The Indigenous World 2021: Venezuela
The Constitution recognises Venezuela as a multiethnic and multicultural society, and its basic provisions (Art. 9) establish that Indigenous languages are also official in the country. Indigenous Peoples account for approximately 2.8% of the total population of 32 million inhabitants. According to the 2011 Indigenous Census, there are some 51 different peoples. There was a remarkable resurgence of peoples considered extinct and from other countries in the region in the 2011 Census. The 15th National Population and Housing Census (2021) is currently being prepared, which includes Indigenous self-recognition, the use of languages, the criteria for communities in traditional contexts and the registration of centres of population of non-traditional Indigenous use.
The current legal framework is fairly wide and comprehensive. The Constitution establishes Indigenous rights in a chapter beginning with Article 119, recognising their existence, their social, political and economic organisation, their cultures, uses and customs, languages and religions, as well as their habitats and original rights over the lands they ancestrally and traditionally occupy, and an obligation on the part of the Venezuelan state to demarcate and guarantee the collective ownership of the lands. In 2001, the Venezuelan state ratified ILO Convention 169, and various regulations have been approved on specific rights such as the Law on Habitat and Land Demarcation (2001), the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2005), the Law on Indigenous Languages (2007), and the Law on the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2009).
During 2020, the situation of Indigenous rights in Venezuela was characterised by the emergence of new realities that affected not only their personal, social, economic and cultural integrity but also their ancestral territory, being the entirety of the space in which their collective life takes place.
Mining: the main threat
One of the most complex problems that has become evident in recent years in Indigenous territories is the significant expansion of illegal mining in several regions of the country. In fact, several reports indicate a growth in mining activities and their expansion into different areas of Amazonas and Bolivar states. Socio-environmental organisations such as the Wataniba Association and Indigenous organisations such as the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of Amazonas (ORPIA Amazonas) and Kuyujani del Caura (Bolivar) issued public alerts during 2020 in this regard, not only related to the expansion of mining activity but also to its serious environmental and socio-cultural consequences. The main impacts relate to the destruction of large areas of wood and forest (Indigenous habitats); the contamination of water with toxic substances (mercury), which affects the health of the population; and the fragmentation of Indigenous communities, which has a strong impact on cultural identity.
All this led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to conclude that:
In relation to Venezuela, mining is reportedly the primary threat to the
integrity of forests and the cultural survival of their inhabitants. The threat comes in the shape of deforestation and pollution of rivers and groundwater. The traditional fish-based diet of many communities has been restricted due to the fact that mercury used in mining has contaminated the rivers.
In addition, in 2020, the allocation of mining concessions to exploit minerals along the courses of several rivers in Bolivar state, and the creation of military commercial companies to exploit natural resources in the southern region of the country, such as forest products and minerals, were highlighted. There has been an expansion of these promotional activities by the Venezuelan state through the Arco Minero del Orinoco mega-project, by means of which the exploration and exploitation of several minerals is planned. This project has been publicly challenged by various national and international sectors and, during 2020, a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) bearing witness to serious violations of Indigenous rights in the context of implementing the Arco Minero del Orinoco became public. The United Nations report states:
According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the mining municipalities of Bolivar state are the main source of the increase in malaria cases observed in Venezuela. Ponds holding the contaminated water from mining activities have become malaria hotspots. Malaria and other conditions such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections, and vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, are proliferating among the Indigenous population with often fatal outcomes as these communities often have limited or no access to treatment.
This report insists that mining in southern Venezuela is perhaps the main problem facing Indigenous Peoples and communities. In this regard, it explains:
Mining has different impacts on Indigenous Peoples and the exercise of their individual and collective rights, mainly due to the presence and actions of armed groups and environmental damage. One such consequence is the loss of control over traditional territories and natural resources, which has a strong impact on their right to self-determination. Those interviewed by OHCHR also highlighted the difficulties arising from the lack of official demarcation of Indigenous territories, and their conviction that these peoples would exercise greater control over what happens on their territory if they had official titles. The presence of military units, criminal gangs and armed elements generally undermines peace and security in their communities.
In addition, the national government adopted a resolution during 2020 that would allow mining activity along the courses of the main rivers of Bolivar state. For the first time, river mining is expressly authorised without the environmental and socio-cultural impact studies required by the Constitution, and without processes of free, prior and informed consultation of the Indigenous Peoples and communities present in these territories.
External armed groups in Indigenous territories
Another notable aspect of Indigenous Peoples and communities in 2020 was the increased presence of numerous armed groups on their territories, acting and operating freely with the aim of exercising political and spatial control, without any measures being taken by the Venezuelan state. This reality has resulted in several clashes in Indigenous communities and threats made to Indigenous leaders who are defending their collective rights.
