Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Spanish began to ship Africans to Costa Rica in the 1500s to substitute for indigenous labour. Most of this initial group eventually became part of the mestizo population.
A second wave began arriving in the 18th century from the Caribbean as free seasonal tortoiseshell fishermen. Subsequently they brought their families to the the Caribbean Talamanca Coast and created self-sufficient farming/fishing and /trading communities that included their own schools. They maintained relations with Jamaica and had little or no contact with the Pacific coast.
The main influx of Afro-Costa Ricans arrived, in the 1890s, as migrant workers from the Caribbean. They were initially involved in the construction of the railroad from the Central Plateau to the Caribbean coast port of Limon. They stayed on to work on the banana plantations and enclaves of the United Fruit Company (UFC now Dole). In the early 20th century few Afro-Costa Ricans travelled to the capital and they retained their English Creole language and culture.
Following the disease-induced collapse of the UFC banana plantations in the 1920s and 1930s the companies moved operations to the Pacific coast. The Costa Rican government barred the passage of black workers to the Pacific region and the largely black labour force set up as independent cacao farmers.
In the 1950s the UFC reopened Atlantic coast banana plantations. Education and a strong work ethic gave the English-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans an employment edge.
In the 1970s crop disease brought an end to Atlantic Coast cacao cultivation. Fledgling Afro-Costa Rican agricultural prosperity declined along with the end of the country’s cacao industry.
Many Afro-Costa Ricans migrated abroad or to the cities and gradually adapted to Costa Rican society. Some remained in the Limon area mostly finding work at the port but this opportunity shrunk significantly with the advent of containerized systems and port privatization.
Currently most of the Afro-Costa Rican population lives in small communities within the Caribbean Coast Province of Limon. In the City of Limón, where a third of the population is Afro-Costa Rican, the community has remained separate in barrios which are 90 per cent black. In the rest of the country, considerable ethnic mixing has taken place. In Limón, Creole English remains the dominant language, although the new generation is bilingual since they receive Spanish-language education.
Despite political participation (since 1949), the economic position of Afro-Costa Ricans has changed little. A small minority have achieved financial success (mostly as professionals) and increasingly become involved in national politics notably Epsy Barr-Campbell former head of the Afro-Costa Rican women’s NGO, and president of the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
Afro Costa Rican areas traditionally receive much less investment than the rest of the country. Limon is ranked as the second most disadvantaged province in the country.
Beginning in the 1970s eco-cultural tourism became an important factor in the national economy. On the Atlantic Coast this involves mainly young ‘backpacker’ tourists attracted by the Caribbean ambience of Afro-Costa Rican communities. This has brought no significant economic benefit moreover it has helped to undermine traditional Afro-Costa Rican community values of education and social stability.
Employment opportunities for Afro-Costa Ricans on the Coast are poor due to a limited economy as well as racial exclusion. Those with a secondary education may get jobs in the refinery or at the port. Many chose economic migration to the US or signing on to work on tourist boats and send remittances back to their families.
Afro Costa Ricans consider it important that measures be taken to address the lack of accurate census data and vital statistics and services catalogued by ethnic groups, gender and differing populations. The absence of properly disaggregated data makes it difficult to engage in an adequate evaluation of their health and other living conditions. Their organizations and professionals argue that proper data is a key element in properly addressing their overall concerns. Some efforts to differentiate and identify members of different minorities were included in the national Census of 2000 however they consider the results untrustworthy because they were inexact.