Civil society has chosen to put in place a method of water management IWRM with a value system and a hydrocracy by proposing a nation wide law project which will affect the governance and water security of the indigenous community. This external and unconsulted law project makes us question what kind of participation will the Bribrí will have or will it just be a process of institutional legitimation under the binational framework considering the Costa Rican water law project? This proposed law will create a Water Sector, (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 6) an Advisory Counsel (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 10), a National Director of Water Resource, and Hydrologic Units (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 16), of which indigenous governments are not party, and where decisions on how to use, manage and conserve water resources will be taken and executed. It is only at the lowest most basic level of participation that the Tribal People of Sixaola are expected to participate according to the initiative of the Costa Rican Civil Society: in the Councils of Hydrologic Units (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 17). Councils of Hydrologic Units have some right to decide and deliberate on certain issues pertaining their respective river basin. However, Tribal Peoples have the right to their land including the environment (C169, 1989, Article 13 number 2) and their rights to the natural resources are specially protected by international law (C169, 1989, Article 1 number 1). Is this level of participation what it really means to be an “autonomous indigenous government” and is it possible for Tribal governments within this diluted, decentralized structure to define their own development priorities?

Other key players can be identified if further studies are conducted in the Sixaola River Basin. The private sector, ranging from small to large enterprises, have a significant presence in this area, however, our research was not able to include them due to a lack of data. The private sector is meant to be part of the Binational Commission as it is illustrated in Table 1, but there was not more relevant data available to further illustrate their participation of lack of it.

Water Security – Identified Challenges

According to the results of the visit to the Yorkín Community where we met and interviewed the members of the Stribrawpa Association of Yorkín and the officers from IUCN that are executing projects with this community, it was possible to create a broad picture of some of the existing water related challenges from a micro watershed perspective. Our analysis focused on one of the four dimensions of water security that are usually explored: Human Vulnerability to Hazards. As a direct consequence of the interaction with key stakeholders in Yorkín, the focus of the research focused on the role played by women and hydro-bureaucracies in the water governance of the basin.

What is water security in terms of the Yorkín Community?

The concept of water security in Yorkín is important to extrapolate from the field visit to the community, in order to be able to compare it to the mainstream proposals that are found in literature. An accurate description of water security requires further visits and a delicate consultation process where this question is placed and it is integrated from observation methods of research. However, we used the observation method to extrapolate recurrent and dominant views of the indigenous representatives that were present during our visit. From the concepts, opinions and language used, we have developed the following hypothesis of what are some of the values and paradigms of the Yorkín community as they were communicated to us as researchers (Stribrawpa, personal interview, October 31st and November 1st, 2013):

Water security for the Yorkín community differs from the a mainstream Global Water Partnership conception: “The Global Water Partnership (2000) first defined water security simply as an overarching goal where ‘every person has access to enough safe water at affordable cost to lead a clean, healthy and productive life, while ensuring the environment is protected and enhanced’” (Lautze & Manthrithilake, 2012, Pg 2). The Yorkín community does pursue safe water, but affordability is not an issue, since it does not have a price in their socio-nature reality and in fact there are no water rates or bills. Yorkín people, according to their explanations during the field visit, envision water as part of their life and their cultural relationship to it is profound. This perception of water may even transcend the concept of water as a resource but it has also lead to a clean, healthy and productive life.

Other definitions such as that made by Swaminathan, water security “involves the availability of water in adequate quantity and quality in perpetuity to meet domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecosystem needs”(Lautze & Manthrithilake, 2012, Pg 2) may also be out of context since quantity and quality are not an issue to this Bribrí community as it was explained in the visit. Even Though the IUCN involvement has lead to improvement of their water distribution infrastructure, “quality and quantity in perpetuity” were not issues that were expressed by the community representatives during the field visit. It is possible that quality and quantity is inherent to their socio-nature view, and it is all included in the notion of common well being. The notion that water for domestic use and agriculture was intertwined with the ecosystem needs was indirectly mentioned, but there was no mentions of water for commercial or industrial use. Actions to harmonize this interrelation were commented and are part of the IUCN collaboration with the Yorkín Community.

Another definition that is noted in the academic literature is that of Cheng et al. (2004) were water security involved:

  1. safe water
  2. affordability to facilitate good living standards and food production
  3. Water environment and hazards protection

If we extrapolate the relevance and willingness of the Yorkín inhabitants to develop projects of reforestation and climate change adaptation; and the creation of the Micro Watershed Committee with the collaboration of the IUCN, it could be argued that hazard protection and the care for the environment are relevant for them, although the specific terminology of points 1 and 2 of the definition above probably lack immediate cultural and political relevance for this community. Perhaps the definition offered by Grey and Sadoff seems more relevant and in touch with local interest since it refers to “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies” (2007, Pg 569).