Notable in this regard was the invasion of the ancestral territory of the Uwottüja people in Amazonas state, who have seen their lands occupied throughout the Sipapo river basin by groups of illegal miners protected by external armed groups. The Uwottüja of Sipapo Indigenous Organisation (OIPUS) has been calling on different civil and military authorities of the Venezuelan state to take action to clear the area and put a halt to all mining activities in the region.
In March 2020, numerous communities of the Sipapo, Cuao, Autana, Guayapo and Middle Orinoco rivers held an assembly in the community of Pendare in which more than 300 people participated and took the decision to block the entry of these unlawful groups into their territory. This created strong tensions and discussions between the illegal groups and the communities and resulted in a temporary evacuation of the area albeit with strong pressure to continue their illegal activities, which include mining, fuel and food smuggling, drug trafficking and related activities, together with the forced recruitment of young people for illegal activities. The actions of OIPUS and ORPIA resulted in an eviction of these players at the end of March 2020, with the intervention of a number of public institutions such as the Ombudsman's Office and the Attorney General's Office. It should be noted that several of the Indigenous movement’s leaders have been placed under pressure and threatened. By the end of 2020, the situation was quite tense in the area due to pressures to recommence the mining activity once more, with some communities divided, leading to internal confrontations.
In the case of Bolivar state, it is important to highlight the situation of the Ye'kwana and Sanöma Indigenous people in the Caura river basin which, by 2020, had been completely invaded by illegal mining activities, resulting in a serious situation that has left the communities completely terrorised. Armed groups (unions and Colombian guerrilla dissidents) are operating in the area and not only protecting the miners but also controlling all activity in the basin. This has created a very tense environment, with threats to the personal and cultural integrity of these peoples, environmental destruction, different types of illegal activities and serious clashes between the communities and the mining and armed groups. Despite the various public complaints that have been made, Venezuelan government agencies have not been able to bring this serious problem under control.
Another situation that is generally affecting the Pemón people in Bolivar state, and their extensive territory in the Gran Sabana, Alto Paragua and Ikabarú sector, relates to the fact that it has been completely taken over by illegal and legal mining activities. The problems in the Pemón territory worsened considerably in 2020 due to the intervention of external public and private agents, leading to serious clashes between communities and military groups or external armed groups, in disputes over the control of areas rich in minerals. These clashes have led to several cases of Indigenous people being arrested, with the opening of legal proceedings and the displacement of numerous Pemón families to Brazil and Guyana. The serious problems experienced in the area have led some affected communities to request precautionary measures from the IACHR, which did in fact issue protective measures for several communities in Gran Sabana. At the end of 2020, tensions intensified due to the serious health conditions of some of the Pemón being held in various prisons around the country, including the death of one of them who was in a critical condition.
The territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples are set out in Article 119 of the Constitution. This provision establishes that Indigenous Peoples and their communities have original rights over their habitats and lands, which must be demarcated in order to guarantee collective ownership. It is important in this regard to assess the progress made in complying with this constitutional duty to carry out the demarcation of Indigenous territories.
It is public knowledge that the national demarcation process started in 2001 and was in place until approximately 2015. By 2020, however, more than five years had passed without any further demarcations of Indigenous habitats and lands, not only failing to comply with the constitutional duty to demarcate but also hindering the possibility of effectively protecting Indigenous ancestral territories.
The suspension of all activities and processing of files submitted by communities or peoples to the regional demarcation commissions of each of the states with Indigenous population is noteworthy in this regard. The files have been archived and there is no substantiation of the technical requirements to move forward. The public agency in charge of conducting the process, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, normally argues that there is no budget to substantiate the files. And yet everything indicates that the paralysis of the process is fundamentally due to a lack of political will to carry out the effective delimitation of Indigenous territories, in a context of growing state extractivism and the imposition of different types of projects in Indigenous territorial spaces.
Everything indicates that there was again no progress in carrying out further demarcations or issuing titles in 2020, with approximately 85% of Indigenous territories still to be demarcated, even though the Constitution itself establishes that the process should be completed within two years. As Vladimir Aguilar, lecturer at the Universidad de los Andes and researcher at the Wataniba Association, has pointed out: “Faced with the res nullius of their territories, Venezuela’s Indigenous Peoples have had to appeal to their traditions, their own institutions, uses and customs to confront the other non-indigenous law but, above all, to contain the process of territorial fragmentation to which they are being subjected.”
