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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Costa Rica : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 3 June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Costa Rica : Overview, 3 June 2008, available at: [accessed 3 September 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated on 3 June 2008


Costa Rica is located in southern part of Central America. It is bounded on the east by the Caribbean Sea and on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean. It has common frontiers with Nicaragua in the North and Panama in the southeast.

Most of the indigenous groups in Costa Rica are located in the southeast near the border with Panama. Afro Costa Ricans are mainly concentrated on the Caribbean coast.


Main languages: Spanish, English Creole; indigenous languages, including Maleku, Guaymi, Cabacar and Bri Bri

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic)

Main minority groups: Afro-Costa Ricans (4%), indigenous Costa Ricans (1%, CIA 2006)

Costa Rica is a largely mestizo society (95 per cent) with the exception of the Afro-Costa Ricans of the Atlantic Coast and the small numbers of indigenous Costa Ricans. Most of the latter live in twenty-two reserves established by the government. These groups have been historically excluded from full participation in the political and economic life of the country.

Over the past two decades migrant Nicaraguans have become a significant minority in Costa Rica. They now constitute approximately eight percent (350,000) of the Costa Rican population. Nicaraguans are attracted to the neighbouring country by more job opportunities and better salaries than in their home country. Despite a generally favourable government policy towards Nicaraguans, most Costa Ricans hold negative stereotypes of the migrants that border on xenophobia. This is partly the result of the sharp increase in migration that occurred during and after the Nicaraguan civil war, and a reflection of the low economic status of most Nicaraguan migrants.


Although there is no consensus among historians regarding the various groups of indigenous peoples who inhabited Costa Rica in the pre-colonial era, it is generally agreed that the majority of the population spoke variants (e.g Huetar, Cabacar and Bri Bri) that belong to the Chibchan language family (Fonseca and Cooke1993). Recent linguistic and genetic data, suggest that Costa Rica had been continuously occupied by Chibchan-speaking groups for at least ten thousand years. The principal incursions of Nahuat-speaking peoples of Mexican origin into the northern Pacific region did not begin until after 900 BCE. Moreover their cultural influence on the dominant pre-colonial population seems to have been relatively limited.

Spanish colonization in the late 16th century brought new diseases as well as a system of slavery and mistreatment to the indigenous population. This drove many indigenous people into the mountains of the Talamanca Region in the south of the country.

An ILO study estimates the current indigenous population to be about 30,000 people although indigenous NGOs put the number at closer to 70,000. Today there are Bribri, Cabecar and Boruca populations still living in Talamanca, In total there are eight Indian groups in Costa Rica and twenty two reserves, comprising one per cent of the Costa Rican population. The best-preserved languages of these communities are Maleku, Guaymi, Cabacar and Bri Bri.

The first Afro-Costa Ricans came with early Spanish colonization and African enslavement and became part of the mestizo population. Later waves arrived after the 18th century with the majority coming in the 1890s as Caribbean migrant workers to construct the railroad and work in the banana plantations. Afro Costa-Ricans now represent two per cent of the national population with the highest concentrations located in the Caribbean Coast province of Limon.

It was not until 1949 that Afro-Costa Ricans obtained full citizenship. Many indigenous peoples were undocumented until the early 1990s.


Costa Rica is the richest of the Central American republics; a wealth based on tourism as well as coffee and banana exports. Over the years its wealth has promoted a relative degree of social and political stability. As the oldest democratic state in Latin America, it has a century-long tradition of multi-party democracy and from 1948 until the end of the 1980s it had the most developed welfare state in Central America. In recent years, export revenues have been hit by falling international prices and the drop in European Union banana quotas.

In Costa Rica official discrimination does not exist on the part of the institutions of the state. Nevertheless minorities argue that a certain degree of racial discrimination can be found in individual cases and notable socioeconomic inequalities remain.

Despite an apparently progressive policy towards minorities, Afro-Costa Ricans and the indigenous peoples in the country have always experienced exclusion from the country's relative wealth. In addition observers have noted an increasing climate of xenophobia and intolerance directed at the growing numbers of Colombian and Nicaraguan migrant worker populations in Costa Rica. This is sometimes reflected in negative portrayal in the local print media.

In August 2006 Costa Rica passed a controversial bill granting law enforcement agencies greater powers to curb illegal immigration. It permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle suspected of having undocumented immigrants, and to detain apprehended immigrants indefinitely.

In February 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president (1998) Oscar Arias was re-elected in a campaign dominated by debate over the country's free trade agreement with the United States and other hemispheric states (DR-CAFTA). The new administration continued to face divisions and demonstrations over this issue as well as worsening living conditions for the poorest segments of the population. Since 2001, Costa Rica's rank in the UN Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index has consistently worsened. In the 2006 index, it placed 48 out of the 177 countries surveyed.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority and indigenous NGOs remain active in trying to bring about positive changes. Costa Rica's indigenous movement is a fairly recent development of the 1980s but it has become very vocal in protecting rights, denouncing violations and abuses and demanding the recovery of lands.

NGOs estimate that about 73 percent of the country's indigenous population live in remote areas with little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. The Costa Rican Ministry of Housing estimates that only 27 percent of indigenous people have adequate housing.

