This is the fourth post of a series of blogs describing the Bribrí people of Talamanca, Costa Rica. I have been living in the community of Yorkín conducting research since June of 2015. Yorkín is a community of around 270 people situated on the border with Panama which has experienced rapid culture change due to increased contact with outside influences and technologies brought about as the result of initiating ecotourism in the community. My research examines how these changes are influencing health.
The current political structure in Talamanca involves local juntas comprised of varying numbers of locally elected officers. There seems to be one for everything – the community at large, health services, sports, and other organizations including Stibrawpa. The members are elected every two years. Only clan members may run for office or vote in the local elections. People are usually not elected for consecutive terms. A person may run for local office once he or she reaches 15 years of age. In addition to the local system, there is also a larger system which is enveloped by the national government and Talamanca has representatives in the Costa Rican government. There is also a locally elected representative, aditibri, in Talamanca who oversees relationships with the national government. The community juntas are in charge of taking care of local issues but for serious crimes they refer the matter to the aditibri who in turn refers the matter to the Costa Rican authorities.
Per my ethnographic research, the Bribrí subsistence pattern and diet has not changed much from the time of Gabb. Locals own small fincas in which they raise such crops as banana and plantain, cacao, pejibaye, yucca, and to a lesser degree rice, beans, and maize. Chickens and other poultry are the most common form of livestock and can be seen everywhere in Yorkín. Swine are less common and cattle, and goats are even less frequently seen. There are no other livestock either large or small. Inhabitants supplement the food that they can raise for the most part with black beans and short grain white rice, which are both very affordable in the area. As in the time of Gabb, the diet is still very starch heavy, and the influx of sugar and “junk food” has created an obesity problem among some of the inhabitants. Many in Yorkín subsist on what they can produce in their fincas, on their livestock, and on payments they receive from the government. This is one of the reasons ecotourism plays such a big role in the community; some locals estimate it brings in as much as 70 percent of the income.
Almost all Bribrí currently speak Spanish. I’ve been told that there are a few elders in the more remote areas who speak only Bribrí. As little as 150 years ago, however, anybody who spoke Spanish was considered a person to be avoided and ostracized. Since that time, possibly as the result of Spanish teachers in the newly formed elementary schools, Spanish quickly took over as the dominant language. Children were punished if they spoke Bribrí in the classroom and parents were threatened if they spoke Bribrí at home. This has changed and currently teachers in Talamanca must be of Bribrí heritage. Bribrí language is again being taught in the elementary schools, and its use varies among local areas and families. It is unclear whether the Bribrí language will continue to be used robustly among the population. Many people suggest that it is important to learn and use the indigenous language, while others suggest that it is more important to learn a second language such as English. One example of families continuing to use the language is my friend Anna who speaks to her mother, husband, and children in Bribrí, while also conversing in Spanish with others. One of my other friends knows only a smattering of Bribrí and only speaks in Spanish.
The village of Yorkín has a population of between 250-280 persons. It is accessible only by either a two and one half hour walk or a twenty-minute boat ride from the tiny hamlet of Bambu. There are no public utilities in the community. Most of the houses have a solar panel and battery for lights, radios, and charging cell phones. There are also a few generators in the community. Almost all the cooking is done over wood. There is a kindergarten, elementary school, and a high school. Each of these serves approximately thirty students. The Bribrí language is now being taught in the schools, and teachers must be of Bribrí descent. In the past this was not the case; as mentioned above, Spanish teachers would hit the children with sticks when they spoke Bribrí and parents were threatened with sanctions from the church if they spoke Bribrí in the home. With the current generation learning the Bribrí language, there is hope that it will not be one of the languages which are being lost throughout the world at an alarming rate.
In 1992, three individuals convinced the community to try their hand at ecotourism and founded Stibrawpa, the first of the two ecotourism projects in the community. Presently, in Yorkín there are two ecotourism programs, three family-owned pulperías, a two-table restaurant which has just opened, and several fincas. However, the big players in the area are the ecotourism projects; which some residents suggest provide 70 percent of the community’s income. These projects were developed and are managed entirely by local groups. The organizers state that these projects seek to help the community return to their original way of being and living while also finding new opportunities and sources of income for their community. Many of the men work as boat captains, tour guides, and construction workers for the ecotourism projects. The women coordinate group activities and tours, cook meals for visitors, and give demonstrations on the processing of cacao. Young boys and girls are taught how to be guides and perform other duties, during which time they learn about their own cultural history, native plants, cacao production, and their native language. Many people involved in ecotourism conclude that it has contributed to improving the quality of life and health within the village. The co-founders of Stibrawpa claim that since beginning the project, there have been fewer respiratory and skin ailments resulting from plantation work and less mental distress, in their words depresión, resulting from men being gone from the village for long periods to work in the plantations.