The Constitution recognises the right of Indigenous Peoples to comprehensive healthcare that takes into account their practices and cultures, as well as their traditional medicine. 2020 was characterised by evidence of serious deficiencies in the functioning of the public health system in Indigenous territories, as revealed by the need for preventive care and assistance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, the general health condition of the Indigenous population has been affected by a failure to implement adequate public policies and the structural decline in the public health system, resulting in serious consequences in terms of controlling endemic diseases and epidemics, and specifically in terms of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, due to deficiencies in the functioning of outpatient services and hospitals, a lack of medicines and equipment, and no logistical support with which to visit Indigenous territories.
During 2020, serious health problems continued in Indigenous habitats and lands, linked to endemic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases, as well as epidemics of measles and, more specifically, COVID-19. In addition to this, there has been an increase in morbidity and mortality in Indigenous territories due to these diseases, as a result of the growth in mining activity that has taken place over the last five years. This problem has arisen mainly in the Amazon region, which is home to approximately 30 different Indigenous Peoples. The direct relationship between increased disease and the mobility of miners is noteworthy; for example, malaria is high in municipalities on Indigenous lands where there is a presence of illegal mining.
With regard to the pandemic, it is important to note that it spread into Indigenous territories whose health systems were already characterised by serious operational problems, no early warning system and without any proposals for effective social distancing. The Ministry of Health did prepare a guide containing a plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic among Indigenous Peoples and communities, including various policies to address the emergency and, for the first time, highlighting specific measures for Indigenous Peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact. This was quite significant because, until that point, there had been no express recognition by the Venezuelan state, hence the particular importance of this guide. The plan states that:
The Venezuelan state has been taking a series of exceptional measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Such measures have differentiated impacts on populations, especially groups in vulnerable situations, including Indigenous Peoples, and could affect their lives and integrity but also the cultural survival of these native peoples.
The way the pandemic developed in Indigenous territories was specific to each region of the country. In Amazonas state, in the south of the country, the first cases arrived from Brazil via the Río Negro but were dealt with quite effectively by the health authorities, considerably slowing down the spread of the disease in the area. In other regions, such as Alto Ventuari in the Ye'kwana and Sanöma communities, however, there was widespread transmission in August and September 2020, a situation that highlighted the deficiencies in the regional health system. Regarding the Upper Orinoco and, specifically, the Yanomami population, the information publicly available is that approximately 40 Indigenous individuals from this people were infected but they were held and treated in the town of La Esmeralda to prevent them from entering the Yanomami territory. In the south of Bolivar state, in the territory of the Pemón people, the first infections were reported in communities near San Elena de Uairén, with an indeterminate number of cases but with public information referring to a significant number of Indigenous infections. Although varying degrees of infection were reported in the Warao population of the Orinoco Delta, there was evidence of numerous cases in the area during 2020. The situation was the same in Zulia state among the Wayuú Indigenous population and among the Yukpa and Barí peoples of the Sierra de Perijá.
In the general context of the pandemic, it is important to highlight the efforts made by the ORPIA-Wataniba Observatory on COVID-19 formed in Amazonas by these two organisations, who created a multiethnic work team composed of 20 Indigenous representatives from 10 different peoples, and the technical support provided by the Wataniba Association, with the fundamental objective of informing the region’s Indigenous communities of the most important aspects of the pandemic and keeping them updated on its development, promoting advocacy actions for the intervention of the public health authorities and establishing early warning systems, especially in communities that are difficult to access.
What is clear is that the sanitary conditions and the systematic presence of endemic diseases exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis in the country in 2020, and those living near the border with Brazil and Colombia, both countries that suffered seriously from the pandemic, were disproportionately affected. According to the ORPIA-Wataniba Observatory bulletins, the Amazonian region of both countries was among the areas with the highest number of cumulative infections and incidence, placing Indigenous Peoples at greater risk from the very start of the pandemic. In the Venezuelan case, government policies regarding COVID-19 were marked by clear failures in diagnosis, testing and a lack of transparency in recording, making decentralised care aimed at exercising the right to health difficult. The ORPIA-Wataniba Bulletin recorded a total of 4,868 infections in the three states of the Venezuelan Amazon region (Amazonas, Bolivar and Delta Amacuro), 878 of which were Indigenous. In addition, 38 Indigenous people died.
The Ye'kwana del Caura (Bolivar) “Kuyujani” Indigenous Organisation denounced the situation due to the deaths of 26 Indigenous people from complications associated with malaria. In addition, by contaminating the rivers, the extractive activities are affecting the nervous, digestive, respiratory and immune systems of many inhabitants of communities near the mines, recording “high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases”, thus exacerbating 2020’s health emergency, as reported by PAHO and the Zulia Human Rights Commission (CODHEZ). Both organisations also reported chronic malnutrition among Indigenous children, high maternal mortality rates, and the presence of malaria and dengue fever. It was also reported that there were numerous communities in the states of Zulia, Delta Amacuro, Monagas and Apure that lacked clean drinking water, sanitation and intercultural care.
