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VENEZUELA: The Gift of Native Tongues, On the Air

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, May 4 2007 (IPS) - Eiker García and Nelson Maldonado took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, producing a long "mmm" sound, following the instructions of the professional radio presenter who was giving them breathing and elocution lessons.

García and Maldonado are young Ye&#39kuana Indians from the Watamo and La Esmeralda communities in the Amazon rainforest some 800 kilometres south of Caracas, where one of eight indigenous community radio stations, networked with the public Venezuelan National Radio (RNV) station, is to be installed later this year.

"We&#39re learning to overcome our fear of the microphone and how to conduct interviews," García told IPS during a break in the lessons. He was still enjoying the excitement caused by his first airplane flight.

Maldonado told IPS that very few of their people were qualified for this work. "The community sent us on this first course because we are cultural promoters back home," he said.

Twenty-one young people from 10 different indigenous groups, nearly all of them from remote border regions, participated in the short introductory course on radio broadcasting in late April, in preparation for the installation of the radio stations next October.

The course was provided by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL).

"CONATEL will assign the frequencies and provide the transmitters and other necessary equipment to instal eight FM stations, and will also give support in technical and management aspects to guide those responsible for the facilities," general services manager for CONATEL Wilfredo Morales told IPS.

RNV director Helena Salcedo said the public station has carried out trial broadcasts in indigenous languages, using its repeaters in border zones.

"The new stations will help indigenous people recover and preserve their culture, and to recognise it and value it for themselves," Salcedo told IPS.

Some parts of the country do not receive any Venezuelan radio signal at all.

Maldonado said that in the backwater of La Esmeralda, where his community is located, people can only tune in to Radio Casiquiare (the name of a river in the Amazon region), which retransmits broadcasts from government radio stations and is operated by members of the military.

In Páez, a municipality in the extreme northwest of Venezuela, between the gulf of Venezuela and the Colombian gulf of Guajira, "you can easily pick up Colombian television channels, but not Venezuelan ones," María Alejandra González, a young Wayúu woman who is studying journalism and took the CONATEL course, told IPS.

"Throughout the Guajira peninsula (most of which falls within Colombian territory but a small part of which belongs to Venezuela) we can listen to the Fe y Alegría radio station, which transmits in Wayunáiki (the language of the Wayúu, or Guajiro, people) and their news programmes cover events on both sides of the border," said González.

Fe y Alegría is a Catholic organisation, with radio stations in several parts of both Colombia and Venezuela.

González believes that the new indigenous radio station, further south where the Bari, Yucpa and Japreira peoples live, will be able to profit from the existing experience of Fe y Alegría&#39s indigenous language radio station, especially the way it has taken up the concerns, claims and proposals of the indigenous communities.

"We also want to follow their example by creating an Indigenous Radiophonic Institute, like Fe y Alegría&#39s but based on the new indigenous community radio stations," said Wayúu activist Anairú Canbar, who is part of the team leading the recently created Indigenous Peoples Ministry.

The eight radio stations "will begin by broadcasting in the languages of the communities where they are based, but later there will also be programmes to reach other communities within broadcasting range, in their own languages, as far as possible," Canbar said.

García is one of those preparing for the multilingual phase of the radio stations. His mother tongue is Ye&#39kuana, but he also speaks the language of a neighbouring indigenous community, the Yanomami people.

"We want to identify and train indigenous information workers in all the communities, to work as journalists and send their reports by radio, or by telephone to the radio stations, to provide material for indigenous newscasts, which will then interact on the network," Canbar said.

Funding for setting up the indigenous radio stations is being provided by the Information Ministry, as part of its programme for supporting community radio. CONATEL has registered 192 community stations so far. The Information Ministry also has oversight of the Venezuelan National Radio station.

CONATEL&#39s Morales did not mention specific figures, but he said that "the investments are neither large nor costly in comparison with the service they will provide by empowering indigenous communities."

That is what young people like García and Maldonado are learning new skills for. "Get ready to project your voice," said their instructor as he gave them the microphone. "All Venezuela is listening to you now." At least a part of it will be listening, when the first of the indigenous community stations comes on air.

The planned date for this event is October 12, in many countries officially known as Columbus Day, but now celebrated by original peoples as Indigenous People&#39s Resistance Day.

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