Despite their small numbers Afro Costa Ricans have managed to make some advances on the political front. Beginning in 1996 Afro Costa Ricans have increasingly become elected representatives in congress, and gained cabinet level appointments. The nomination by one of the national parties (Citizen Action Party) of a female Afro Costa-Rican deputy Epsy Barr-Campbell for the vice presidency of the nation in 2005 was noteworthy.

Currently the Legislative Assembly is working on a draft Act that will effectively replace the Indigenous Act. In accordance with Convention ILO 169, indigenous leaders have been consulted and have had the opportunity to give their opinion and input on draft inclusions. The draft committee has also recognized the need to rename the reservations as territories, since the first term implies isolation.

The draft, contains fifty-one articles and deals with all the relevant issue but up top the end of 2005 has still not been adopted by the Assembly. There have also been questions regarding the ability of the Costa Rica to adopt a new instrument given its record of inadequate execution of the existing legislation.

For example in January 2006, despite the existence of ILO 169, the Legislative Assembly's Commission of International Affairs, voted almost unanimously to deny indigenous communities the right to be consulted as part of the country's international trade negotiations (e.g. DR-CAFTA).

Also in 2008 Indigenous groups complained of inadequate consultation in plans to develop the El Diquis hydro-electric project which will flood large tracts of traditional territory in the southern province of Puntarenas.

Legal developments

If nothing else, Convention ILO 169 has been an effective tool in increasing indigenous peoples' awareness of their rights under international law.

Proof of this is a growing jurisprudence in Costa Rica that recognizes the principles of Convention 169 as fundamental to the human rights of indigenous people.

By the end of 1996 the government had been sued twice for failing to practically execute the country's indigenous legislation. José Dualok Rojas Ortiz, Bribri president of the association Sejekto sued the Costa Rican state for not complying with its obligations under the Indigenous Act and the ratification of Convention 169.

The NGO Fundación Iriria Tsochok (Foundation for the Defense of the Land) after an extensive one year study produced a charge concerning illegal reduction of the Guatuso reservation and demands for restitution of the 250 hectares. The Supreme Court is investigating both cases.

Nicaraguan migrants

Nicaraguans have been migrating to Costa Rica in search of economic opportunity since at least the 19th century however migrant numbers increased significantly during the Nicaraguan civil war and have grown steadily since then.

A small number of Nicaraguan migrants are permanent residents or naturalized Costa Rican citizens however the majority are temporary residents, and undocumented or illegal immigrants.

Despite actual statistics Nicaraguan migrants are perceived as a major social problem and 'scapegoated' as the prime contributors to a host of societal ills. In addition to marginalization, Nicaraguans regardless of their legal status in the country face discrimination in employment and housing. They are sometimes denied legally-established rights to health care and other services by resentful functionaries who view Nicarguans as a social burden.

Like low status migrant workers everywhere, Nicaraguan migrant workers tend to perform the least desirable and insecure jobs with long hours and low wages. These include agricultural labor, security services, low-skill construction labor, and domestic service. Also consistent with migrant treatment patterns elsewhere, is that some Costa Rican employers take advantage of Nicaraguan migrant workers' precarious legal status, economic desperation and unfamiliarity with labour laws to violate worker rights.

Anti-Nicaraguan sentiment has changed with time. Researchers have pointed out that in the 1980's it had a political basis with Nicaragua being viewed as a violent unstable country, however in the 1990s elements such as class and race also began to emerge.

In a country where European cultural norms and light complexions are viewed as most desirable Nicaraguans are seen as being dark-skinned, 'uncultured' and above all poor. The Nicaraguan accent is often the subject of jokes and the country's history of violence is contrasted to Costa Rican peacefulness (paz), and stable social structures. Consequently although government statistics indicate Nicaraguan citizens commit only around 3% of Costa Rica's crimes, public stereotyping, reinforced by media bias has encouraged a view that holds Nicaraguans responsible for the majority of the crime in the country.

This antagonistic view can sometimes contribute to unfortunate events. In November 2005 a Nicaraguan immigrant, Natividad Canda, was allowed to be attacked, killed and partially eaten on private property by two Rottweiler dogs. It was witnessed by bystanders, including armed Costa Rican authorities.

As a result of this incident, the government of Nicaragua in March 2007 brought a lawsuit against Costa Rica before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) alleging practices of discrimination against immigrants. However the Commission declared the lawsuit inadmissible ruling that the 'dog mauling ' was an isolated case and not part of a systematic discrimination pattern.

Nevertheless a report of the Commission for Human Rights in Central America in 1998 had already charged that the distorted portrayal of the immigration issue by the Costa Rican media has encouraged a climate of social rejection and xenophobia towards Nicaraguans.In an effort to remedy the situation the Nicaragua Ministry of Education (MINED) is developing a plan to improve literacy levels of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica. In Februrary 2008 a delegation of MINED literacy and adult education officials met with leaders of the Nicaraguan migrant community, NGOs and educators in Costa Rica to develop implementation strategies. These will include a census of the Nicaraguan population in Costa Rica to find out literacy levels. In addition, the University of Costa Rica has offered to collaborate by making it possible for its graduates to fulfill their social service requirement by teaching reading and writing skills to non-literate Nicaraguan migrants.

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