Costa Rican Government and Land Disputes with Afro-Descendant Communities in Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo

Velvet Waite June  4, 2024

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, particularly the stretch from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo, is a region renowned for its natural beauty, rich biodiversity, and vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture. This area is predominantly inhabited by Afro-descendant communities, who have a long history and deep cultural ties to the land. However, in recent decades, these communities have faced significant challenges related to land ownership and government policies, resulting in tension and conflict.

Historical Context 

Afro-descendants in the Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo region are primarily the descendants of Afro-Caribbean immigrants who arrived in Costa Rica in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These immigrants, mainly from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, were initially brought in to work on the construction of the national railway and in the banana plantations. Over time, they established their communities along the Caribbean coast, developing a unique cultural identity that blends African, Caribbean, and Costa Rican elements.

Land Ownership Issues

Despite their longstanding presence, Afro-descendant communities in the region have historically faced systemic discrimination and marginalization. One of the most significant issues has been the lack of formal land titles. Many families have lived on and cultivated these lands for generations without official documentation, making them vulnerable to land disputes and government expropriation.

In recent years, the Costa Rican government has intensified efforts to regulate land use and environmental conservation in the Caribbean coast. This has included the designation of protected areas, such as the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. While these conservation efforts are crucial for protecting biodiversity, they have often been implemented without adequate consultation with the local Afro-descendant communities, leading to conflicts over land use and ownership.

Government Expropriation and Displacement

Several cases have emerged where the government has expropriated land from Afro-descendant residents, citing environmental protection and development plans. In many instances, residents claim they were not properly informed or compensated for the loss of their land. This has led to accusations of injustice and a failure to recognize the historical and cultural significance of the land to these communities.

For example, in the area around Manzanillo, numerous families have reported receiving eviction notices or being pressured to leave their homes to make way for tourism development and conservation projects. These actions have sparked protests and legal battles, with community leaders demanding fair treatment and the recognition of their ancestral land rights

Legal and Advocacy Efforts

In response to these challenges, it is unfortunate that not organization has dedicated themselves to fight the government and demand retribution and restitution. Only within the last year there has been some significant action by the Afro-descendant community on the fight for the rectification of the injustice that has taken place.

Within the last year the Afro-decendant communities and their allies have been mobilized to protect and demand their land rights nonetheless, the truth is that there is no organization diligently dedicated to the fight for those rights, there are only a few people who are actively trying. 

However, this fight is one that requires a strong legal and financial support, something that only within the last year has been serious topic of discussion among some activists and leaders in the Afro-descendant community. They are silently and cautiously developing a unified plan by not only discussing solutions on the matter but taking legal action along with the support of grassroots groups that have been at the forefront of advocating for legal recognition of communal land ownership and greater inclusion of Afro-descendants in decision-making processes.

Legal efforts have included filing lawsuits to challenge evictions and seeking recognition of land rights under Costa Rican law and international human rights frameworks. Activists argue that the government’s actions violate not only national legislation but also international agreements such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which Costa Rica is a signatory to.
Moving Forward..

Addressing the land disputes between the Costa Rican government and the Afro-descendant communities from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo requires a multifaceted approach. Key steps include:

Legal Recognition*: The government must work towards providing formal land titles to Afro-descendant families, recognizing their historical and cultural claims to the land.

 Inclusive Policies*: Development and conservation policies should be designed and implemented with the full participation of the local communities, ensuring that their rights and needs are respected.

Compensation and Redress*: Fair compensation and support should be provided to those who have been displaced, along with measures to prevent further injustices.

Cultural Preservation : Efforts should be made to preserve the cultural heritage of Afro-descendant communities, recognizing their contributions to Costa Rica’s diversity and identity.

In, resolving the land disputes in the Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo region is essential for ensuring social justice, protecting cultural heritage, and fostering sustainable development. The Costa Rican government has a responsibility to address these issues through fair and inclusive practices, respecting the rights and dignity of all its citizens.