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BriBri People of Costa Rica

In the humid rainforest of on Costa Rica's eastern Caribbean side is an area known as the Talamanca canton of the Limón Province of Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a brilliant country that numbers itself as one of the nations on Earth that spends it's revenues on education instead of weapons of war.

It has no standing army, but it does have great educational and health care systems. It has rainforests, beaches and mountains. On the top of Mount Arenal there is a volcanoe that occasionally gets noisy and can be seen from a few of the pristine white sand beaches on the Pacific coastline. It would be a safe call to say it is a paradise north of the Panama Canal and just south of Lake Nicaragua in the nation of the same name as the lake. It is home to thousands of expats from the United States, Great Britain, Germany and a host of other North Americans, Europeans and a diversity of other nations from around the world. They have all flocked to Costa Rica because it is paradise in the sun.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

Before Columbus ever set sail - long before the numerous waves of feminism - before the Catholic Church and the dominant patriarchal patterns of populations from Europe had landed in Latin America - before people began to attribute the origins of ‘feminism’ to white women of the western world - the Bribri Peoples of modern day Costa Rica were living out a matriarchal legacy and tradition that continues, uninterrupted, to this day.

As far as the current modes of feminism develop, the women in Latin America consistently are redefining and evolving a more holistic, community-based approach across the ever expanding spectrum of feminist ideology that has come into being.

Many indigenous females in Latin America have voiced their inability to identify with the individualist models of ‘feminismo’ - that are often conceived by white women in the United States - and although innocently enough, are now being taught abroad.

The new wave of feminism that is being led by las mujeres de América Latina (the women of Latin America) is far more community focused. It is not about proving what one woman can do within her own world, or by proving that she can succeed as a man in a so-called ‘man’s world’.

In Latin America it is by a dramatically stark contrast, about proving what one woman can do for the greater community, and even what one can do for the world through group effort.

Noemy Blanco Salazar, one of the Bribi matriarchs living in Amubri, Costa Rica, stated the following about the Bribri’s matriarchal world. When asked about the matriarchal nature of the Bribri way and what it can mean for rest of the world - especially for women everywhere, Noemy said:

“We are heirs of life, we have to assume this mission that SIBU {Bribri God} proudly entrusted, with dignity. We must strive to build valuable ways of being for society. Mother Earth energy is the force that grows in our spirit.”

"This mission that the Bribri collectively took on, to live out the matriarchal vision in alignment with the Earth Mother, is one that can and should inspire women leaders, activists, scholars, freethinkers, and seekers and defenders of a world in balance, everywhere."

Perhaps by nature of - and as a tribute to this feminine base of dignity and strength, the Bribri currently have a tenacious grasp on their traditional tribal language and sustain a robust indigenous culture, even as the surrounding nation of Costa Rica has kept pace with many of the homogenizing development patterns that globalization brings.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

The Bribri are an indigenous people in Costa Rica. They live in the Talamanca canton in Limón Province of Costa Rica. They speak the Bribri language as well as Spanish. There are varying estimates of the population of the tribe, but according to a census by the Ministerio de Salud, there are 11,500 Bribri living within service range of the Hone Creek Clinic alone.

They are a voting majority in the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca area. Other estimates of tribal population in Costa Rica range much higher, some reaching 35,000.

Their remarkable efforts in sustaining the hallmarks of cultural preservation, the Bribri in Talamanca also fortify their tribal culture through community radio.

Globalization is always looking for a way in, however, and Noemy relates that this makes it a challenge to hold the vision of matriarchy, as the outside system seems doggedly determined to displace it.

The presence of large corporate banana plantations, especially those of the company named Chiquita, has been one such lifestyle infringement. The nature of fruit industry work and the preference for male workers undermined the traditional matriarchal structure of the Bribri clans is only one instance. The industry also brings other problems as well.

