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VENEZUELA: Bari People Left Without Land by Oil, Cattle, Coal

Humberto Márquez

KUMANDA, Venezuela, Apr 11 2008 (IPS) - For 900 years, Barí indigenous hunters roamed freely throughout a vast region in western Venezuela. "Now they want to sentence us to die by locking us up in this corral, watching the white man get rich by destroying the land that used to be ours," says schoolteacher Conrado Akambio.

Barí children. Credit: Fidel Márquez/IPS.

Barí children. Credit: Fidel Márquez/IPS.

The huts and multi-family dwellings of the 150 inhabitants of the community of Kumanda are scattered over a hectare of heat-drenched grassland along the banks of the Aricuizá River.

The walls of their homes are made from tree trunks, the floors are packed dirt or a few wooden planks, the roofs thatched palm leaves. Everything is bleached a pale dry grey by the blazing sun. Children run and play among a handful of chickens as the adults seek a shady spot to sit and talk about their plight.

"Our grandparents fought to defend our land, but they lost their fight to the oil companies, who sent in men with rifles. Our people took refuge in the mountains, and then the cattle farmers came in and grabbed this," said Ignacio Akambio, another member of the community.

"We can’t hunt anymore, because all the animals have disappeared, and we have nowhere to grow crops," he continued. "And so we eat corn flour bread or spaghetti, and we don’t live to be old-timers like before; instead we are sick all the time and only live to about 60." It is a harsh fate for the people that Sabaseba, the creator, plucked from the inside of pineapples, according to legend.

Anthropologist Lusbi Portillo, from the non-governmental organisation Homo et Natura, told IPS that "the crux of the Barí people’s problem is that between 1910 and 1960, they lost their land and were decimated by the advance of oil exploration, first, and then by the cattle farmers who occupied and cut down their forests in the flatlands and pushed them towards the unproductive land in the mountains."

The ancestral territory of the Barí people – now reduced to less than 3,000 members spread across roughly 20 communities in Venezuela – encompasses between 4,000 and 5,000 square kilometres, located 650 kilometres west and southwest of Caracas. When viewed on a map, it resembles a wedge cutting into Colombia, where there are also several hundred members of this ethnic group living today.

A few communities in the Sierra de Perijá mountain range, which forms part of the border with Colombia, have accepted the demarcation of their lands proposed by the Venezuelan government. But other communities, like Kumanda and Karañakaek, not only refuse to be "fenced in", but have also settled on tracts of land between cattle ranches as a means of forcing the issue.

The community of Kumanda has received a number of cows through the agrarian assistance programmes implemented by the government of Hugo Chávez. "But what we are demanding is land so that we can raise animals and grow food, and our children can grow up without so many diseases," stressed William Santos, another community member.

He proposes that if the government does not want to affect the cattle farmers, it should buy a strip of 40 to 60 hectares of land along the banks of the Aricuizá River, containing both a forested area and pastureland, and hand it over to the community.

The government has expropriated or negotiated with cattle farmers over thousands of hectares of land in other parts of the country.

Karañakaek is an hour and a half from Kumanda, travelling first in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and then on foot. It is located deeper in the mountain range, closer to the Colombian border. It looks much the same as Kumanda: huts spread out over a parched stretch of land, a few sleepy cows and pigs, kids running around and a handful of adults wearing red T-shirts or peaked caps stamped with pro-Chávez slogans.

"There are almost 300 of us and we have more than 100 children. We have around two hectares of crops and pastureland for about 30 cattle. We only slaughter a few animals at the end of the year. The rest of the year we eat rice or pasta that we buy, with cassava and plantains. But we would like to have enough land to meet our needs," said community leader Rufino Arabaicú.

One example of unmet needs is the case of Miriam, 40, who had her first child at the age of 15. She is now the mother of nine and has uterine cancer. Her family has no stable income. To travel back and forth to the hospital in Machiques, almost four hours away, she must spend four dollars. It costs twice as much to reach the faraway city of Maracaibo, and finding a way to stay there to receive treatment is next to impossible.

In both Kumanda and Karañakaek there are children with bellies bloated by parasites, as well as others with obvious neurological disabilities. "In the past the communities were much bigger and they used to get together for singing festivals that don’t take place anymore. Now that couples are formed within groups of people who are related to each other, it is more common for children to be born with neurological and motor disabilities," explained Portillo.

