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VENEZUELA-INDIGENOUS: Waraos Analyse Impact of Oil Drilling

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 20 1997 (IPS) - The Warao indigenous people living in the Orinoco delta in northeastern Venezuela are alarmed at the impact intensive oil drilling could have on their habitat and way of life.

The Waraos, whose name means “canoe people” in their own language, opened their third congress Thursday to reach a common position on oil drilling by transnationals, which threatens to have devastating effects on the fragile ecosytem of the delta, one of the world’s largest wetland areas.

The impact of an intensive oil programme, being put into effect by the State consortium Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) with the participation of several foreign companies, on the country’s 28 indigenous communities will be analysed at a national congress in May in the northwestern city of Maracaibo.

“We have already begun to see the damages in the delta,” Dalia Yanez, the coordinator of the Network of Warao Women, told IPS.

In 1995, British Petroleum obtained a contract to operate in a 48,000-hectare area in Pedernales, an abandoned oilfield in the delta, where production is to reach 200,000 barrels a day in 1998 – equivalent to Ecuador’s total yield.

The Warao congress, which will also choose new leaders for the 22,000-member group, will run through Sunday in Tucupita, the capital of the state of Delta Amacuro. It will discuss the “dizzyingly swift deterioration” of the living conditions of the Waraos, according to the coordinator of the congress, national Deputy Jesus Jimenez.

Yanez, one of the 200 delegates participating in the congress, said in a telephone interview from Tucupita that the Waraos were “a civilisation within another civilisation, a people within another people, who have always been trod upon.

“The delta is our social as well as physical space, where a river and a plant – palms – give us life,” she stressed.

Yanez said problems of health, education, land ownership and social development among her people have been getting worse, and that oil has already leaked into the water during the oil prospecting in Pedernales, hurting the local flora and fauna. Furthermore, since seismic activity began in the oilfields two years ago, the Isla de Plata (Silver Island), previously home to 200 people, has sunk.

Oil activity could bring the Waraos development, but “what good is the money if it brings us death” as a people, said Yanez. She pointed out that her people have ancestral rights to the delta, which are recognised by the constitution, local legislation and common law, as well as by international conventions which Venezuela has signed.

The Orinoco is the world’s eighth biggest river. Its delta is an intricate system of water routes and wetlands that stretches over 40,000 square kms, one of the largest such areas in the world.

Two of the major “arms” of the Orinoco join in Pedernales, one of which carries the river’s name. The other, the Manamo, is synonymous with a sad episode of history.

When the Manamo was suddenly closed off by the state-run Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana, some 6,000 Waraos were killed, said Yanez, and the group’s way of life was irretrievably altered. The waters became stagnant, an epidemic of malaria broke out, and the peace-loving Waraos, famous for their basket-weaving and palm- frond and balsa wood crafts, began to live in settled communities.

Spokespersons for Oilwatch Venezuela told IPS that exploration activity in the swamps has included explosions, which have caused the leaks and environmental damage cited by Yanez.

But the president of PDVSA, Luis Giusti, told IPS that strict environmental norms were followed in Pedernales, and that British Petroleum – as did the previous operator Lagoven – used a costly system of wooden platforms and boardwalks to avoid damage to the ecosystem.

The PDVSA’s expansion plan will make Venezuela the world’s top centre for oil investment, with 65 billion to be spent by 2006 – 26 billion in foreign capital – bringing production up to a total of six million barrels a day.

Besides British Petroleum, one Canadian and four U.S. firms have been granted concessions to exploit two new oilfields in a nearby offshore area and another part of the delta.

Oil activity was the first point discussed at the three-day Warao congress. Representatives of the involved companies participated in the debate, during which Deputy Jimenez’ proposal of joint ownership by the firms and the Waraos to manage the projects drew fire from other indigenous delegates. “Some of our leaders are led astray as they are acculturated” by mainstream society, complained Yanez.

 
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