The unrestrained use of pesticides that the fruit meg-company chooses has brought dangerous contamination to the land and water supply. According to Noemie Salazar, the banana company’s presence has put the community at a high risk for serious long-term health problems, including but definitely not limited to others such as fertility issues in women and developmental issues in their children.

Fortunately, the Bribri community has “a very strong awareness that allows us to preserve and to strengthen the values and customs of their culture.” There is currently a matriarch-centered movement to generate new avenues of revenue for the community.

Many of the men are presently supportive of this shift and quite relieved at the opportunity to move away from the banana industry and its severe health risks. Unfortunately, Salazar says the men who are under the influence of a more “formal education” tend to have less respect for the matriarchal ways:

“The public school system does not put traditional indigenous education in context, and instead promotes an individualistic ideology that prioritizes foreign knowledge over our traditional community indigenous values, system and customs as being something worthwhile and valuable.”

In spite of this, the women are consciously moving forward in entrepreneurial projects built around ecotourism, organic agriculture, crafts, food and traditional beverages, and educational opportunities.

Salazar herself is directly involved with organizing and facilitating the infrastructure and instruction for a graduate level course on Indigenous Rights Law in the Field led by Adilia Caravaca and Mihir Kanade through the University For Peace in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

As a separate endeavor, Caravaca has also spent time with the Bribri matriarchs, empowering them directly with knowledge on navigating the world of Indigenous Rights Law, as it is her specialty.

The Bribri’s matriarchal clan structure means that tribal lineage is passed down through the mother, and knowledge and tradition is passed down by the grandmother.

“Our close relationship to our grandmothers is a pillar of knowledge. We transmit the value of life in our approach to Mother Nature as an experiential encounter every day - included in work in the kitchen, at the ceremony, and in the upbringing of our children.”

Feminism around the world is finally now catching on to the Bribri vision on many levels. No one model can perhaps ever speak for all women but the Bribri experience seems to truly embody and express the key concepts and constructs aligned with the more holistic, rising model of ecofeminism.

Noted ecofeminist, Vandana Shiva has articulated similar notions of how women have a special connection to the environment through their daily interactions, and consistently warns of the extensive consequences of this connection being ignored.

Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalization author. Based in Delhi, Shiva has written more than 20 books and is often referred as "Gandhi of Grain" for her activism associated with anti-GMO movement.

She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts for centuries in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.” The world has no doubt reached the time, place and need to recognize this formally.

At the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, the largest of Costa Rica’s 21 Indigenous reserves - in one of the least developed regions of the country. During the last 30 years, the Bribri people have been struggling to recover their culture and sacred traditions, which have been threatened by the encroachment of the dominant Costa Rican culture.

Bernarda Morales, president of the Stibrawpa Women’s House Association, says, “My generation lost our language and traditions, and has been struggling to recover them. We reached decided to reach out to our elders to help us return to our original way of being and living."

"We also needed to find new opportunities and sources of income for our community.” It was these needs that gave birth to the Stibrawpa Women’s House Association in 1996.

The women who formed Stibrawpa sought ways to build their local economy and provide realistic opportunities for young and adult members of the community to remain on their land in order to not have to leave home to find work.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

It was “a desperate calling to recover our traditions and generate a suitable income for our families,” recalls Prisca Morales, a board member of Stibrawpa.

“In the past, our men had to leave for months to work on banana plantations, and over time we started noticing that as they aged, their health deteriorated. They often died young - we believe, from exposure to the big corporations use of chemicals. We wanted to create a local source of income for them to stay home with their families, and live a healthier lifestyle.”

The founders of Stibrawpa saw rural tourism as something they could do in addition to harvesting bananas, cocoa, and doing handcrafts.

“We had three major ideas to focus on: the rainforest, the culture, and the economy. We wanted to see how we could improve and preserve these three areas."

"We wanted to rescue our culture and our language. At first we thought this was a dream. ‘There isn’t any work to do here was our initial thought. But I became a change agent among the woman my age, encouraging them to join and participate."