A working definition in terms of the Yorkín Community could be based on what it is not water security based on the information shared by community members:

? It does not involve pricing.

? It does not mean that water is for industrial or commercial use.

? It does not mean water to be separate from human or ecosystem needs.

? It does not consider water as a resource, but recognizes instead that it has a spiritual and cultural role.

? Considers that Water related risks are an unavoidable part of life, hence must be managed.

? It does not separate water from human life but that it is part of a socio-nature perspective.

Achieving their notion of water security can be considered as the main identified challenge.

Human Vulnerability to Hazards in Yorkín

Human Vulnerability to hazards in Yorkín was one of the main topic of discussion with the community representatives. One of the historical facts that they presented to us in the field visit was the destruction of their ecotourism facilities due to a sudden increase of water levels. One of the rivers that borders the town rose its level and destroyed various buildings that the women’s association had build for ecotourism. In light of this, the IUCN is implementing in Yorkín the Water Management for the Adaptation to Climate Change project with 3 main components (Estrategia de adaptacion en Yorkín, n.d.):

- “Conservation and restoration of ecosystems. This focuses on restoring degraded areas in steep hills to reduce erosion, and serve as support and natural infrastructure to reduce flood water.

- Strengthening of the means of living: Improvement of traditional crops of cacao and subsistence agriculture.

- Strengthening of local water governance structures.”

Out of these 3 components, the first one is the one most related to hazards. This has been done by implementing planned reforestation and strategic planting of trees along the river basins within the Bribrí territory. According to our interview (Cordero, P. Personal interview, November 7th, 2013) with the IUCN officers and the operator of a local guided tour of the town of Yorkín by a Stibrawpa representative (Stribrawpa, personal interview, October 31st and November 1st, 2013), it was explained that species of trees are selected due to their root system to be planted to reduce the energy of flood water that may reach their infrastructure or to control the erosion of nutrients from the hills were their crops are planted deep in their territory.

In this manner, the people of Yorkín have started to manage hazards related to water and develop a community learning centre where techniques and practices can be reproduced by their fellow tribal members. This approach has also taken on broader human and environmental needs by including species of trees to be planted that in turn may be used as building materials or for economic purposes and species that will feed local fauna that has been displaced by lack of sources of food, which in turns add to a sustainable management of the water hazards. It can be argued that the sum up of these actions facilitate adaptation but also are a means to protect natural resources including water.

The Binational Commission: Power Relationships in Water Governance

As described before, there are many actors playing different roles in the water management of the Sixaola River Basin. However, the relationships between these actors tend to fall into power relationships, where the representatives of the governments seem to be the ones who make decisions over water governance.

In this case study we argue that the structure of the recently created (2009) “Binational Commission”, promoted by the IUCN, resembles a “bureaucracy of water – hydrocracy” in the sense of how the relationships of power and decision making are developed over the water governance of the Sixaola River Basin. At the end, these relationships affect the vision over water security of the basin.

The bureaucracies of water – or hydrocracies – refer to those organizations that have the purpose to build dams for hydropower, flood protection, irrigation and other uses. These organizations are usually from the state and manage significant budgets for those purposes. From a general perspective, they wield control over the management of water in a basin (Molle et al, 2009).

The Binational Commission, in the framework of the 1992 Cooperation for Border Development Agreement, is the organization who is meant to control and take decisions over the water management of the Sixaola River Basin. However, at this stage this commission is only trying to centralize this power and possibly transforming current hydrocracies into a transboundary organizations. This commission is comprised mostly by members of the governments of Costa Rica and Panama, even though NGOs, civil society and the indigenous communities are considered. Although there was no available information about the precise numbers of official representatives of each group, there is an example of participation from the meeting of last October 10th.

Table No. 2. Attendance of Representatives to the Binational Commission Meeting of October 10th, 2013

Considering the attendance to this meeting, the ratio of male to female participation was of 4:3, while the ratio of representatives from the governments (both Panama and Costa Rica) to the representatives of NGOs and to representatives of civil society was of 11:2:1 respectively. During this meeting there was no attendance of representatives of the indigenous communities. These numbers show a possible trend of the power relationships within the commission, and hence, an orientation of who is wielding control over the basin and whose interests are being safeguarded. Male representatives of the governments of Panama and Costa Rica are a majority. However, despite these numbers, it is important to mention that on November 18th, 2013, a general meeting of the Binational Commission took place and one of its objectives was to include more participation from the indigenous communities, civil society and women. For the purpose of this report, it was not possible to obtain the agreements achieved during that session, given its proximity.