Added to this was the dilapidated health infrastructure on Indigenous lands, as pointed out by the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference: “Healthcare is precarious, the health clinics and health posts in Indigenous communities do not have the minimum presence of health workers or equipment to resolve basic medical situations”. This was reflected in the complaints made by the Indigenous Peoples of the communities of Alto Caura and Erebato, in Sucre Municipality of Bolivar State, claiming their right to health, fuel and urgent humanitarian aid from the national government and a protest in Caracas on the part of 300 members of the Yukpa people because of their health and housing problems.
Due to the occupation of Indigenous territories by armed groups and other actors, conflicts have arisen between Indigenous Peoples and security forces, irregular groups and others. One example of this was on the Caura River where there was a confrontation between irregular groups and 15 members of the Ye'kwana, Sanöma and Wayuú peoples. Another notable case was the torture of three Yukpa youths by police officers from the Cuadrantes de Paz mission in Libertad de Machiques parish, Zulia state. In addition, there was the supposed militarisation of Guajira, Zulia state, in the Paraiguiapoa area, as a result of protests over the lack of water, electricity and food, which resulted in the National Guard firing pellets and tear gas in the early hours of the morning in early October 2020, and again on the Caribbean trunk road and in Guarero in April, resulting in several Wayuú Indigenous people wounded, three more arrested, 17 raids without warrants and a good number of Añú and Wayuú Indigenous people persecuted by state security forces, their homes raided unlawfully. Protests in the centre of Caracas following a mobilisation of Indigenous people from Zulia state due to the security forces similarly resulted in five Yukpa injured for political and social reasons. In addition, two general caciques and more than 37 Indigenous leaders denounced the fact that dissident members of the Colombian guerrilla group had taken control of Indigenous resources and territory. The presence of armed groups, ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents, and mining activity in the territories of the Uwottüja people, were also denounced.
Cross-border migration continued during 2020, despite the pandemic and lockdown measures. Venezuelan Indigenous people who most commonly emigrate are those from the Venezuelan Amazon (Amazonas, Bolivar and Delta Amacuro states), especially the E'ñepa people and those who live in Zulia state, a situation that normally goes unnoticed in the context of the national crisis.
It has been stated in this regard that: “Much has been said about the Venezuelan migration crisis and the increase in Venezuelan migrants but, in contrast, little is known of the situation of Indigenous migrants – most of them members of the Wayuú, Warao, Yukpa and Pemón ethnic groups.” During 2020, the most representative groups of Indigenous migrants were from the Warao people, since at least 6,000 migrated to Brazil, Suriname and Guyana. Many of these Indigenous groups are now living in refugee camps in northern Brazil and Colombia, in a critical condition, as UNHCR points out: “Forced to leave Venezuela, the Wayuú, Warao, Barí and Yukpa, among others, have difficulty accessing basic services due to lack of documentation”.
The Wataniba Amazon Socio-environmental Working Group was founded in 2005. It promotes socio-environmentally sustainable territorial management processes, strengthening the technical and identitary capacity of the peoples that inhabit the Amazon, jointly designing, together with the Indigenous Peoples, public policies consistent with the social and environmental rights widely recognised in Venezuelan legislation.
This work was developed under the coordination of Luis Jesús Bello. watanibasocioambiental.org
This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region. Washington D.C., September 2019. P. 65.
 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Informe sobre la situación de los Derechos Humanos en la región del Arco Minero del Orinoco. [Report on the Human Rights situation in the Arco Minero del Orinoco Region]. July 2020. P.11.
 Idem P. 13.
 Aguilar Vladimir. Derechos Indígenas en 20 años de Constitución Bolivariana. Consistencias e Inconsistencias de Derechos Reconocidos en Venezuela. Document mimeographed by the Wataniba Association, March 2020.
 People’s Ministry of Health. Plan for the prevention and containment of infection and control of COVID-19 disease among Indigenous Peoples and communities. Caracas, April 2020.