"Then we asked, ‘How do we organize ourselves?’ So we sought the elders’ wisdom and asked them to teach us how to do our arts and crafts again and make the bows and arrows. However, that was not sustainable; there were too many expenses and very little profit.”

As their organization grew, the women received training from institutions such as the INCAE Business School, INA (National Institute for Learning) and INAMU (National Women’s Institute) on such topics as leadership, organizational skills, accounting, and tourism.

Bernarda recalls, “At first, only I received the trainings, since I was the only one who could leave my house. Some husbands are more strict about their wives leaving the house, but I had the support of my husband.”

Stibrawpa gradually grew to its current 30 members: 12 women and 18 men. Bernarda says: “We have all ages participating, from our elders, to as young as 16- or 17-year olds.”

With funding from the Small Grants Program of the United Nations Development Program and the Global Environmental Facility, they built the first thatched-roof building, which was destroyed in the big flood of November 2009. They rebuilt it, along with other structures, with help from international and local donors.

Stibrawpa members are required to pay an enrollment fee and to comply with certain rules, such as, no fighting, participation in training, and attendance at meetings. Each member’s salary depends on the work they do, the time they invest, and their duties and responsibilities.

Stibrawpa offers tourists a unique opportunity to explore the Bribri people’s ancient culture, and learn about their sacred traditions and contemporary life. Visitors stay in two thatched-roof buildings that can accommodate 30 people. Most tours are one-day events, starting with an hour-long canoe ride up the Yorkín River.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

Upon arrival, tourists are offered a traditional snack of plantain tarts served on a plantain leaf on a hand-carved, wooden plate. A Stibrawpa member welcomes them and introduces the day’s activities, which include hiking in the forest, crossing rivers on hammock bridges, practicing with the bow and arrow, and making chocolate from cacao seeds - a favorite activity. In accord with Bribri tradition, only women can participate in the making of the chocolate.

Cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate, thrives and grows in the mountains of Talamanca. In Bribri, it is known as Tsuru. According to the Bribri’s cosmovision, it contains the soul and the spirit of a woman called Tsuru – who their god, Sibö, turned into a cocoa plant.

“Taking the shape of an old man, Sibö went on a journey to the holy mountain. It got dark and cold, he had no place to stay for the night. He went from door to door searching for a place to sleep, but the women living there refused him.

They feared he came with different intentions. Eventually he arrived at the house of a young woman called Tsuru. Tsuru offered him food and a place to sleep…”

To show his appreciation, Sibö turned Tsuru into a cocoa plant, that would from then on provide all future generation with precious cocoa fruits. The other three ladies, who refused to host Sibö, were punished and transformed into inferior plants.

But what is so special about turning someone into a cocoa tree? Well, it might sound odd when seen through the eyes of a “westerner”, but it makes perfect sense once you learn more about the Bribri’s deep and spiritual connection to nature.

They see themselves as part of the very nature they live in. For them, every animal, every plant, every river and every rock deserves respect. And for them, the cocoa fruit is one of the most precious gifts Sibö has made to humankind. It’s more than simply a food source and the base of chocolate, it has a huge cultural significance.

The people cultivate their cocoa on small family owned fincas, using mostly traditional indigenous cultivation practices. Always in harmony with nature, as it is deeply rooted in their value system of the Bribri tribe.

Tourists may also explore the organic farms and learn about medicinal plants and the construction of the thatched roofs.

“During high season, there are around 40 tourists per month. They are all ages and they come from the United States, England, France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium, and even some local tourism from Costa Rica,” says Prisca Morales.

The project is promoted by ACTUAR (The Costa Rican Association of Rural Community Tourism) and ATEC (Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation), among other tourism associations.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

In the early years of the business, most of the men were skeptical. “It took us a long time - more than eight years of struggling, to earn their respect. They didn’t like us traveling alone to San José to receive training. It took us a long time to convince them.”

