The Hidden People of Costa Rica

April 18, 2022 | Categorized in: | By: Courtney Miller

Deep in the rainforest of the Talamanca region, along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Northern Panama, live the isolated “hidden people”. Spread across four indigenous reserves, there are only an estimated 12,000 natives, known as the BriBri, left living in the area. While in recent years, the introduction to outside cultures has begun to distract from their heritage, many leaders in the villages are striving to get back to their cultural roots.

The BriBri are a people who are very connected and close to nature. Their very creation story states that Earth was just stone to begin with, unable to grow anything, until Sibu’s nieces’ blood was spilt, creating the vegetation and soil. Her mother, Sibu’s sister, struck with grief, cried tears that created the animals to populate the lands. Sibu himself brought the corn seeds from The Place of Destiny and named each of them, these would be the clans, hence creating humankind. As you can see, in each story, the people are connected to the land’s creation, and vice versa. Still to this day, the people living in these reserves use the natural resources around them as building materials, foods, medicine, even dyes.

The women of the BriBri have always held a place of respect in their society as it is matrilineal, in which the clan a child belongs to is that of their mothers. Traditionally, only the women were allowed to prepare the sacred cacao and only women can inherit land. The men’s roles are designated via their clan, such as the “awa” or shaman, or the “oko,” the only person allowed to handle funeral ceremonies and the remains of the dead.

The BriBri’s main source of income for a long time came from outside of the villages. The men would leave to go work on big banana plantations and in return, the exposure to the chemicals in the pesticides led to shorter life spans. The women in these villages came together and decided it was time for a change. The Stribrawpa, “women who make handicrafts,” and the Arakupa Kakonu, “women watching over the forest,” both decided it was time to bring their culture and traditions back. The main focus was to protect the rainforest and strengthen their culture and their economy.  They started these community-based tourism programs, inviting tourist to see their everyday lives, culture, and even how they prepare the sacred cacao.

The income from these women’s efforts has allowed the BriBri to stay in their villages and become closer with their heritage, instead of having to look for outside work. They have constructed schools where the BriBri language is being taught, a medical clinic and new community centers for ceremonies and gatherings. It’s more than just income for the villages, it’s giving them a way to return to their traditional ways of life.