Indigenous World 2020: Venezuela
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.
The Venezuelan government ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2001. It has also approved a set of laws that directly develop constitutionally-recognised Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including the Law on Demarcation and Guarantee of the Living Environments and Lands of Indigenous Peoples (2000), the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2005), the Law on Indigenous Languages (2007), the Law on Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2009) and the Law on Indigenous Handicrafts (2009).
The humanitarian crisis of 2019 has had a severe impact on the running of the public health system in Amazonas and Bolívar states, and this has resulted not only in increases in endemic and epidemic diseases but also in the re-emergence of previously controlled illnesses in the region. Malaria, for example, was on the rise in 2019, resulting in high levels of illness and death. Hepatitis continues to take a toll among the Yanomami people of the Upper Orinoco and, during 2018 and 2019, a measles epidemic was reported among the Yanomami communities of the Upper Ocamo. This epidemic was hushed up, and no effective measures taken to control the situation. Around 101 people consequently died according to the Pan-American Health Organisation, and control measures and vaccination campaigns were only taken following pressure from human rights institutions and the Indigenous people’s own organisations. Mortality rates due to endemic diseases in 2019 continue to indicate that approximately 50% of Yanomami children die before the age of three due to different causes. In terms of healthcare in inaccessible Indigenous communities, the positive efforts of the Malaria Control Programmes and the Oncocercosis Control Programme of the Amazonian Centre for the Research and Control of Tropical Diseases (CAICET) should be noted. In 2019, in the Yanomami area, they not only managed to treat all those affected by oncocercosis but also reduce transmission to a minimum. The direct relationship between increased illegal mining and increases in diseases such as malaria should also be noted: there is a clear increase in malaria in those municipalities where there is more mining activity. There are even reported cases of acute mercury and other toxic poisoning in the waters of the Upper Ventuari and Upper Ocamo, which have resulted in the deaths of a number of Indigenous Yanomami and Sanema.
Another situation that emerged due to the 2019 crisis was a change in the food security of the Indigenous Peoples and communities, many of whom had previously changed their traditional patterns of production and eating to comply with the new models of food supply implemented by the state. The implementation of public policies alien to the communities had resulted in changes in the traditional foods consumed in the communities. A 2019 study highlighted that the serious economic and humanitarian crisis meant that members of Indigenous communities who had previously migrated to the city of Puerto Ayacucho due to a lack of food in their communities were now returning to their places of origin to take up their traditional subsistence activities once more, something many call “natural production” or a return to their original food system. This is quite important in terms of self-management and guaranteeing the right to food and is directly linked to a way of using their territorial space and protecting it.
Rights such as freedom of movement and personal safety have also been affected by a number of land and river transport problems in Amazonas state. During the period covered by this report (2019), the serious fuel crisis in the region was exacerbated by a diversion of fuel towards mining activity and also because of the presence of various different unlawful armed groups (dissidents from the Colombian guerrilla, paramilitaries, mining mafia, drugs traffickers and so on) on Indigenous territories, limiting the communities’ freedom of movement. These groups control Indigenous movements and protect the different illegal mining sites.
There were reports in 2019 not only of threats but also of concrete cases of aggression, damage to physical assets and the disappearance of some Indigenous individuals from mining camps. More specifically, this relates to representatives of the Indigenous Yabarana, Ye’kwana, Uwottüja and Arawak peoples, who have been threatened and put under pressure to permit illegal activities on Indigenous territories. Institutions such as the Ombudsman have received complaints over this period with regard to a number of unlawful activities and individual human rights violations.
Increased mining on Indigenous territories
Faced with growing mining and the serious threats this represents to the environment and to protection of Indigenous territories, the Indigenous organisations indicated in a press release in January 2019 entitled “Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon on the Impacts of Mining in the Amazon Region” that:
We are seriously concerned at the increased mining activity in Amazonas state, in the regions and areas of the basins of the Cuao, Sipapo, Guayapo, Parucito, Ventuari, Parú, Atacavi, Asita, Atabapo, Ocamo, Cunucunuma, Guainía, Negro, Casiquiare and Padamo rivers, among others, and the great impacts due to this activity, particularly environmental, sociocultural and health-related … Mining throughout Amazonas state has resulted in the deforestation of large areas of forest, the diversion of river courses such as that of the Atabapo, the contamination of water with mercury and other toxic substances, a loss of biodiversity, changes in the natural ecosystemic cycles, soil degradation, increased in diseases such as malaria and measles, sexually-transmitted infections, alcoholism, drug use, prostitution, crime, decreased school attendance, the displacement of communities from their lands and their abandonment, the presence of illegal armed groups, inter-ethnic conflicts, all of which directly affects these communities and results in changes in the Indigenous Peoples’ way of life and own economy based on traditional subsistence activities…
It is also important to note that an invasion of the Yanomami territo ry by thousands of garimpeiros (illegal Brazilian miners) was reported during 2019. Wataniba Association received information in August from the Yanomami Hutukara organisation in Brazil that the Yanomami Indigenous Land in Roraima and Amazonas states was being invaded by some 20,000 garimpeiros, who were likely mining for gold on the Brazilian Indigenous Land. This situation was documented by various national and international media channels, highlighting not only the occupation of the Yanomami territory but also the different threats being made to Yanomami leaders. The garimpeiros are highly mobile in the area and do not respect the border between Brazil and Venezuela, so the risk that they may enter Venezuelan territory and cause harm to Yanomami communities in Venezuela is a serious one.