But the women demonstrated their ability to organize and lead their community, and their success has earned them everyone’s respect.

Bernarda’s husband, Julio, proudly points out all of the organizations that have benefited from Stibrawpa. "With earnings from ecotourism, the association established a local health clinic, a high school, and a water aqueduct. They are now building a community center which will be their main area for rituals, community gatherings, graduations, and other events."

Stibrawpa members felt good about the social and cultural impacts of tourism. According to Bernarda, the interaction with people from different countries has nourished their community.

“Ecotourism is educational both ways. We also learn about their cultures; it is a cultural exchange,” she explains.

For the most part, Stibrawpa members think the tourism project has reinforced traditional values. “We are now more connected to our roots, and nature. We are fighting to maintain our culture and respect for our land. The project has been an inspiration for us and our families."

"Now the young ones are getting more involved and excited about participating, because Stibrawpa offers them a source of income. They aren’t going outside for drugs or alcohol,” says Bernarda.

“The learning process has been amazing,” she continues. “We have learned how to manage organizations, to solve problems, and to respect opinions. We go home and [communicate] what we have learned to our children. We explain what our work is, and why it is important for our community.

Now our youth and children are proud of our sacred traditions. They know how to write and speak the Bribri language. All our efforts are passing on to other Indigenous communities in Costa Rica, and even in Panama,” she smiles proudly.

What are their goals for the future? They hope to accommodate around 50 tourists in their facilities, increase their boat fleet, and have more young people involved in the project. “In the long run, we hope to have a university here,” Bernarda says.

“We are very hopeful. Remember, five years ago, there was not even a high school here. We want young people to stay, to work within the community and be with their families. We want our people, wherever they go, to have pride in being Bribri.”

Very few societies in the world are considered matriarchies. However, those have been closely discussed in terms of power and kinship. In a matriarchal society, mothers are the leaders of the family group and they establish the rules to follow.

They also represent the authority in the rest of the social institutions, acting as community leaders. Matriarchal societies usually follow a matrilineal order by which ancestral descent obeys the maternal line. Thus, the structure of marriage, residence or sexual relationships are established from a female perspective.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

In spite of the existence of a few societies considered matriarchies, many anthropologists throughout history have claimed that, in many of these cases, female ruling is only significant in family and legacy issues.

So, they have pointed out that, in these cases, those considered the leaders of the community are men. Nevertheless, when the most valued possessions for the community were the land and livestock, probably, those with power over these two things were the actual leaders of the group.

For instance, if we were in a traditional agrarian society, those who could decide on the land would rule in the community. In many of these societies, called matriarchies, women own and inherit the land and private property. Therefore, in spite of some so-called experts statements, we could say that they are probably the leaders of their communities.

Communities like the Bribri, whose economies are based on cultivating and producing crops, are known as agrarian societies. For them, land is the most valuable thing, since it is their main source of wealth. Therefore, in these societies, landownership defines the social hierarchy.

“The elder Bribri people always take a moment, typically in the morning, to connect with their natural surroundings. Usually facing East, they make the most of the sunrise and their natural surroundings. It is their way to greet all beings that are part of their life and accompany their day.”

The most valued thing for the Bribri is the land where they grow food. They are a matriarchy, women are the head of the family. They inherit the land, and they have control over private property. Women are so important for their culture that they are the only ones allowed to prepare the sacred drink.

The whole community celebrates the birth of a girl as an important event, since a female birth assures the existence of the group. Although women have a great importance in society, when it comes to public institutions or authority figures, both men and women can participate without almost any discrimination.

Ruling in public affairs is shared by women and men as equals. Actually, both have the same opportunities to participate in the government of the community. The disputes are discussed and solved in the Court of Customary Law or the Board of Elderly, where the wisest men and women of the group decide the main issues.

