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An Interview with BriBri Leader Don Timoteo Jackson
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From the road to the BriBri reserve you can see the humid blue hills of Panama. Stretching along the southern reaches of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the 13,700 indigenous people who live on this forested land are called the “Hidden People.” This is not a poetic description of the BriBri people, but a reflection on their invisibility in the Costa Rica’s public life. While they are continually ignored in the halls of power, the BriBri people have been resisting the forceful hand of “development” on their land for forty years. This is a particularly difficult battle as their tenure over traditional lands is tenuous at best.
Although the BriBri are granted federal permission to live on reserve land, they have no rights to resources above or below the ground. They can neither develop, nor refuse development on their land. Now, the BriBri stand to lose even this marginal level of control. If the Costa Rica ratifies the Dominican Republic – Central America – United States Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), BriBri attempts to preserve the environment against industry would be vulnerable to attack at the hands of billion-dollar international corporations. With an arsenal of international trade law jurisprudence, which supercedes national constitutional law, corporations hungry for mineral and oil exploration rights to BriBri land would have ready-made access point. Numerous countries, including the United States, Nicaragua and Guatemala, have made special provisions for indigenous communities under DR-CAFTA. Costa Rica has not.
BriBri leader, Don Timoteo Jackson, invited us into his home one afternoon in May. Seated on a wooden stool, donning a plaid shirt with a pocket full of pens, Don Timoteo fixed us with his eyes. The BriBri are preparing to fight, again.
What characterizes the current struggle of the BriBri people?
We are saying no to oil and gas exploration and no to mineral exploration. We are saying no the uranium exploration that has already begun in the mountains without any consultation with the BriBri people. Issues development should always involve public consultations.
What kind of resource exploration is occurring on BriBri land?
They’ve already come in the past. Four or five families gave permission to the company. The government claims it doesn’t know of any exploration going on. But it is happening on the mountain, the heart of the earth, our mother.
What has your experience been with the government?
In the 1960s my mother went to San Jose to meet with the government. The government received her very well. They promised her they would stop causing harm in our community. Now when we travel to San Jose, the ministers will not meet we us. The government says “yes” to white peoples’ money. The indigenous say “no.”
What has your experience been with oil and gas, and mineral exploration?
The first oil and gas exploration began in the 1960s. Then, the indigenous only had machetes. In the Rio Watsi all the fish died. The river began to dry up. It was full of chemicals, pure oil. It was good, clean water before. The company said it took it took 60 barrels of oil, but it took 992.
In the 1980s, they came a second time. Many more of our rivers were polluted. The Cocles is dry now. People got sick. The chemicals were stronger. It’s been more than 15 years since they left. We’ve planted 600 trees on the shore of the river. All of them have died.
The third exploration began in 2000. We united with the people of the coast in the fight against the petrol exploration. There was a protest held in (the port city) of Limon. I told the organizer, ‘Send me four buses. I will send the BriBri.’ The indigenous are the keepers of the land. Since 2000 we have been saying ‘absolutely not.’
In the 1980s the companies promised us houses, potable water, a medical clinic, schools, better roads and an ambulance. None of them funded this. Now, we don’t want anything.
What rights do the BriBri have to the reserve land?
Rights? We have no rights to anything below the ground and no rights to anything above the ground. There’s no profit. We have no autonomy. We are 13,700 BriBri.
What development projects is the government currently pursuing on reserve land?
They want to build a hydroelectric dam. (Presumable part of Plan Pueblo Panama) it would be part of an electrical generating system that spanned from Panama to Mexico. They lost because they could not get municipal permission for damming at Teliri-Sixaola. There was a collision. It’s meaningful and significant to try.
Where do the BriBri stand in terms of the pending free trade agreement, DR-CAFTA?
Some people are for the free trade agreement and some are against it. But most don’t know anything about it. I have been traveling around, explaining it to people. The DR-CAFTA doesn’t suit us. It doesn’t fit us. If I want to work in my farm I can’t. I need permission from whomever they give the land to. They give all the projects to them (foreign corporations), or they don’t do them.
Do you have any final message?
My mother told me she would give her strength to those who kept fighting. We must keep fighting. We must not sell mother earth. Where would that lead? I’m telling the human village, no more harm to indigenous peoples. No more contamination.
Candice O'Grady is a Master's Degree Candidate from the UN mandated University for Peace.