Territorial rights. Demarcation of living environments and lands
2019 saw the 20-year anniversary of the approval of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Article 119 of which establishes the right to demarcation of Indigenous living environments and lands. After 20 years, not only is this process at a standstill generally but the progress made in terms of demarcations actually completed is relatively small. More than 80% of Indigenous lands have yet to be demarcated and those titles provided have been primarily to individual communities and not Indigenous Peoples as permitted by the special law.
The Demarcation Commission reduced its activity considerably from 2010 onwards when it was transferred from the Ministry of the Environment to the Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples, thus centralising requests to trigger the collective titling process in the institutional archives. This includes the cases of the Ye’kwana peoples of Bolívar (Upper Caura) and Amazonas (Upper Orinoco) states, and the Pemón from the Paragua, Kuyuní, Kamarata, Kavanayen, Wonken, Uriman, Santa Elena and Yukpa (Chakyapa) sectors, among others. Between 2007 and 2016, however, some community titles were issued for members of the Kumanagoto (Anzoátegui state), Barí (Zulia state) Mapoyo (Bolívar state) and Yukpa (Zulia state) peoples, missing out the 10 communities from the native Chaktapa area, however. In 2016, the lands of the Pemón people in Ikabarú sector were recognised via collective title, in the context of tensions between the army and this sector’s Pemón authorities over mining. It is clear, however, that there has been no significant action or progress in the demarcation process in the last three years, and that in 2019 the process was at a complete standstill.
Despite a complicated situation in the country, marked by crisis, there are still various reasons why Indigenous families migrated outside of the country during 2019: sometimes directly due to problems in accessing health care and food, other times due to forced displacement caused by violent actions endangering their physical integrity. Members of the Indigenous Warao from Delta Amacuro and Monagas states, E’ñepá from Amazonas and Bolívar states, Pemón from Bolívar and Wayuu and Yukpa from Zulia state are all now crossborder migrants.
The first displacements occurred in 2016 among the Warao of Delta Amacuro state who left for Brazil. Members of this people used to wander from town to town in search of money but, since 2016, this itinerant practice has no longer been a viable alternative, with their hopes of obtaining health care and money declining considerably. One of the fundamental reasons for moving to the neighbouring country was, from the very start, a need for urgent health care due to the deteriorating system in Venezuela, as evidenced in a lack of service in the communities, the collapse of hospitals, a lack of supplies and a lack of medical staff. This situation gradually worsened and, in 2017, whole families of Warao could be seen in the streets of Boa Vista seeking health care and resources, either through the sale of handicrafts or by begging, a situation that has only worsened with the 2019 crisis. To these Warao families who reached Brazil must be added those of the E’ñepá people who, for similar reasons to the Warao, chose to leave their communities and cross the border.
In both 2018 and 2019, the number of Warao and E’ñepá migrants increased, housed in shelters or refuges or simply living in squares and public spaces. A gradual displacement, primarily of Warao families, can now be seen towards the south of Brazil. The increase in numbers of Indigenous, above all Warao, families in the second half of 2019 suggests that changes arising due to this situation are likely to affect the culture and demographic composition of these peoples, whether they decide to remain in the host country or return home. Initial figures and their distribution in the neighbouring country for the first quarter of 2019 give us some indication of this.
Violence on Pemón territory in Gran Sabana, Bolívar state
The clashes with the state’s security forces in the Pemón community of Kumarakapai (San Francisco de Yuruani) over what was known as “humanitarian aid” on 24-25 February 2019 were serious, resulting in seven deaths and more than 550 Pemón men, women and children displaced to Indigenous Makushi and Taurepan communities in Roraima state, Brazil. This marked the start of an unprecedented situation in Kumaracapai, one that also affected others nearby in the sector, including the municipal capital of Santa Elena de Uairen, where the days following these clashes gave rise to documented acts of repression on the part of the state security forces. Given the fear of further violence during 2019, a further 966 Indigenous Pemón from 14 communities left Gran Sabana for Brazil, the number of displaced people thus reaching 1,200. The origin of these events lies in the growing climate of tension caused in recent years by the impact of mining on the communities of Gran Sabana, together with the upper and lower reaches of river basins located in other sectors: Kuyuní, La Paragua, Ikabarú and Kavanayen (Canaima) inhabited by the Pemón people in Bolívar state. This has above all been caused by a decree establishing the “Orinoco Mining Arc” National Strategic Development Zone. Apart from the social and environmental consequences this has for Indigenous territories, the approval and expansion of the Orinoco Mining Arc has created political problems within the sectors and their communities, with growing tensions between the Pemón authorities in the sectors (general captaincies) and the community captains of each sector, in the context of the implementation of a highly polarised national and regional policy.
Notes and references
1. Given the political, social, economic and humanitarian crisis being suffered in Venezuela in recent years, Wataniba Association and the main Indigenous organisations in Amazonas state have been monitoring the main impacts on and violations of the rights to free movement, physical integrity, food security and health.
This report has been written by the Socio-environmental Working Group for the Amazon (Wataniba) / Luis Jesús Bello, Gabriela Croes and Maria Teresa Quispe.
This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here