How do protected areas affect indigenous peoples’ rights to access traditional food? A recent study looks into this question in La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in Costa Rica. The researchers found that the protected area has had multiple negative impacts for the indigenous Bribri people.

By restricting food access in the forest, La Amistad Biosphere Reserve has affected health, nutrition, cultural teaching, quality of life, cultural identity, social cohesion and bonding, as well as affecting the land and wildlife.

The study, published in Conservation & Society and written by Olivia Sylvester, Ali Garcia Segura, and Iain Davidson-Hunt, is titled, “The protection of forest biodiversity can conflict with food access for Indigenous people”.

La Amistad Biosphere Reserve

La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in Costa Rica overlaps with the Bribri indigenous people’s traditional lands. Since time immemorial they have lived in these lands.

Bribri people use the forest for harvesting wild food, cultivating food in forest margins, collecting wood and water for cooking. According to the 2011 census, there are almost 8,000 Bribri people living in an area of 43,690 hectares designated as the Talamanca Bribri Indigenous Territory in 1977.

In 1982, the Talamanca Bribri Indigenous Territory was included with La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. This is Costa Rica’s largest protected area and contains Costa Rica’s largest national park – La Amistad International Park, is split between Costa Rica and Panama (with approximately 200,000 hectares in each country). La Amistad International Park is a World Heritage Site.

The authors worked with the Bajo Coen community in Alto Talamanca. One of the researchers, Olivia Sylvester, lived in the community for nine months and took part in hunting, gathering, shifting agriculture, and market agriculture.

Restrictions on traditional forest use

La Amistad Park management plan allows the Bribri and Cabécar people to carry out traditional forest use and management in the areas that they have used traditionally. But there are many restrictions on this use:

  • Traditional management is only allowed in a small area within the park buffer zones. Bajo Coen is not included in this area.
  • Shifting cultivation is prohibited in the management plan, including in communal forests.
  • Harvesting of wild plant foods is allowed for traditional use, but not for commercial use.
  • Hunting is permitted in some forest zones, but only if it is for subsistence, uses traditional methods (i.e. bow and arrow), is done during the day, and without the use of dogs or rifles.

Sebastiana Segura, a member of the Bribri community, said,

I do not agree with the law because now the law stops us from growing corn in the forest. Also, there is nowhere to grow corn because our ancestors, the Elders, they had their places in the forest on flat lands where they cultivated the land and they took care of the forest but now the forest became small to us, too small.

Shifting cultivation is often based on using saved heirloom seeds. Banning shifting cultivation means an end to heirloom seeds and a loss of seed diversity.

Juradir Villanueva, another Bribri community member, said,

I do not agree when people say to a grandfather that they cannot burn the land to grow corn, rice, or beans because those are our ancestral practices that we have done for years and years; and, without those practices, how are our Elders going to support themselves?

The impacts of banning hunting

The researchers found that forest harvesting is a way for people to learn about the land. Sabino Díaz, an experienced hunter, told the researchers that because of the hunting ban, he now travelled further into the forest. It has become more difficult to teach the younger generation to hunt, because these new hunting routes are not suitable for younger people.

If hunting stops, young people will not learn about traditional food processing and preparation. Or the teaching and stories that go with these practices.

In the past, hunting routes involved walking for several days, from the Caribbean to the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Today, large areas of La Amistad Park are managed for absolute protection and Bribri people are discouraged from even walking in these areas.

Walking traditional harvest routes was an important way of learning Bribri stories and history, as well as learning about edible and medicinal plants in the forest. Wild meat and wild greens can be important sources of protein and micronutrients, not  necessary available in a more westernised diet.

Next steps

The authors propose three steps to improve food access for indigenous peoples in La Amistad Biosphere Reserve (and Biosphere Reserves elsewhere):

  1. Protected area managers need to fully incorporate human rights into forest management plans. Access to traditional food should be considered as part of the full suite of Indigenous rights.
  2. The Bribri should have more opportunities to define which harvesting activities are traditional and sustainable. These activities should be respected in the management of the protected area.
  3. The Bribri need more information about harvesting regulations and their rights to access food.
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