Naturally Balanced > Education and ecology > Paulino Nájera – My Story as a Protector of the Brörán Indigenous Community

Paulino Nájera – My Story as a Protector of the Brörán Indigenous Community

Published: 27/06/2023
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Dear reader, here is my story. 

I was born in 1963 into a family of the Brörán indigenous community. My father was tall, with rough skin and a strong character; my mother – despite her small height – had the determined character typical of the Brörán women. My family is large, with seven men and two women, and I am one of the youngest in the family. 

I was born in the centre of Térraba, Costa Rica, very near to a river, where there were many fruit trees. Imagination was at the centre of our childhood: we did not receive toys for Christmas, so we would go into the forest to look for seeds which we named after imaginary animals; we took the dry cob of corn and made them into little carts; we collected leaves of the pavillo tree to play helicopters; with knives we made wooden spinning tops and with some spare nails and wooden boards we tried to make carts of our own. We would escape to the river to learn how to swim, and sometimes we’d catch shrimp or fish; other times we cut vines to turn into swings. We didn’t think about the consequences, and we had a lot of fun. We also did a lot of work for the family: collecting and chopping firewood, pulling water from the well with gourds, and plenty more. Today I am 51, and I remember in vivid detail the great forests and mountains, the wild animals, and the crystalline waters of my childhood. 

When growing up, I saw how the men of my town played the dance of the bull and the mule – a traditional theatrical game – even though the masks the men wore scared me. The men dressed themselves in animal skins and beautiful colourful bird feathers, and painted their skin with charcoal, so you could hardly distinguish the person. 

However, when I was about ten, something unexpected happened. With the expansion of agriculture, white men began to arrive in our village, and I saw great quantities of forests fall, and with them, many wild animals became extinct, and the rivers lost their flow. Nobody defended them. Although nature was the source of our food and way of life, my people accepted the destruction, as it was called ‘development’. Great fights broke out between the indigenous men and the white people, who arrived and insulted and mocked our ways. The white men were often drunk, and threw firecrackers at the bull and the mule players, some of whom suffered severe burns. Over time, the game was abandoned, another part of our heritage lost. 

These were difficult times. However, my generation was more resilient to the torment of the white people, and as we grew up, we were not so afraid of being mocked for our culture. The indigenous people’s cattle were taken away from us, as well as the pigs, the chickens, and above all, the land. Even then, our parents told us that we had to be good labourers, so that one day we could work on the foreigners’ farms. It was sad to see our town filled with foreigners who made fun of our way of speaking and our way of life. Sometimes our parents would tell us to hide when the white people passed our house.  

While our parents feared for our future, with each passing day, my friends and I felt more pride in being indigenous, and the white people’s ridicule did not bother us. We set up our own soccer team, which allowed us to visit many towns, and to break stereotypes. Some of my friends left the town to study or learn a trade, but the rest of us told our families that we did not want to be day labourers for the white people. We wanted to be the men and women to create a change for the Brörán Térraba people. 

I remember the words of my Grandma Martina – who never sold a single piece of her land, who never went to school, and who couldn’t read nor write. When the foreigners arrived she predicted that sadly, one day food would become scarce, we would have to buy water, incurable diseases would arrive, wild animals would be gone, and the river would dry up, leaving no fish or shrimp. Her warning has echoed in me throughout my life, and has guided me in  protecting our community. 

During this time, my parents separated. This left a great void in me, and the farm was divided into two parts. My father was a pastoralist with more than 120 cows, as well as horses, pigs and chickens. While he continued raising his livestock on his land, my mother promised that her piece of land would belong to her children. This is when the words of my grandmother Martina came to my mind, and I decided to replant the lost forest on our land. The main trees used in Costa Rica at the time were Melina, Pochote, Lucaina, and other exotic species. I managed to contact a forestry engineer from the USA Peace Corps who worked in our region, and he told me that I could get the seeds of these exotic species for 500 colones (500 colones was a lot of money, considering that my daily wage was 50 colones). I had to work extra hard, but I was able to plant 80 Melina trees, some pochotes, and more. However, after several years of caring for the trees, I realised that this was not quite the future I wanted. 

An important moment in my life was when a group of us were sent to the Pérez Zeledón prison for fighting against the illegal logging in the area, in 1985. The town council and the police all turned a blind eye to the illegal destruction, and they never took action, except for when we intervened. They tried to intimidate us, but the people from the towns of Térraba, Boruca and Curre came together, and we put up a fight. The soldiers came with AK47s, their faces covered by hoods and gas masks, and they arrested us – men, women, and children – and kept us without food for a whole day. We were transported to the prison in a cattle truck, lent to them by a white man who still lives here. 

Thus, we were transferred to the dangerous cells of Pérez Zeledón, where a police squad was waiting for us with machine guns. They made us leave the cattle truck one by one, and then they stripped us naked to search us. It was after 10 PM and we were very hungry. Some of the older gentlemen were very scared and got sick, and eventually we were given leftover beans and rice without seasoning, and cold coffee. We were in the prison for three days, and although it was humiliating at the time, it became a moment of great pride and courage for us, because the media began to arrive, and people brought us food, mattresses, and blankets. The days in the cold prison cells were a transformational experience for many people from my community. We left the prison with our heads held high, and the policemen themselves were repentant, and said that we had taught them dignity. They brought us back to Térraba, where 600 people were waiting for us. Our pride and love for nature grew. 

