The recitals to Venezuela’s Constitution recognise the country as a multi-ethnic and pluricultural nation while Article 9 establishes that Indigenous languages also have official status. According to official estimates, Venezuela’s Indigenous population currently accounts for approximately 2.8% of the total population of 32 million. The 2011 Indigenous Census lists more than 51 different peoples and both the 2001 and 2011 censuses note a resurgence of Indigenous Peoples once considered extinct, together with the presence of Indigenous Peoples from other countries. Preparations are currently underway for the 15th Population and Housing Census (2020), which will again include questions on self-recognition and the use of Indigenous languages and Spanish. The questionnaire will be implemented in traditional communities and will also aim to register population centres of non-traditional use.
Indigenous peoples in Venezuela
Indigenous peoples in Venezuela account for 2.8% of the national population that accounts for around 32 million people. Nonetheless, other organisations believe that the indigenous population numbers over 1,5 million people. Venezuela has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169. However, indigenous peoples in the country keep struggling with a lack of demarcation of indigenous habitat and lands, illegal mining activities, and environmental degradation.
In 1999, the Constitution of Venezuela recognised the multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual character of Venezuelan society. The country has also enacted a set of laws set to develop the specific rights of indigenous peoples, such as the Law on Demarcation and Guarantee of the Habitat and Lands of Indigenous Peoples (2001), the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2005), and the Indigenous Languages Act (2007), as well as several favorable provisions found in a number of Venezuelan legal norms.
Venezuela has also created institutions devoted to overseeing public policy formulation in indigenous affairs, such as the Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples.
Main challenges for Venezuela’s indigenous peoples
The demarcation of indigenous territories continues to be the principal right pending of resolution for Venezuela’s indigenous peoples and communities. The Constitution’s interim provisions obligated the state to demarcate indigenous territories within not more than two years. However, according to several reports from indigenous peoples and communities themselves, the number of lands provided did not surpass 13% of the total.
During 2017, the Government of Venezuela implemented the Orinoco Mining Belt megaproject, which encountered serious confrontation from indigenous communities, as it overlaps with indigenous auto-demarcated territories.
Illegal mining continues to be a major challenge for Venezuela’s indigenous peoples. In the recent years, areas such as the Yapacana National Park, the Orinoco, Atabapo, Guainía, Sipapo - Guayapo, Parú, Asita, Siapa and other rivers have suffered serious environmental destruction. Such activity has polluted the waters due to the presence of mercury and has altered the river ecosystems in general, taking the lives of numerous fish that are a source of food for indigenous communities.
Health problems within indigenous communities is another alarming issue. Among the Yanomami the infantile mortality rate is measured at 10 times higher than the national average and infantile mortality among the Pum. ethnicity ranges between 30% and 50% of live births. According to research, 2017 has seen a dramatic spread of HIV/AIDS in the Warao group: 10 out of every 100 indigenous Warao suffer from this condition. The Warao also a have a high incidence of tuberculosis.
Potential progress for Venezuela’s indigenous peoples
In matters of land, indigenous peoples have experienced certain progress during 2017. They have seen the return to complete legal status of the Bari lands in the State of Zulia and the creation of the Caura National Park, which supposes the legal grant of environmental protection and entails a recognition for the lands of some indigenous communities.