Lawmakers from Costa Rica´s ruling political party withdrew their support for a bill that would give greater autonomy to indigenous peoples, backpedaling from promises to protect this minority.
Before dawn on Aug. 10, police forcibly removed two dozen indigenous protesters who had started a sit-in the day before, coinciding with the International Day of the World´s Indigenous People, in the Legislative Assembly in San Jose, demanding that lawmakers vote on the bill.
The ruling National Liberation Party, of President Laura Chinchilla, admitted that the government was worried that the law, which was first introduced nine years ago, could affect a proposed project to build a massive dam in southern Costa Rica on indigenous lands.
Viviana Martín, head of the party bloc – the largest in the Assembly with 24 seats of the 57-seat body – recently said the law “could hold up a national hydroelectric project, the Diquís.”
In July, indigenous groups living near the proposed site of the Diquís dam, a US$2 billion-project that would supply 1 million Costa Ricans with power, said they would seek legal action against it.
The Diquís project would affect 1,100 people, many of them indigenous in southern Costa Rica, and flood 6,000 hectares, 800 of which are part of the ancestral lands of the Terraba people.
Indigenous rights groups argue that the project violates the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169 on indigenous peoples because they were not consulted over the project. Costa Rica has not ratified the convention, which it signed in 1992.
The indigenous protesters had said they simply wanted lawmakers to vote on the bill. Martín, however, said the lawmakers could vote on a committee level, but not the entire legislature.
The opposition Citizens´ Action Party said Chinchilla´s government is trying to bury the bill.
“What the indigenous people are saying is ´Vote,´” said Juan Carlos Mendoza, head of the bloc. “If they vote against it, they vote against it, but they need to be explicit in their position. We´re not going to accept anymore that they return [the bill] to the committee level … that they try to bury it without taking responsibility.”
There are close to 64,000 indigenous inhabitants in Costa Rica, which has a population of some 4.5 million people.