The Bribri and the way of Siwa

Sometimes while searching frantically through the University libraries’ databases for peer-reviewed journal articles you find that pot of gold under the rainbow. I had a moment like that this morning; I had been searching for peer-reviewed articles which contain information concerning the recent history of the Bribri. This information has been extremely difficult to find. I have been patching together information I have found in websites and books, but I’ve been unhappy with either the sources of my material or the information contained therein. This morning my hard work paid off and I found an article written by Polly J. Posas entitled “Shocks and Bribri agriculture past and present.” In this article, which mostly focuses on Bribri agriculture, Posas includes data gleaned from editorials written at the University of Costa Rica and a couple of books written in Spanish which I have not been able to gain access to. This was exactly the information I was looking for and I delved into her article with renewed fervor.Talamanca

Posas begins by explaining that the amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas. The Bribri belong to this group. The Bribri and a related tribe, the Cabecar, both belong to the Chibchan language group and used to share common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. This reminds me of a story I was told by Mole during my time in Yorkin. Mole described how their God Sibu created both the Bribri and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river. The Bribri and the Cabecar for the most part live on their two respective indigenous reserves which together comprise the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8000 living on the Bribri Talamanca reserve. The Talamanca Indigenous Reserve is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the south east corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica.

The first written accounts of the Bribri come to us by way of the Spanish explorers. Fernandez, writing in 1908, mentions an account by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in which the explorer states that the women work alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado describes the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants. In fact, according to pollen analysis, corn has been produced in the area since at least 500 BC (Barrantes et al. 1990). This fact is reflected in the Bribri creation myth which states that the God Sibu created the Bribri and the Cabecar out of two kernels of corn.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bribri experienced severe disruption and upheaval when the United Fruit Company moved into the area. The company forcibly removed the Bribri from the Talamanca Valley and created large banana plantations in their place. The Bribri were forced to move up into the hills and mountains. Here the Bribri continued their subsistence agriculture but were hampered by the poor soil of the region combined with having to deal with steep slopes and torrential rainfall. Some Bribri moved back into the valley from the 1940s to the 1960s and worked as laborers for the United Fruit Company. Others who had stayed in the mountains often traveled to the valleys to work in the plantations, being away from their homes for months at a time. In 1978, the Bribri’s cacao orchards were decimated by monilia pod rot, which they now control through natural processes such as providing adequate space between trees. Soon after, petroleum prospecting came to their area and the Bribri were again disrupted by heavy machinery, dynamite blasts, and an introduction of a cash economy. The Bribri people were in conflict with the methods of extracting resources as part of the capitalistic economy. Their way of life, given to them by Sibu, revolved around taking care of their natural environment which was seen as being connected to their physical bodies and to Sibu. As Lisandro Diaz Diaz was quoted in Borge and Castillo 1997 “In order to protect the earth and all the marvelous things it contains, Sibu left the knowledge, our science called Siwa, which is expressed through stories, legends, and traditional practices. The Siwa contain spiritual teachings that have governed our relationship with nature… Sibu left us, the Bribri and the Cabecar, as guardians and protectors of the natural diversity. For thousands of years we have cared for our Mother Earth and for the next thousands of years we will continue caring with the same zeal as our elders… A profound interrelation between the society and nature has existed, thanks to this principle, we can still encounter the great natural diversity of Talamanca.”

It is in this context that I currently find the inhabitants of Yorkin. It is their strong connection to the natural environment which has urged them forward in creating through ecotourism a strategy to make their way in the modern world without relying on wage labor or non-sustaining, extractive economies based on plantain or banana monoculture. It is my sincere hope that I may in some way play a small role in aiding them in this process. I also hope to document their practice and share what they have learned and accomplished with other indigenous groups who are finding themselves in the same situation.


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