Subsistence and Commercial Activities. All three groups were agriculturists, depending primarily on maize, beans, manioc, sweet potatoes and other root crops, pumpkins, peach palms, and cocoa. From colonial times onward, they completely incorporated several kinds of plantains and bananas, rice, and, later, coffee. Native and old-world fruit trees have been common on the farms. Since World War II Indian farmers have joined governmental and nongovernmental programs to improve seeds and introduce new crops. Since the late 1940s, the cultivation of garden vegetables has been taught at the grade schools. On the Atlantic side, the Bribri and the Cabécar have depended more on cocoa and plantains as a cash crop; on the Pacific side, these two groups and the Boruca have depended more on the sale of maize and beans. Income from agriculture, however, has always been very limited. The Indians have a marginal economy. As communications improve, they are also able to sell oranges, peach-palm fruits ( pejibayes ), hearts of palm, and other crops. Hunting and river fishing have always supplemented agriculture. Today these activities are either restricted or absent, because of the reduction in forests and the increase in population. Wild plants still provide foods, medicines, and materials for building and for crafts. Indians have always worked for non-Indians as manual laborers and continue to do so. In the villages, Indians also have government jobs as teachers, health assistants, policemen, and guards. Those who have learned other professions (agronomists, and electricians, for instance) have left the villages but usually help their families. Domestic animals are kept in the farms and village households and also sold to non-Indian traders who come regularly to buy pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Cattle raising is important for a few families only, and most Indians do not own horses. Those who do may get some income from renting them.
Industrial Arts. The tradition of making cotton thread has been maintained and is practiced by a few families in all three groups. Additionally, in the village of Boruca, in the 1960s, one family knew how to weave bags, belts, and material for skirts on the traditional hand loom. This ability was encouraged by the schools and promoted for sale to tourists, which has allowed the craft to prosper. The Boruca have retained the knowledge of natural dyes, but today they also use commercial ones. Some Boruca sell masks made of Ochroma wood. In all three groups, a few artisans sell baskets, cord bags, hammocks, decorated gourds, drums, and bows and arrows made of pejibaye ( Bactris gassipaes ) wood. Government and private projects have encouraged artisans to fashion traditional objects for sale. Most men know how to make canoes and build huts and modern dwellings. Some women are seamstresses; they own sewing machines and buy material in the larger towns.
Trade. Trade has always been important. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the Bribri and Cabécar came to the village of Boruca to exchange items such as bows and arrows, cord bags, baskets made from vines, and some forest products. The foreign party remained on the outskirts of the village. The Boruca brought out dyed woven material and salt, among other things. Afterward, the outside traders would be asked to come into the village. It was a rule for first visitors (usually youngsters) not to ask any questions about what they saw or heard; they could ask and comment after they were back home. Trade patterns among all Costa Rican Indians have been traced back to colonial and pre-Conquest times. Today they sell their products to non-Indians either at their homes or on the roads that lead to their settlements. They then buy foods and manufactured goods in local stores, which are usually owned by non-Indians, or travel to the larger urban towns to do their shopping.
Division of Labor. Men clear the land and raise livestock. Women participate with men in planting, harvesting, and transporting crops. Women may still be seen carrying loads while men walk ahead carrying a machete. When nontraditional occupations are available, they may be held by either sex. In Talamanca, some women still plant their own maize fields in the traditional manner, although their husbands may help, and wives may help in their husbands' fields. Animals (pigs, chickens) raised by women are theirs, and men have to raise their own.
Land Tenure. Land formerly was owned by families, but individual ownership, fostered by government administration of the reservations and Costa Rican laws, has become the norm. On the Pacific side, from colonial times to about the 1950s, there were communally owned pastures and maize fields for the church and the school. Reservation land is legally held in trust by the Indian development associations, but individual property rights of Indians and non-Indians are recognized. Keeping land in Indian hands has been a very complex and conflictive issue.