Instead of, or in addition to, working in tourism, many individuals in and around Yorkín also own small fincas. In the fincas they grow a variety of crops including; banana, plantain, pejibayes, and cacao. Organic cacao is produced and sold to a cooperative in the town of Bribrí. Talamanca accounts for 52 percent of the plantain, 6 percent of the commercial banana production, and 90 percent of the organic banana production in Costa Rica. Plantain has historically been an important subsistence crop among the Bribrí and has been grown as a commercial export crop since the 1980s. In many Bribrí communities, traditional cultivation of basic grains, organic cacao production, and traditional fallows have been replaced by monoculture plantain production. Legislation regulating the use of pesticides and fertilizers are absent in the indigenous Bribrí territories. Work in plantations has decreased in Yorkín due to the rise of other modes of livelihood.
A new development in Yorkín (brought about because of the need for those involved in tourism to improve communication as well as an increase in income) in the past decade is that community members have begun to use cell phones. These enable individuals to access the internet (when there is a strong enough phone signal) by using data on their phones. Because the younger generation has “grown-up” with the internet, they are much more active on social media and are more frequent visitors to various pop culture web-sights from Costa Rica, Panama, and the rest of Latin America. Most adolescents and some young adults use Whatsapp to connect and socialize with friends. Music videos are also very popular and young people are exposed to the latest clothing fashions and grooming styles.
It is still common for a young man to live for a period in the house of the girl’s parents. It is also common that the houses get passed down through the women. However, this is not always the case. I am currently living in a house that is owned by one of the sons of Augustina and Roberto on their traditional property. Rights to live here were passed down through Augustina, but it seems the son owns the house – not his wife. The ownership of fincas, the small horticultural plots, seem to be passed down from the men and the women. I will discuss the inheritance of clan rights briefly below. It is common today, as it was during the time of Gabb’s travels, that the union only lasts as long as it serves both parties. Either man or woman may leave at any time.
Displays of affection are rare, sometimes you can see high school students holding hands, but public kissing is virtually unknown. This was also observed by Gabb in 1875 (pg.496), who writes “This agreeable custom seems to be entirely unknown. I’ve never seen one person among them kiss another, not even a mother her child.” I asked one of my Bribrí friends about this and he said they do kiss, just not in public. I also have it on good authority that the young people kiss, “They watch hip-hop videos, so they know about kissing.” Many people refer to their significant others as “novia/novio, campañera/campañero, or la señora/el señor”- my friend Noe calls Anna “mi campañera.” I do not think I have ever heard someone refer to their significant other as “my wife/my husband”. In regards to family size, it was common among the older generation to have eight children. Obviously, family size was growing since the late 1800s when the entire population in Talamanca was as low as 1,500 individuals. The latest census (2011) puts the population in the Talamancan indigenous territory at 8,000. Young people in their twenties are having fewer children; many say they only want two or three. Family planning services are available in Bambu at the clinic and in Yorkín when the doctors make their bi-weekly visits. I have been told that condom use is not a popular method. Most women travel to the hospital in Limon to give birth—quite a change from mere generations ago when a woman gave birth alone in a hut and cut the umbilical cord with a bamboo knife.
The Bribrí are separated by matrilineal clans. The clan members are considered “Dueños” (owners) of various plants, birds, insects, geographical features, and other entities that inhabit the Bribrí spiritual and physical worlds. One of my friends is a member of the Kolkiwak clan, who are the Dueños of the bocones, vicious little biting flies that continue to make my skin erupt in blisters which itch horribly. I have suggested that she ask them to quit biting me, but she replies that they have to eat. As mentioned above, persons of the same clan are forbidden to marry. I’ve been told that currently the offspring of a Bribrí woman and a non-Bribrí man inherit the rights of the mother and her clan. However, the offspring of a Bribrí man who marries a non-Bribrí woman lose both their communal rights and their clan. There do seem to be variations in this reasoning however – I know of two young men who are the offspring of a Bribrí woman and a non-Bribrí man who can own fincas, but they are not allowed to run for local political office or vote for said officers, but I was told that they “have a voice.” One day while drinking chicha, one of the elders of the community refused to drink chicha out of the cup that had just been used by one of these two young men.
Residents living on the Talamancan reserve keep up with news on radios and televisions, have electric (often solar) powered lights. They use chainsaws and other power equipment, some have outboard motors for their dugout canoes (also some have cars, motorcycles, and scooters in the communities accessible by roads). Most use cell phones and many desire computers. They send their children (who like brand-name clothing) to school, drink beer, dance to popular music, visit doctors who practice western medicine, and attend Christian churches (Catholic, Evangelical, and Adventist). However, they also know the bird calls in the forest, display an extensive knowledge of local flora and their uses, construct bows and arrows from pejibaye and cane, drink homemade chicha, go to the awa (traditional healer), keep their mothers’ surnames, know which clan they belong to and who they can marry, and believe that Sibö made them the center of the universe and instructed them to care for it. There is a festival held every year in the town of Amubri in which a group of men use vines to tie a large boulder to a framework of stout branches and carry the boulder from the forest to the town square led by the women. This ritual reflects the instructions of Sibö to the Bribrí to take care of the planet. The boulder symbolizes the earth which is carried by the men, but led by the women who are the keepers of the clan names, family names, and serve an important role in governance.