Friday, September 25, 2015

Making a Positive Change for Ourselves in Kekoldi by Jessica Kenny

            “Caminamos hasta arriba como 45 minutos y después empezamos a filosofar…” Sebastián (seen above) had me hooked from his first words, standing at the base of our hike up to his home and research lodge in the Bribri indigenous territory of Kèkoldi.  Over the next three days, his teachings on ethnobotany, bioprospecting, and the development and status of the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica sure left me thinking about human life in all the frameworks of power, gender, race, economics and spirituality that a Development Studies nerd cannot avoid. His most important message was one I heard again and again in Spanish, and am still not sure if I understood it, either because of the language barrier or because it was intentionally ambiguous: “espero hacer un cambio positivo para nosotros.” Or I hope to make a positive change for ourselves. Did he mean that he hopes to inspire us to become more conscientious human beings who use natural resources more sustainably? Or did “ourselves” refer to the indigenous, and he hoped that the intersection of scientific research with their Traditional Ecological Knowledge would bring benefits and prosperity to the Bribri?
            Probably both. The entrepreneurial, sensitive and highly quotable Sebastián has said that the indigenous community itself has not profited from the relationship with bird-watchers and bioprospectors, because “los indígenas no son de eso.” But the important benefit in his eyes is the generation of new interest in science. This view, as he mentioned, is not uncontroversial in his community – as evidenced by the defacing we saw on the wooden columns of the bird-watching tower. As we discussed in our Journal Club, it is a sensitive topic among social scientists whether bioprospecting is the magic bullet for sustainable development in biodiversity rich settings. Besides the challenge of negotiating agreements that justly compensate indigenous peoples for their intellectual property and guarantee sustainable harvesting, symbolically, bioprospecting continues to be done as more of an intrusion than an exchange. Oftentimes scientists are interpreted as the legitimizers of the biochemical aspects of traditional ecological knowledge in a manner that defaces the cultural, rather than give the indigenous voice to leverage their power in the constant battle to reclaim land and resources that were rightfully theirs from the beginning.

“As per usual,” Sebastián jokes, “lawyers are the biggest difficulty.” He says that only about 30% of the government-designated Bribri territory is in indigenous hands – an issue they have been fighting since at least 1996, when their borders were revised to exclude the coastline. Litigation is expensive and doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Meanwhile the Bribri are using small amounts of revenue from cacao, eco-tourism, and the government’s Pago por Servícios Ambientales program to buy back their land from farmers. This man for whom “el suelo es la madre y el bosque es la escuela” expresses his frustration over the land issue – “!Es un chiquitico infierno grande!”

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