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Indigenous defenders of Costa Rica face increasing threats and harassment

To deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Costa Rica’s government banned mass gatherings on 9th March 2020 and declared a state of emergency on 16th March 2020. The measures adopted by the country included the closure of schools and all non-essential businesses, mass testing and a shutdown of the country’s borders. The government announced it would begin easing restrictions from 1st May 2020, as the country’s infection rate has consistently declined.

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Alarming situation of Indigenous leaders in Costa Rica

On 3rd March 2020, unidentified individuals set fire to Indigenous land defender Pablo Sibar’s plot of land located in the Brörán Indigenous territory in Térraba, Puntarenas. The next day, two other locations on Sibar’s farm were targeted by arson attacks, leaving three family houses damaged and many hectares of crops and meadows completely destroyed. Following these recent attacks, the defender has been provided with police protection. However, as informed by Frontline Defenders, he is only accompanied when he leaves the indigenous territory or on trips that are considered dangerous. The defender reportedly believes that this measure is not appropriate as the community does not feel secure in the presence of the police, who have subjected them to intimidation in the past.

On 18th March 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about the threats, harassment and violence faced by Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders in Costa Rica, particularly in the Puntarenas province. IACHR reported that in the weeks preceding this statement they had received warnings of death threats against two defenders in the region, Gustavo Oreamuno Vignet and Jeffrey López Castro, both members of the Asociación de Iniciativas Populares Ditsö (Ditsö’s Association of Popular Initiatives). IACHR highlighted that these threats have intensified after the murder of Indigenous leader Jerhy Rivera Rivera on 24th February 2020 in the context of land disputes. According to news reports, after Rivera’s killing, one man turned himself in to the police claiming he had shot the Indigenous leader in self-defence. He was released after a brief detention.

The Inter-American Commission reiterated that acts of violence and other attacks against defenders not only affect their fundamental rights, but also undermine the fundamental role defenders play in society. Such violence also harms all those for whom they work, leaving them in a state of greater vulnerability, to the point of being defenceless. The IACHR also underscored the importance of land demarcation processes for the physical and cultural survival of Indigenous peoples.

In yet another attack, on 30th March 2020 an individual set fire to the land belonging to defender Mainor Ortíz Delgado, destroying part of his crops and areas of environmental conservation in the Rio Azul community in Salitre Bribri territory, Puntarenas province. As reported previously on the Monitor, Ortíz Delgado was shot in the leg by land invaders on 9th February 2020. According to Frontline Defenders, the perpetrator of this latest attack is believed to be the same land grabber who has reportedly made threats against the defender and his family on multiple occasions in the past.