Another interesting perspective is that the Binational Commission can also be seen as a way in which both countries, Panama and Costa Rica, wield control one over the other in the basin, assuring that neither one of them takes more advantages over the other. We argue that this is positive, as the water governance of the river is managed between both countries in an environment of dialogue. According to the IUCN (2013), the “first phase results reflect that states involved in the project have maintained a foundation of solidarity and respect for national sovereignty and gradually taken on the need for integrated watershed management”. These results reinforce the arguments of a group of scholars that sustain that international cooperation and international treaties avoid the possibilities for conflict over water (Barnaby, 2009; Dinar et al, 2012).

Finally, we would like to remark the role played by the IUCN as a driver of the Binational Commission within the BRIDGE project and as a driver of water governance within the Water Management for the Adaptation for Climate Change project. In the specific case of the Water Management for the Adaptation for Climate Change project, the IUCN worked with the communities from the ground up. At the first phase of the project, a social tool called RISK was applied to the people of the two sites that were considered to be intervened (they included indigenous communities as well as non-indigenous communities).The application of this participatory tool, released four main vulnerabilities: a) vulnerability to climate change; b) vulnerability of the agricultural systems; c) vulnerability of natural resources; and d) vulnerability of the livelihoods, where the river is one of the most important. The analysis of these vulnerabilities triggered in the three main components of the project, which are: a) water governance; b) ecosystems restoration; and c) livelihoods.

In order to reach these outcomes, the IUCN worked specially with three main groups of people from the Bribrí community: STIBRAWPA, ASEATA and ALACOLPA. These three groups are made up of 100% women and they are involved mainly in the tourism development of their community. The professionals of IUCN developed around 14 workshops with these women to teach them different aspects of water governance: transboundary watersheds, natural resources and ecosystems, among others. From all this process, one of the last results is the creation three months ago of the Committee for the Yorkín River Micro-Basin. Its formal name is Association for the Development and Conservation of the Yorkín River Micro-Basin and it is comprised by seven people who are the board of directors. They aim to a common development for their communities.

However, despite this significant endeavor from both the Bribrí women and the IUCN, and despite the leadership shown by the women of these indigenous communities, these groups have not been able to have a voice on equal footing in the Binational Commission as the representatives of the governments of Panama and Costa Rica. Given that the Binational Commission has been recently created (2009), one could argue that these processes take time to reach certain degree of maturity and it is still too soon to make a judgment. However, it is clear that there is a remaining challenge to take the leadership and entrepreneurship of the indigenous communities from the local level to the international level in equal terms with the rest of stakeholders for making decisions around the Sixaola River Basin. At the end what is sought is a more equitable participation in decision making processes over water governance of the basin from its different stakeholders. Further research will be needed to assess future advances in this issue.

Water Security – Towards Peace

Socio-nature and Water

In the Sixaola River Basin there are initiatives to manage water as a resource. The various stakeholders of the river basin region and of the wider binational area are proposing or trying to execute this management through various methods:

a) The binational institutions in place try to coordinate actions and plan how to manage water within the current legal and bureaucratic structure to meet demands of a shared development vision in the border area. New stakeholders such as indigenous people government in the form of local development associations are being included in this processes of coordination for water governance where “their input is incorporated, decisions are made and implemented, and decision-makers are held accountable in the development and management of water resources and delivery of water services” (Baker, 2013, Pg 3). Integrated water resource management is the core objective of the Binational Hidrobureacracy. Some of the key principles are sustainable development, subsidiarity, ethnic and cultural diversity, and Social Participation (MIDEPLAN, 2012, Articles 2&3).

b) From Costa Rica Civil Society, a new legal framework intends to create a new Costa Rican hidroburocracy structure, principles and goals. Amongst the principles included in this proposal, it is easy to see that water is considered as a resource, with human needs as the priority, while integrated water resource management, and the participation of indigenous people are considered as practical for water resource management in their territories and the River Basin as the core decision making and planning unit (Law Project Number 17.742, 2010, Article 2).

If we focus our attention to the Yorkín community as a sociopolitical unit where the immediate decisions, opinions, planning and actions surge from in relation to their environment: what should be water security and governance? These are important issues to frame in order to think of a different approach to the relation that the Yorkín Bribrí have with water.