 ORPIA-Wataniba Observatory. COVID-19 en la Amazonia venezolana. Newsletter No. 14, 6 December 2020. Available at https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/es/radar/observatorio-wataniba-orpia-covid-19-en-la-amazonia-venezolana-boletin-numero-14/
 ORPIA-Wataniba Observatory. COVID-19 en la Amazonía venezolana. Newsletter No. 13, 15 November 2020. Available at https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/es/radar/observatorio-wataniba-orpia-covid-19-en-la-amazonia-venezolana-boletin-numero-13/
 María Ramírez Cabello. “Kuyujani pide inmediata atención tras muerte de indígenas por malaria en el Caura y crisis de combustible” [Kuyujani asks for immediate support following the death of Indigenous people from malaria in Caura and fuel crisis]. Correo del Caroni, 23 June 2020. Available at https://www.correodelcaroni.com/ciudad/region/5771-kuyujani-pide-inmediata-atencion-tras-muerte-de-indigenas-por-malaria-en-el-caura-y-crisis-de-combustible
 Sebastiana Barráez, “El desesperado grito de los waraos venezolanos para que la comunidad internacional no los deje morir de hambre y enfermedades” [Venezuelan Waraos desperately call on international community to prevent them from dying of hunger and disease]. Infobae, 5 June 2020. Available at https://www.infobae.com/america/venezuela/2020/06/05/el-desesperado-grito-de-los-waraos-venezolanos-para-que-la-comunidad-internacional-no-los-deje-morir-de-hambre-y-enfermedades/
“Indígenas de la Amazonía y OPS unen fuerzas ante la COVID-19” [Indigenous people of the Amazon and PAHO join forces in the face of COVID-19]. Inter Press Service, 16 July 2020. Available at http://www.ipsnoticias.net/2020/07/indigenas-la-amazonia-ops-unen-fuerzas-ante-la-covid-19/
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 Yazmín Antía. “Qué trajo a los Yukpas a Caracas?” [What brought the Yukpa to Caracas?]. El Universal, 11 November 2020. Available at https://www.eluniversal.com/politica/85052/que-trajo-a-los-yukpas-a-caracas
 “Situación en la cuenca del río Caura: actualización 11 mayo 2020” [Situation in the Caura river basin: update 11 May 2020]. Wataniba, 11 May 2020. Available at https://watanibasocioambiental.org/situacion-en-la-cuenca-del-rio-caura-actualizacion-11-mayo-2020/
 Luisbi Portillo. “Tres jóvenes yukpa detenidos fueron torturados por la policía” [Three detained Yukpa youths tortured by the police]. Indymedia, 22 October 2020. Available at http://indymedia-venezuela.contrapoder.org/spip.php?article1950&lang=fr
 Guajira Human Rights Committee, “Por la resistencia indígena contra la militarización de la Guajira” [Indigenous resistance against the militarization of La Guajira]. Indymedia, 19 November 2020. Available at http://indymedia-venezuela.contrapoder.org/spip.php?article1963&lang=fr
 Carlos D’ Hoy. “Cinco heridos dejó protesta de indígenas Yukpa cerca de Miraflores” [Five injured after protest of Yukpa Indians near Miraflores]. El Universal, 11 November 2020. Available at https://www.eluniversal.com/sucesos/85045/cinco-heridos-dejo-protesta-de-indigenas-yukpa-cerca-de-miraflores
 María Ramírez Cabello, “Indígenas de Amazonas rechazan actividades mineras de disidencias de las FARC en sus territorios” [Amazonian Indigenous people reject FARC dissidents’ mining activities on their territories]. Correo del Caroni, 26 September 2020. Available at https://www.correodelcaroni.com/ciudad/region/6986-indigenas-de-amazonas-rechazan-actividades-mineras-de-disidencias-de-las-farc-en-sus-territorios
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 Sabrina Velandia. “COVID-19 también afecta a las migrantes de Venezuela” [COVID-19 is also affecting migrants from Venezuela]. Global Voices, 8 April 2020. Available at https://es.globalvoices.org/2020/04/08/covid-19-tambien-afecta-a-las-migrantes-indigenas-de-venezuela/
 Jhoalys Siverio, “Refugiada warao de Delta Amacuro muere de COVID-19 en hospital de Boa Vista” (Warao refugee from Delta Amacuro dies of COVID-19 in Boa Vista hospital). Correo de Caroni, 11 May 2020. Available at https://www.correodelcaroni.com/salud/coronavirus/5276-refugiada-warao-de-delta-amacuro-muere-de-covid-19-en-hospital-de-boa-vista
 UNHCR. El hambre y la desesperación empujan a grupos indígenas a salir de Venezuela [Hunger and desperation push Indigenous groups to leave Venezuela]. 7 August 2018. Available at https://www.acnur.org/noticias/stories/2018/8/5b69ba424/el-hambre-y-la-desesperacion-obligan-a-los-indigenas-venezolanos-a-huir.html