The Bribri follow a matrilineal descent system, with exogamous marriages. Their social structure is divided into clans, each one considered an extended family with different roles in society. Women are the head of the family and the ones who inherit the land. Therefore, men have to move to a different clan to find a partner.

When a girl is born, everybody in the clan will celebrate it because it will assure the continued existence of the clan. It means that more men will want to join the clan to become her couple and it will lead to future pregnancies.

For the Bribri people, it is really important that the mother sings her baby girl lullabies to transmit her knowledge about the world and culture of the clan. Consequently, when she grows old, as the head of her family, she will also have to transmit this knowledge to her foreign partner and future daughters.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

Unlike many patriarchal societies, the education of girls is really important for the Bribri. A female baby is great news for all the community and they all organise cultural activities to welcome her.

Sibo the supreme God asked the potter Sula to design living beings as if they were art. So Sula began to form organisms with different forms and figures, some like trees, animals or rivers. Although they were different in shape, they were all considered human beings without any distinction between them.

For this reason, the Bribri people perceive all the things or beings in nature as equal to humans. They all share the same existence and were created in the same way. This is likely the reason why the Bribri people claim an equivalence between every living being in the world - consequently, seeing equality between women and men.

Even though the impact of western societies has influenced the use of the Bribri language, more than 50% of the population continue to speak their mother tongue. The Bribri language has significant characteristics which reflect their concept of equality between beings. For instance, the fact that there is no difference between the personal pronouns “he and she”. Both of them are represented with the same word in Bribri, “ie”.

An Awa occupies a very important place in Bribri society. The person that holds the positionof an Awa, who specializes in medicine, could be considered a shaman or a doctor. They guide and advise people with their knowledge. The awapa (plural for awa) spend their lives learning about the universe, plants, medicines and living beings to be able to share this knowledge with others.

Besides spreading wisdom about nature, the awa is also the one who teaches everything regarding the ways to communicate with each other.

Not everyone can become an awa, only certain clans are allowed to. It was said that the best awapa were women, and usually women were the ones to take this role.

However, nowadays, both men and women embody this figure of leadership without any discrimination. The awa uses sacred stones to heal sick people. These stones can be male or female. Female stones are the most valued ones to carry out the rituals. The Bribri people believe female stones have stronger healing powers.

When a baby is born, the awa will visit the parents and carry out the ceremony of purification of the new born and the mother. Then the awa will ask the parents about their dreams and visions and, with that information, the awa will decide if that child can become an awa or not.

Finally, their parents have to decide if they want the child to start learning about the awa position or they prefer to let him/her decide later. If they decide for the child to become an awa, the child will have to learn everything about plants, illnesses and medicines from another awa of their clan.

Both men and women can become Óköm. The Óköm is the person in charge of the funerary rituals, and the only one allowed to treat the corpse. The procedure to designate an Óköm is similar to the previous one.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

Once a baby is born, the awa will talk to the parents and conclude if there is a possibility to become Óköm. When the child or the family communicates their acceptance of the position, then the awa will arrange a ceremony to introduce the child as a prospective Óköm in society.

The child-Óköm will start the training at around eight years old, and she or he will have to learn lots of aspects about animals, social behaviour, funeral rituals, and values.

During the training years, the child will be obligated to make a lot of sacrifices, like spending days in the mountains without food and shelter, or going there at night when there are rain storms.

This process will help him/her learn about the language of nature and he/she will be able to feel the nature around them as their own.

Although we have seen that most of the positions do not discriminate regarding gender, the Sĩõ’tãmĩ is the exception. Only women can become Sĩõ’tãmĩ. The Sĩõ’tãmĩpa (plural of sĩõ’tãmĩ) have to take care of the Sĩõ’, which are the sacred stones used by the awapa in rituals. The process to designate a Sĩõ’tãmĩ is the same as in the previous cases.

At an early age, the girl chosen to represent this figure will have to start learning from the older Sĩõ’tãmĩpa of the clan. She will learn about animals, plants and the treatment of sacred stones, the Sĩõ’. The training of the Sĩõ’tãmĩpa is closely related to the training of the awapa, since they will also have to act together in the future ceremonies.