If we depart from the conception of socionatural production that “transcends the binary distinctions between society/nature, material/ideological, and real/discursive” (Swyngedouw, 1999), we must assume that how we organize and act as a social group will affect nature, just as in turn nature will affect on our actions and organization, this in a dialectical interaction. Hence, tribal people have developed socio-nature reality where nature behaves a certain way and the indigenous political and cultural content corresponds. An example of this can be found in the study of Rojas, D. S. (2009) where the behaviour of indigenous people that left the community and territory changed due to their new surroundings, and this in turn affected their relations with their own community and environment.

It can be argued that the process of Integrated Water Resource Management that is imposed in the Bribrí territories either by the Binational Permanent Commission or by the future Integrated Water Resource Management Law, does not fit with the dialectic relation that the Bribrí have with nature. Thus, it will definitely have an effect in nature and in the Bribrí culture and politics. Is this process of IWRM in a dialectic exercise with the Tribal People? It is considerably not a dialectic relationship but a colonizing tool that breaks cultural structures and a socionatural view of life. As we have been able to perceive IWRM as a government process does not recognize the autonomy of the Bribrí, nor their vision of water as a non-resource and dilutes the conception of a territory into a peripheral community of a decentralized Binational Hidrobureaucracy. This issue presents an opportunity to conduct further research and explore this stakeholders relationships and the effects of IWRM in the indigenous community.

If a tool like IWRM were to be implemented in the territory and benefit of the Tribal People of Bribrí, it first would have to facilitate that a different water governance structure exists, which considers water as a non-resource, not centering the priority in humans but in the dialectic relationship that society and nature have, a community based and matriarchal structural framework to organize and to acknowledge that there are already two different water security views in place in Costa Rica, with their respective value and that the process has to facilitate their coexistence. That the indigenous people have the right to choose their own water security view as part of their endogenous development priority is guaranteed by international law.

These opposite views that must coexist are represented by that of the Bribrí and of the Panama and Costa Rica Republics. Thus, IWRM would have to be adapted if it is meant to facilitate socio-nature change by recognizing a different way to relate to water from a socio-nature-indigenous view. It would probably have to change into another name: Integrated Water Management. A new approach towards Tribal Peoples has to be develop in order to respect their autonomy and balance power asymmetries. ¨This implies that attempts to reduce water insecurity must grapple not only with issues of scale, social learning and articulation of decision-making between multiple actors but also with the dynamics of social power and social relations.¨ In other words taking on count Tribal autonomy and the Gender views that are inherent to it.

The Binational Commission: Power Relationships in Water Governance

Clearly, one of the most immediate challenges for the Binational Comission of the Sixaola River Basin is the integration of civil society, women and indigenous communities in the commission, not as a symbolic act, but as real contributors and participants in equitable conditions. In this way, a better balance of power can be achieved in the processes of decision making over the water governance of the basin. At the end, this is expected to entail water security vision in better accordance with the needs of all the stakeholders.

More specifically, it would be desirable to integrate women’s participation from the Bribrí community and civil society in the Binational Commission. The leadership and commitment shown by these women at a local level regarding the water governance is not only valuable, but it also reinforces the arguments of some scholars (Earle and Bazilli, 2013; Wutich, 2012) about the important role played by women over water governance.


- The input of views from tribal people and from both genders is critical to achieve sustainability in water management and to secure the respect of Human Rights.

- Gender, water and Tribal autonomy are issues inherent to the sociocultural structure of the Bribrí people. This is reflected on their socionatural views that have key differences with hegemonic views.

- Socio-nature is a paradigm that is critical to formulate a water security definition under a multicultural and gender inclusive framework that involves the Yorkín community.

- Water bureaucracies that exist or are being formed to manage water have an impact on the dialectic relationship of nature and society. This will affect the state of nature and the structure of society causing that the structure and the language used in its creation to become critical points of discussion.

- IWRM is a tool to that can be used for water management but it has to reflect and facilitate an inclusive and adequate water security concept, especially when dealing with a tribal communities.

- IWRM does not necessarily fit with the Bribrí socionatural reality, therefore, some changes may be required to improve it. The transition to IWM might be a solution to the need of an adequate tool that respects and considers Tribal Peoples Rights and perspectives.


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Diana Ubico Duran is an MA Candidate in Environment, Development and Peace with a specialization in Climate Change Policy from UPEACE. She also holds degrees in Business and Civil Engineering from University of Costa Rica with 7 working years in the Costa Rican cement industry.

Adrian Marnez (LL.B, Lic.) is a consultant, lawyer and Candidate for the MA in Environment, Development and Peace, and in the specialization of Climate Change in United Nations Mandated University for Peace. He has been involved in development projects in vulnerable communities, environmental law and policy research, and social enterprise counseling. Currently, is involved in climate change adaptation research as part of his dissertation and in inclusive recycling initiatives.