Paolo Najera, 17, Costa Rica

Keeping the flame alive: Indigenous adolescents’ right to education and health services

When I look at the prospects my Térraba people face, my heart sinks for our dying land and drying river. While I do not know much of the world, I know what is right and wrong, and I know this harsh reality is not their fault. The flame of resistance passed on from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, to my father and to me, symbolizes our desire to keep our community alive. My hope is that our indigenous culture and language will endure.

The problem is, my brothers are afraid to live as Térraba Indians. Outside pressures, like teasing, discrimination and disregard for our basic rights have nearly brought our centuries-old struggle for survival to its breaking point. In addition, the country’s eight indigenous communities,* including mine, have not been given adequate schools or proper health centres, nor has the integrity of our land been respected.

We want our lifestyle to be protected and our territory not to be invaded by industrial companies that destroy the harmony we have preserved – harmony paid for with the bloodshed our people have suffered. This, however, does not mean we want to be excluded from the world. We just ask for respect for our basic human rights – the respect that every human being deserves in this world. We ask to be seen and listened to.

Thanks to my beloved Térraba school, I am proud to be one of the first and few of my indigenous group to attain higher education and attend university in my country. The education system in Costa Rica is insufficient, and it is worse still for indigenous communities. Inequality is pervasive in the classroom, and the system seeks to preserve neither our identity nor our existence as Indians. I see the Government’s lack of investment in indigenous culture reflected in teachers giving lessons using outdated materials or teaching under a tree. I think the Government does not see the assets education can bring to our country, nor the benefit of investing in education for indigenous youth.

In order to provide quality education, our teachers must be provided with proper classrooms and new textbooks. If only the children in my village could access the world through a computer as do children elsewhere. I feel sad that they have been denied their right to education and to achieve their full potential.

Skin tone matters in Costa Rica. If equity existed here, girls in my village would have the same opportunities as the girls from other regions of the country – like better access to technology and secondary school. They would be equipped to promote and protect our culture.

I hope for a time when people will be truly interested in listening to and providing for indigenous people, a time when I would not be one of the few indigenous youth to write an essay such as this one, hoping that it be read and understood. With real equity we would have permanent health centres in indigenous territories, and our secondary education would include lessons in our own culture and language as part of the core curriculum. In spite of being pushed to forget our language and to be ashamed of our way of life, we hold on to our dreams and our will to be indigenous Térraba.

Paolo Najera was recently forced to leave school because of the effects of the economic crisis on his community and family. Paolo’s aim is to work in development in order to improve life for indigenous communities, such as his own, in Costa Rica.

*Costa Rica has eight officially recognized indigenous peoples – the Bribris, Cabécares, Brunkas, Ngobe or Guaymi, Huetares, Chorotegas, Malekus and Teribes or Térrabas – about half of whom live in 24 indigenous territories. They make up an indigenous population of 63,876 (1.7 per cent of the country’s total population). The Térraba, descendants of Teribes from the Atlantic coast of Panama forced by missionaries to migrate to Costa Rica in the late 17th century, are the second-smallest of these groups, with a population of 621 according to the national census of 2000. Their territory is located in the Boruca-Terre reserve, in the canton of Buenos Aires, in the southern part of Costa Rica.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.