The Sĩõ’ are considered to be alive. They see everything, understand everything and have knowledge about everything in the world. They acquire this knowledge through the behaviour of their Sĩõ’tãmĩ. She will have to treat them as if they were close relatives to promote a good relationship between them.

The Sĩõ’tãmĩ is responsible for the sacred stones, a bad relationship between them could have terrible consequences. The Sĩõ’ could become evil animals that could kill people or even transmit illnesses.

The Bribri culture possesses an extraordinary harmony between their members and the land that they inhabit. As a matriarchy, they follow a matrilineal descent system. Women are the head of the family, and they also hold the ownership of land.

Although women have a significant role in the community, men and women indistinctily can embody most of the relevant positions in society. For instance, both men and women constitute the Court of Customary Law and the Board of Elderly .

In the same way, there is no gender discrimination in the case of the relevant figures in the community, like the Awa or the Óköm.

We can conclude that, in spite of the matriarchal system, women have not imposed their figure on men. Bribri men and women share the same duties, they are equal.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

They even believe there is an equivalence between humans and all other beings, like animals or plants, which they consider humans too. This set of beliefs translates into a society of respect and cooperation.

Where they plant cocoa, bananas, sugarcane and other crops Cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate, thrives and grows in the mountains of Talamanca. In Bribri, it is known as Tsuru. According to the Bribri’s cosmovision, it contains the soul and the spirit of a woman called Tsuru – who their god, Sibö, turned into a cocoa plant.

“Taking the shape of an old man, Sibö went on a journey to the holy mountain. It got dark and cold, he had no place to stay for the night. He went from door to door searching for a place to sleep, but the women living there refused him. They feared he came with different intentions. Eventually he arrived at the house of a young woman called Tsuru. Tsuru offered him food and a place to sleep…”

To show his appreciation, Sibö turned Tsuru into a cocoa plant, that would from then on provide all future generation with precious cocoa fruits. The other three ladies, who refused to host Sibö, were punished and transformed into inferior plants.

But what is so special about turning someone into a cocoa tree? Well, it might sound odd when seen through the eyes of a “westerner”, but it makes perfect sense once you learn more about the Bribri’s deep and spiritual connection to nature.

They see themselves as part of the very nature they live in. For them, every animal, every plant, every river and every rock deserves respect. And for them, the cocoa fruit is one of the most precious gifts Sibö has made to humankind. It’s more than simply a food source and the base of chocolate, it has a huge cultural significance.

The Bribri people plant and cultivate their cocoa on small family owned fincas¹, using mostly traditional indigenous cultivation practices. Always in harmony with nature, as it is deeply rooted in their value system of the Bribri tribe.

Unlike westernized agroforestry systems. Forestry and agriculture are deliberately combined with each other. This protects the biodiversity, enables a more efficient use of nutrients and helps prevent erosion.

The plants actually help each other grow. For example, the banana palm provides shade for the sun-sensitive cocoa tree. In turn, the banana palm benefits from the rich hummus of the composted cocoa leaves.

Cocoa production in the Talamanca region is mostly organic. The Bribri are very much against the use of chemicals. The fertilizers and pesticides they do use are usually made from locally available plants.

BriBri People of Costa Rica

These practices are of late finally being recognized by modern-day climate change experts as being a neccessary means of addressing the effects of global warming.

For the Bribri, sustainability in their agricultural practices is a matter of course. Their respectful interaction with nature was already laid out in the laws of Sibö:

“We cannot exploit nature, as we are part of it ourselves. We are only allowed to take from it what we really need for living.”

For the cocoa tree, that is sacred for the Bribri, there are special rules: “We can neither chop down its branches nor use it’s wood as firewood or for construction work. Who ignores these rules will be severely punished by Sibö.”

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