Shortly after IPS arrived in Karañakaek, a group from the newly created Indigenous Affairs Department of the state-owned oil company PDVSA arrived on a tractor lent by a nearby cattle farmer. "Comrades, we have come to deliver a shipment of medicine and vaccines for the children," announced the young woman heading up the group.

The men and women of the community turned their attention to gathering up the children and getting them in line to receive the vaccines being administered in a large open-walled hut used as a community centre.

In the meantime, a group of young people told IPS about their plans to leave the community and form a new one with a group of families deeper within the territory occupied by the ranches of the "lavadó" (white) cattle farmers.

They explained that Karañakaek bumps up against the outer limits of three ranches established by a single family, whose surname is Rincón. But there is another problem, they said: "they won’t give us the land because they are hanging on to it so they can sell it to the companies that are going to dig up the coal."

Along both flanks of the Sierra de Perijá mountain range and stretching south towards the Colombian region of Santander and the Venezuelan region of Táchira lies a vast coalfield that could surpass several times over the current output of the Cerrejón field in Colombia (40 million tons annually) and the Guasare field in Venezuela (10 million tons), according to Portillo.

Roughly 200 kilometres north of where the Barí people are struggling to survive on the limited amount of land they must live on, other indigenous communities are building a network of resistance against plans to mine the coal and in defence of their land and water.

The Wayúu indigenous ethnic group is made up of half a million people inhabiting the Guajira Peninsula, which straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan border on the Caribbean coast. Over recent years, a number of Wayúu groups and communities have organised campaigns to oppose coal mining operations in the region, sometimes travelling all the way to Caracas to stage their protests.

"If coal mining operations continue to expand we will be left without land to grow crops or raise goats, to live in the ways of our culture, and instead of living in poverty in the countryside, we will end up living in destitution in the cities," activist Jorge Montiel told IPS. Montiel belongs to an indigenous organisation called Maikivalasalii, which means "Not for Sale".

In the nearby community of Jasai ("Sand"), a group of teenagers and adults are gathered in the backyard of Dimas González’s home, rushing to complete the multicoloured weavings they will be presenting on this last day of a course on traditional Wayúu weaving.

The women are wearing colourful "mantas", a sort of tunic that can be tied at the waist. Many of the young men are in the distinctive red T-shirts worn by Chávez supporters.

"I want to learn everything that our aunts and uncles and grandparents knew. Some of us hardly even speak Wayuunaiki (the Wayúu language) anymore," commented Benito González, a young man in his twenties.

The weaving course was offered by the Wayúu arts association Jalianaya ("Remember Them"). One of the group’s members, Emilia Arévalo, explained to IPS, "The goal is to reinforce our identity and revive our values and traditions, but also to generate an income for rural families, precisely here, where they are defending the land against mining."

Under the shady branches in the González backyard, there is a hustle and bustle as a ceremony is organised. The students are presented with certificates for having completed the weaving course, then show off the belts, bags and shawls they have woven during the classes and share stories of their experiences during the past 18 days of learning. The ceremony ends with a lunch of goat meat, rice, cassava and a traditional beverage made from corn.

Jasai is one of the communities in the northern foothills of the Sierra de Perijá where two coal mines are currently being operated by a consortium made up of the Venezuelan state company Carbozulia and foreign corporations. They are located in the basins of the Cachirí, Maché and Socuy Rivers, which feed the reservoirs that supply drinking water to Maracaibo.

"If they open more mines like these ones it will be the end of the Wayúu communities, but also the end of the Sierra, because the forest clearing and pollution will destroy the trees, the rivers, the biodiversity, and ultimately, the water. What was once a mountain jungle will become a desert," Elpidio González, an environmentalist with Homo et Natura, told IPS.

"We are at the vanguard of the resistance. We are going to be the last to leave here, and that is why we want the demarcation of indigenous territories, so that we can protect the land and the water for everyone. We are the guarantors," declared Montiel. "Our motto is: territory, autonomy, dignity, and no coal."

The demarcation of indigenous territories, established in the 1999 constitution, "has been interpreted by the government as the granting of minuscule areas where indigenous people have their houses or small farming plots, but without the lands that would be a source of food and a way of life in accordance with their traditions," said Portillo.

"There should be specific development plans designed for the 32 distinct indigenous groups in Venezuela. If not, entire peoples will disappear through cultural assimilation, and perhaps even before the end of the Chávez administration (in 2013)," he added.

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