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.
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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 Cooke1993). 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.
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.
[Protection of human rights in Central America]
Tel: + 506 224 5970
Asociación Proyecto Caribe
[Afro Costa Rican rights and development]
Tel: + 506 226 7390
Centro de Mujeres Afrocostarricenses
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
- Central America: For migrants crossing national borders or connecting across ‘the wall’, communication technologies play a vital role (2020)
- Outsider 58 (2002)
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- Strengthening the capacity of minorities and indigenous peoples to advocate for implementation of international standards (2015)
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