Indigenous World 2019: Venezuela
Official estimates indicate that indigenous peoples comprise approximately 2.8% of Venezuela’s total population of some 32 million inhabitants. Others, however, believe that the indigenous population is larger, perhaps surpassing 1.5 million.
The indigenous population encompasses more than 40 peoples, including the Akawayo, Amorúa, Añú, Arawak, Arutani, Ayamán, Baniva, Baré, Barí, Caquetío, Cumanagoto, Chaima, E´ñepá, Gayón, Guanono, Hoti, iInga, Japreria, Jirajara, Jivi, Kari´ña, Kubeo, Kuiva, Kurripako, Mako, Makushi, Nengatú, Pemón, Piapoko, Píritu, Puinave, Pumé, Sáliva, Sánema, Sapé, Timoto-cuica, Waikerí, Wanai, Wapishana, Warao, Warekena, Wayuu, Uwottüja, Yanomami, Yavarana, Ye´kuana and Yukpa. They are mainly found in the states of Zulia, Amazonas, Bolívar, Delta Amacuro, Anzoátegui, Sucre and Apure. Some of these areas overlap with Brazil, Colombia and Guyana. Indigenous territories and protected areas, which in large measure overlap, cover almost 50% of the national territory.
Venezuela has included indigenous rights in its Constitution, starting with the right to territory as a fundamental requirement for the fulfilment of distinct rights. The 1999 Constitution recognises the multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual nature of Venezuelan society. In 2001, the Venezuelan government ratified ILO Convention 169 and, in 2005, it enacted the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities, on the basis of this international convention.
The Venezuelan State has also enacted a series of laws that directly develop the rights of constitutionally recognised indigenous peoples. Among them are the Law on Demarcation and Guarantee of the Habitat and Lands of Indigenous Peoples (2001), the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2005), the Indigenous Languages Act (2007), the Indigenous Peoples and Communities Cultural Heritage Act (2009), and the Indigenous Craftspersons Act (2009). In 2007, Venezuela voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and created the Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples as part of the executive branch’s cabinet.
Peoples living in relative isolation and initial contact
When considering the national indigenous reality in Venezuela, mention must be made of the presence of groups living in relative isolation and little contact in the country. Belonging to the indigenous Uwottuja, Hoti and Yanomami peoples, these are groups or factions that have, to this day, remained in relative isolation or in little contact with the wider Venezuelan society due to the remote areas in which they live, normally around the upper reaches of rivers.1 These groups and their territories are now under threat from different external factors, particularly from people who enter their territory to undertake illegal mining activities without a thought for the consequences. These extractive groups act as vectors, bringing in infectious/contagious diseases. Cooperation between miners and unlawful armed groups is also increasing the risk to territories that are home to isolated indigenous groups, as reported by organisations such as Wataniba.2
Building consultation protocols
In 2018, two Amazonian indigenous peoples made significant progress in building specific models of free, prior, and informed consultation in relation to intended development projects on their territories. The indigenous Uwottuja people from Autana municipality (Amazonas state) completed a process involving workshops and sessions for the methodological production, revision and translation of their own protocol, with a General Assembly to approve the work. The Yanomami people from Parima sector have also made progress in a similar process. These two advances are important:
[…]… because, in Venezuela, none of the Indigenous Peoples had a particular model setting out a specific method of free, prior and informed consultation in line with their customs and habits.”3
Political engagement and illegal mining
Indigenous peoples have not escaped the polarised political environment that has been taking shape in the country since 2002 and yet, despite this situation, the indigenous movement has managed to embed itself in a series of political spaces, with active involvement in the self-demarcation of their territories, consolidation of a legal framework of autonomy for the promotion and defence of their rights, and cultural self-determination.
Despite these achievements, however, much of the initial momentum behind public policies was lost in 2018. Particularly noteworthy was the lack of continued progress in the process of demarcating indigenous lands and habitats. The intercultural education programmes also declined due to the economic situation, a lack of incentives, and teachers moving into other sectors such as illegal mining or the urban informal economy. Health care programmes were also diminished through misappropriation/smuggling and a lack or absence of drugs, not to mention the insecurity caused by the presence of unlawful armed groups in indigenous territories, involved in goods smuggling, drugs trafficking, road blocks, extortion and kidnapping, tax collection and illegal mining.4
The curtailment of security and defence policies in the border areas and indigenous territories has resulted in a burgeoning of illegal mining, with all the concomitant environmental and sociocultural impacts this entails. In Zulia state, the constant expansion of the agropastoral model, present across much of the country since the start of the 20th century, remains the main reason why indigenous Yukpa, Barí and Japreria communities are losing their lands, and why murders and human rights violations against indigenous peoples go unpunished.5
Arco Minero del Orinoco
On 24 February 2016, the government designated the “Arco Minero del Orinoco” (AMO) as a national strategic development zone. The AMO will turn over an area of 111,843.70 km2 to the large-scale exploitation of gold, coltan, diamond, copper, iron and bauxite deposits. Agreements have been signed with transnational companies from around the world. These agreements involve open-cast mining, which is having serious environmental and socio-cultural consequences for the indigenous peoples, particularly in Bolívar state, where the project has been initiated.
The Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Amazonía/COIAM) issued a press release warning that this large-scale natural resource extraction was the new face of Venezuela’s mining policy. They called for a moratorium on the basis that rights to free, prior, and informed consultation were being violated; and for the demarcation of their lands. There was no consultation, either of the main local bodies or the indigenous communities, not in Bolívar state nor in its immediate area of influence in the north of Amazonas. Nor was any environmental or socio-cultural impact assessment conducted. This threatens both the biodiversity and the indigenous territories.
Illegal mining is also taking place over vast areas of Venezuela’s Amazonian region, with no effective state action to prevent it. Complaints have been made by various indigenous organisations in Amazonas state ORPIA, COIAM, OIYAPAM and KUYUNU raising the issue of illegal mining in the river basins of important tributaries of the Orinoco (Atabapo, Guainía, Negro, Ventuari and many of their affluents). This has resulted in the mercury contamination of the main watercourses, destruction of the biodiversity, prostitution, alcoholism and the recruitment of young people into mining-related activities.6 David Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader from Brazil, has been denouncing the presence of more than 5,000 illegal gold miners (garimpeiros) on the Yanomami people’s lands on both sides of the Brazilian/Venezuelan border since February 2018.7
Epidemiological alert in indigenous territories
The Wataniba Association published a report in 2018 on the epidemiological situation in the Yanomami territory of the Upper Orinoco due to an outbreak of measles in the communities of Alto Ocamo and Parima, in Venezuela, and in the region of Ônkiola on the Brazilian side of the border. It cited the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), which stated that low vaccination coverage, a lack of ongoing monitoring, delays in applying disease-control measures and a lack of capacity to isolate patients, along with the high level of movement within the region during the incubation or virus transmission period, were all factors in the spread of the disease.8
In its September 2018 report, PAHO set out its epidemiological assessment of Venezuela for 2018, in which it confirmed 535 cases of measles among indigenous peoples in the states of: Amazonas (170 cases, of which 135 among the Sánema, 24 among the Yanomami, 3 among the Ye’kwana, 3 among the Baniva, 3 among the Piapoco and 1 among the Yeral people); Delta Amacuro (341 cases among the Warao); Monagas (22 cases, being 20 Warao, 1 Chaima and 1 Eñepa); and Zulia (2 cases among the Wayuu). In addition, 646 deaths were recorded, of which 37 in Delta Amacuro (all among the Warao) and 27 in Amazonas (16 among the Sánema). Finally, in November 2018, PAHO recorded 101 deaths among the Yanomami people, not including places outside the area covered by the monitoring bodies.
Forced migration of indigenous communities
The deteriorating national economic situation has shaken the foundations of Warao communities in the Orinoco Delta and Monagas, as well as the Eñepa de Bolívar ethnic group. This is causing their forced migration to regions as far distant as Boa Vista and Manaus (both in Brazil) in search of humanitarian relief. The local authorities have consequently considered them refugees and forced them to live in temporary camps with the aim of preventing any migratory flow to other areas of the country. In Perijá, Zulia state, Yukpa communities have also been forced to move to Colombia as a result of conflict between armed groups over territorial control and the protection of illegal crops on indigenous territories and because of the recruitment of youths to form foot soldiers in the ranks of the illegal groups that still remain active in this area. The situation is constantly bubbling under the surface, waiting for a mediated solution.9
Notes and references
- Bello, Luis and Mirabal, G. “Informe sobre la Situación Actual de los Grupos de Pueblos Indígenas en Aislamiento Relativo y Poco Contacto en Venezuela” (Jödi, Uwottüja, y Yanomami). Thematic hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. October 2017
- Wataniba, 2018. “Nosotros tenemos una relación directa con el medio ambiente y podemos ser nosotros quienes le brindemos al mundo las opciones para protegerlo” at http://bit.ly/2TcjCVh
- Tillett Aime. Manuscript “Visibilizando la Situación de Salud de los Pueblos Indígenas de Venezuela”; Vitti, M. 2018. “Amazonas: profundización del extractivismo, disputas territoriales, y conflictos.” Revista SIC Centro Gumilla; Vitti, M. 2018. “Una mirada estructural del megaproyecto Arco Minero del Orinoco (I)”. Revista SIC Centro Gumilla. 28/06/2018 OEPVZLA; Wataniba, 2018. “Nosotros tenemos una relación directa con el medio ambiente y podemos ser nosotros quienes le brindemos al mundo las opciones para protegerlo” at http://bit.ly/2TcjCVh
- 2018. Press release from ORPIA and its grassroots organisations on the measles outbreak among Yanomami communities in Alto Orinoco municipality, Amazonas state, Venezuela.
- Bello, 2017. “Minería Ilegal en la Amazonía Venezolana y Nueva Política Minera del Estado”. Asociación Wataniba, September 2017.
- Folha de Boa Vista. 2018. “Liderança denuncia presença superior a 5 mil garimpeiros na terra yanomami.” 9 April
- September 2018, “Report of the Pan-American Health Organisation”. Caracas, Venezuela.
- 2018. UNHCR Web News. Hunger, despair drive indigenous groups to leave Venezuela.
Socio-Environmental Working Group of the Amazon “Wataniba” (Grupo de Trabajo Socioambiental de la Amazonia “Wataniba”) with the collaboration of Arturo Jaimes