Meet Bernanda Morales, a cultural leader keeping Costa Rica’s endangered Bribri culture alive

Meet Bernanda Morales, a cultural leader keeping Costa Rica's endangered Bribri culture alive
A Bribri man boating along the unseasonally low waters of the Yorkin River. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMIE LAFFERTY

The Bribri leader explains how, in her village of Yorkin, just upriver from the Caribbean coast, she’s brought back the Bribri language from the brink of extinction, creating a sustainable tourism destination in the process.

How long have you been welcoming travellers to Yorkin?

It’s been 30 years since we started the Yorkin Bribri Cultural Programme, but it’s only in the last 20 that we’ve welcomed visitors. Our three main goals are to protect the forest, to improve the economy of the community and to preserve Bribri culture. It’s very satisfying that it’s lasted three decades.

Why was the Bribri language threatened and how is it being saved?

For a long time, the central government was only sending white, Spanish-speaking teachers here. We weren’t allowed to speak Bribri. When I started the project, I couldn’t even speak it myself. Now it’s very different — there are 48 communities in this region all working together. Every Indigenous school in this territory is teaching and speaking the Bribri language.

What challenges have you faced as a community?

It’s still a very important crop locally but in the past our economy was based 100% on cacao. But then in 1970 there was a fungus outbreak in the plants and we couldn’t export any more. People started leaving to go and find work, many on banana plantations. When they left, we lost even more of our culture. The ones who came back returned with processed foods and a different way of living. We started to have health problems like diabetes here. 

Now, with tourists coming here, we have other forms of employment — we need people to drive the boats, work in the kitchens and to be guides in the forest. We still harvest cacao, of course, but it’s no longer the only thing here.

What inspired the shift towards tourism?

In the 1990s, a group of women and I in the village started thinking about what we needed to do. We decided that bringing outsiders in might stop people going away in such big numbers. It would create income within our community. I was only 19 at the time and some of the elders in the village thought I was crazy. They were suspicious of outsiders. It took 10 years to convince them. Machismo was a big problem — the men didn’t understand why we wouldn’t just stay at the home with the children. Now they understand that we can do any of the jobs here that they can, and that working with foreigners isn’t so bad.

How has Covid-19 impacted the village?

We haven’t actually had any here, thank goodness, but we have some natural medicines to treat it if we do. Thankfully, our community is 100% vaccinated, too. We believe our god Sibu left all of his knowledge about health with doctors. We trust him, so we trust them.

This is an interview with Bribri leader Bernanda Morales, by Jamie Lafferty, originally published by National Geographic.

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