One day I told my mother that I would travel to the capital – San José – to look for new work opportunities. However, when I arrived in the capital it was difficult to find work, because when I was asked what I knew how to do, I told them I knew how to throw a knife, plant trees, and build houses. At times I felt useless and rejected; some people simply took my papers and tore them up. Then I came across the Salvation Army, who invited me to a meeting. When I arrived, I felt very sad, because the other people had drug addictions, alcoholism, and there were a lot of people with studies who had taken the wrong path, and whose habits had destroyed them. In each meeting people could express their problems, and one day I arrived and talked with their psychologist. He listened to me attentively, but then asked me how I had arrived at this meeting, because I had no drug problems. I told him that I left my home, my mother, and my brothers to learn new trades here in San José, but it had been very difficult for me to find anything. I had never tried any drugs, and thank God I have a place to live. I have a piece of land where I grow trees. It scared me to see people who live on the street, some of whom have studied, but that’s life. 

Carlos – the psychologist – took a good look at me, and told me that this place was for those people, not for me, but that he could still help me. I said that all I wanted was to learn something that would allow me to work, and he suggested cabinetmaking, working with wood in the joinery workshop. I, of course, agreed, and for five months I learned to use different machines, to cut wood, and to make furniture. People appreciated the work, and those were very good days. When I was getting ready to finish the course, Carlos came back and told me he had a friend in a big company who needed an assistant. I asked him what they did, and he said to show up there early tomorrow morning, and they would tell me. I arrived very early, and a man came and asked me whether I was the man that Sr. Carlos had recommended. He told me that they were industrial mechanics, and what they needed me to do was welding on their building sites. He said it depended on whether I wanted to learn this trade; most of them started here without any experience in welding, but now they have worked for the company for a while, and they earn 800 colones per hour. I wanted to learn to weld, so I started learning everything, helping with everything, and most of all asking about everything. I learned to weld in three months, and they assigned me jobs with all the equipment I needed. Even though I knew that they did not pay me the same as the others, they taught me to do something different, and I started to learn about machinery, engines, and repairs. 

However, my longing to build houses had not disappeared. I met a friend who asked me whether I really wanted to build, and I said yes. He told me I could come and meet someone he knew from a construction company who needed someone to fix the ceilings. I met with the manager, and he sent me to collect a drill, string, screws and other tools, and that’s how it began. They were working on 25 residential buildings. After putting a roof on more than 300 houses, they asked me what else I knew how to do. I told them I’d learnt cabinetmaking and welding, but what I really wanted to do was the planning and designing. The manager told me that they were going to build a country house in Santa Ana, and that I could visit and see if there were any opportunities for me. After talking to the person in charge he told me to come and work with them. It was the start of this construction job, so I made the most of the opportunity to ask and learn about everything – I was like a child in kindergarten! After a few months I was able to prepare concrete mixes, lay concrete bricks, and finally try to read and understand the much-awaited designs and building plans.  

However, I felt that my time in the capital was over, and I was ready to return to my homeland. When I told my coworkers, they were shocked that I’d want to leave if I had work in the capital. I explained that I had gone there to learn what I couldn’t learn in my town. I am an indigenous person, and I have a piece of land that my family left me, and my forests would already have grown. I didn’t want to be an employee forever, I wanted to do work of my own. Another one of them told me I was lucky, because he had no home, and had no other choice than to stay there. They wished me ‘good luck, my friend’. So it was that in 1991, I returned to Térraba. I was a single man, but that same year I met the woman who is now my partner, Fidelia. 

Around this time, a project called Kaneblo was finishing in Costa Rica, running from 1985-1992. It ended by establishing an organisation that brought together all the indigenous peoples of the region. After several meetings we managed to involve 32 partners in the new organisation, which we called ‘ARADIKES’, standing for Asociación Regional Indígenas del DIKES (Regional Indigenous Association of DIKES, referring to ‘Dí Kis’: the valley of great waters). ARADIKES became a legally-recognised community organisation, and received money from the National Forestry Development Fund, which was invested in indigenous reforestation projects. One of the Fund’s conditions was for the new trees to be indigenous varieties, and so my four brothers and I – with the help of our mother – visited many neighbouring communities to collect seeds. We planted our first 17,500 seedlings, and it was a great success, even though we didn’t receive all the money. We knew what we wanted and we didn’t hesitate, and we planted another 19,000 seedlings. Eventually, we planted more than 37,000 thousand forest trees and 2,500 fruit trees which benefit the wild animals. 

Finally, a new stage of my life began, with the establishment of the Rincón Ecológico Cultural Térraba (the Térraba Ecological Cultural Corner). Our people urgently needed protection for our culture, language, stories, food, art, medicinal traditions, and our shared identity. The objective of the Térraba Ecological Cultural Corner is to preserve our people’s legacy, and it is the project of an indigenous family that has never stopped dreaming. 

The words of my late grandmother still ring in my ears, and my people still need support. The energy and knowledge have come together, and although the world pays little attention, the animals of the forest are still asking for our help, the rivers are pleading for someone to protect them, the birds need healthy food, and the earth wants to grow without chemicals in all its biodiversity. Our work is to make these needs heard. At the Térraba Ecological Cultural Corner, we offer guided tours of the beautiful landscapes near our village, giving visitors a taste of our culture and traditions, as they can also stay with us in the wooden cabins we built with the wood of native trees. 

Understanding our role on planet Earth, my philosophy is that we come into this world with nothing, and in the same way, we leave with nothing. Our belief is that everything we have is borrowed, and we are only passing managers of the environment around us. 

Discover more about the Rincón Ecológico Cultural Térraba at!

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The Naturally Balanced team includes experts in their field who create the best content for you, collaborating on their knowledge and experience.