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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Costa Rica

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, 3 June 2008, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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.

Last updated: 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.


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 Cooke, 1993). 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.


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.


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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


[Protection of human rights in Central America]
Tel: +506 224 5970

Afro-Costa Ricans

Asociación Proyecto Caribe
[Afro Costa Rican rights and development]
Tel: +506 226 7390

Centro de Mujeres Afrocostarricenses

Indigenous peoples

Asociación Cultural Sejekto de Costa Rica
[Indigenous culture and development]
Tel: +506 236 3115, 844 0130

Asociación Regional Aborigen Del Dikes
[Environment and Indigenous Rights]
Tel: +506 730 0289

Mesa Nacional Indígena De Costa Rica
Tel: +506 253 8523

Sources and further reading


"A Different Path for Costa Rica" Magazine article; World and I, Vol. 18, March 2003 retrieved 20 April 2007, %22%20or%20%22costa%20rica%22)%20and%20history

Barlett; Peggy F, Agricultural Choice and Change: Decision Making in a Costa Rican Community Rutgers University Press, 1982.

Booth John A.; Quest for Democracy, Westview Press, 1998

Edelman Marc, Peasants against Globalization: Rural Social Movements in Costa Rica

Gadwa Tess, Magazine article: Guanacaste Days - Celebrating Democracy's Heritage in Costa Rica World and I, Vol. 16, July 2001

Hall Carolyn, Costa Rica: A Geographical Interpretation in Historical Perspective

Helmuth Chalene Standish, Peter. Culture and Customs of Costa Rica

Honey Martha, Hostile Acts: US Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s University Presses of Florida, 1994

Jasper Goss, Douglas Pacheco; Journal article: Comparative Globalization and the State in Costa Rica and Thailand; Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 29, 1999

Peter Kornbluh, Martha Honey; Magazine article: The Case of Ollie's Airstrip; Iran/Contra in Costa Rica; The Nation, Vol. 256, February 22, 1993

Kutsche, Paul, Voices of Migrants: Rural-Urban Migration in Costa Rica.

Lara, S., with Barry, T. and Simonson, P., Inside Costa Rica, Albuquerque, N. Mex., Resource Centre Press, 1995.

May Stacy, Faaland Just, Koch Albert R., Parsons Howard L., Clarence Senior; Costa Rica: A Study in Economic Development G. Allen and Unwin, 1952

Miller Eugene D, 'A Holy Alliance? The Church and the Left in Costa Rica, 1932-1948

Osland Joyce S., Snyder Monteze M., Hunter Leslie; Journal article: A Comparative Study of Managerial Styles among Female Executives in Nicaragua and Costa Rica; International Studies of Management and Organization, Vol. 28, 1998

Peeler John A, Latin American Democracies: Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela

Vivanco Luis A. Journal article; Spectacular Quetzals, Ecotourism, and Environmental Futures in Monte Verde, Costa Rica(1) Ethnology, Vol. 40, 2001

Wyels Joyce Gregory, Magazine article 'Common Ground for Farmers and Forests: Alarmed by Signs of Extensive Deforestation over the Past Decades, Groups in Costa Rica Are Developing Programs That Combine Ecological Awareness and Sustainable Agriculture Americas (English Edition), Vol. 55, March 2003

Afro-Costa Ricans

Avi Chomsky; Journal article: Afro-Jamaican Traditions and Labor Organizing on United Fruit Company Plantations in Costa Rica, 1910 Journal of Social History, Vol. 28, 1995

Cowater International Inc. (ed), Costa Rica Country Report, Poverty Alleviation Program for Minority Communities in Latin America, IDB, Washington, 1995

Echeverri-Gent, Elisavinda Forgotten Workers: British West Indians and the Early Days of the Banana Industry in Costa Rica and Honduras. Journal of Latin American Studies 24:275-308. 1992

Euraque, Darío, The Banana Enclave, Nationalism and Mestizaje in Honduras, 1910s-1930s: (ed) Tthe Margins of the Nation-State: Identity and Struggle in the Making of Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean, 1860-1960 Durham: Duke University Press. 1997

Latin America and the Caribbean: Geographic Location of Afro-Descendent Populations, retrieved 20 April 2007, $FILE/geo_location.pdf

Minority Rights Group (ed), Afro-Central Americans: Rediscovering the African Heritage, MRG, UK, 1996

Morrison, Judith, Cashing In on Afro Latin Communities: Strategies for Promoting Grassroots Initiatives, Inter American Foundation, 2001

Mosby Dorothy E.; Place, Language, and Identity in Afro-Costa Rican Literature

University of Missouri Press, 2003

Oakley, Peter, 'Social Exclusion and Afro Latinos', Towards a Shared Vision of Development, IDB, Washington DC, 2001.

Quest for Inclusion: Realizing Afro-Latin American Potential, Position Paper, Vol. 1. Organization of Africans in the Americas, 2000

Sawyers Royal, K. and Perry, F., 'Costa Rica', in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, MRG Publications, 1995; and in MRG (ed.), Afro-Central Americans, London, MRG report, 1996.

Indigenous peoples

Arnason, Lyle. The Bribri People.

Agroecology Research Group. (1999). Community Development with the Bribri of Costa Rica. retrieved 20 April 2007,

Colesberry, and Brass McLean. (1993). Costa Rica: The Last Country the Gods Made. Montana: Falcon Press Publishing Co.

Daling, Tjabel. (1998). Costa Rica: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture. New York: Interlink Books.

Egger, Marc. Costa Ricans (Ticos). retrieved 1 May 2007,

Helmuth, Chalene. (2000). Culture and Customs of Costa Rica. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Hovinga, Paul. The Bribri Indians. retrieved 20 April 2007, htm

Indigenous People. "retrieved 20 April 2007," 2000-2006

Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica: On the Road to Extinction? A look at ILO 169 in Costa Rica. retrieved 20 April 2007,

Miller, Debra A. (2005). Costa Rica: Modern Nations of the World. Michigan: Lucent Books.

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