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VENEZUELA: Yukpa Indians Clash with Ranchers and Soldiers

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 28 2008 (IPS) - “The army’s rifles should be used to protect Venezuela or its people, not to fire over our heads,” Sabino Romero, the young deputy “cacique” (chief) of the Yukpa community of Chaktapa, complained to reporters, describing the behaviour of the armed forces in the northwestern mountains of Perijá, near the Colombian border.

His grandfather, 97-year-old José Manuel Romero, died on Jul. 22 of injuries inflicted by hired thugs who descended on the elderly man’s community at a time when it had been left unguarded. They knocked him to the ground and kicked and beat him, according to Yukpa witnesses.

The thugs are presumed to be in the employ of local ranchers, in particular the Vargas family, which has connections with military commanders, according to activists from groups that support the indigenous people. Several estates owned by the Vargas family are claimed by the Yukpa as part of their ancestral lands, and have been occupied by the indigenous people.

The dispute was made known to the public by Romero and three other young Yukpa activists who travelled to Caracas. Underlying the conflict is the systematic theft of the ancestral territories of the Yukpa, Barí and Wayuu peoples, by cattle ranchers for their present use, and for future extraction of coal, phosphates and other minerals, anthropologist Lusbi Portillo told IPS.

“In fact, 28,000 hectares of Yukpa lands were given in concession to Corpozulia (the Zulia State Development Corporation) with a view to mining for phosphate,” Portillo, the head of the environmental organisation Homo et Natura, told journalists in Caracas, alongside the indigenous delegation.

The Wayuu, the largest indigenous community in Venezuela, with 300,000 members on the Venezuelan side of the border and another 200,000 in Colombia, together with the Yukpa and Barí peoples, have been battling coal mining and the extraction of other minerals in their territories for several years.

The Wayuu ancestral lands are located in the northern part of the Sierra de Perijá mountain range, while the Yukpa and Bari traditional territories are in the central and south-central areas of the Sierra.

The Perijá mountain chain runs roughly north to south between the Maracaibo basin to the east and the higher Sierra Nevada de Santa María mountains (in Colombia) to the west, which separate the Perijá range from the Caribbean sea. The Sierra de Perijá forms part of the Venezuela-Colombia border.

The entire length of the Perijá mountain range is rich in coal deposits, which are intensively mined on the Colombian side of the border at Cerrejón and elsewhere, producing more than 40 million tonnes of coal a year. On the Venezuelan side, three mines produce about 10 million tonnes a year.

“The core of our proposal is that the government should permanently cancel the mining concessions, or that parliament should revoke them. We want the indigenous territories to be demarcated, with the participation of the indigenous communities and their allies, and we want plots of land (owned by non-indigenous people) to be bought (by the government) as necessary, so that they can live in peace,” Portillo said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez addressed the issue last Sunday on his weekly talk show, Aló Presidente. “We stand with the indigenous people, with the Yukpa,” he stated. “No one should have any doubt: between the landowners and the Yukpa, the revolutionary government is with the indigenous people.”

The president instructed his ministers to find a solution, “and if necessary, we will compensate the (infrastructure) improvements made by the ranchers” in order to give the land back to the Yukpa, he said. Interior and Justice Minister Ramón Rodríguez was charged with investigating the death of the elderly José Manuel Romero.

A few years ago, groups of Yukpa, together with members of the Barí community, came down from the Sierra de Perijá mountains where they had been subsisting on unproductive land in miserable conditions for over half a century, to occupy idle land on cattle ranches on the plains between the mountain range and Lake Maracaibo.

“We are not invading the ranchers’ lands, but recovering land that used to belong to our grandparents. We came down to farm on the plains, so that our children do not die in the mountains,” said 23-year-old Daisy González, an activist from the Yukpa community of Guamo.

In the 20th century, prospecting for oil and the advance of the cattle ranching frontier drove local indigenous groups up into the mountains. The 1999 constitution provides for the demarcation of their territories, but although this has been done in other remote areas of the country, it has not yet happened in Zulia.

The Yukpa belong to the Carib language group, and number over 10,000, distributed in 164 communities. The people from some of these, like Chaktapa and Guamo, located on the banks of the Yaza river, 650 kilometres west of Caracas, have laid claim to a dozen estates, and have occupied portions of several of them, leading to clashes with ranchers.

Government commissions have sought to mediate in the conflicts, and the National Guard was mobilised to prevent an escalation of the violence, while university students and activists of the National Association of Free, Alternative and Community Media (ANMCLA) are waging a campaign in favour of the indigenous peoples’ land rights. The Yukpa’s land occupations “threaten the country’s territorial and food security,” because the area produces 100,000 litres of milk a day, said Rubén Barboza, the head of the Maracaibo Lake Basin Ranchers’ Federation (FEGALAGO). The plains to the west of Lake Maracaibo are a centre of meat and dairy production.

But attempts to reach an agreement have fallen flat. Some ranchers are demanding that the indigenous people be evicted before they will set down at the negotiating table, while the Yukpa from Chaktapa and Guamo complained that Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado, who belongs to a native group from the country’s southern Amazon region, only met with them for 15 minutes but spent seven or eight hours with the ranchers.

The security forces threw up a security cordon around the Yukpa communities and are regulating access. On Aug. 23, dozens of students from the Bolivarian University and young activists from community media and the government radio station decided to break through the cordon to bring supplies of medicine and food to the indigenous people.

But the young people were stopped near Machiques, the nearest town, and prevented from going further. Tensions rose as heated discussions took place in the middle of the rural roadway, and Yukpa people arrived to demand that their allies be allowed through.

At that point, soldiers fired shots in the air and dispersed the people with tear gas. A young man from one of the solidarity groups was hit on the head, causing bleeding, and was arrested together with three young women who were giving him first aid.

Echoing Sabino Romero, Yukpa activist Mary Fernández complained “they cannot use weapons of war against us. The army’s duty is to protect us, because we only want our land, so we can live in peace,” she said.

Fernández also said that the four young indigenous people who travelled to Caracas to argue on behalf of the demands of their people “did so because the ‘caciques,’ our chiefs, have been threatened with death if they step outside of their communities, by the thugs hired by the ranchers; everyone in the Sierra de Perijá knows that.”

Over the past few decades, there have been increasing numbers of contract kidnappings and murders in the state of Zulia, and especially in its capital, Maracaibo.

Activists like Portillo have received death threats, and he said there was collusion based on common interests between ranchers, military commanders, and “the strategist behind this whole policy aimed at favouring the long term interests of transnational mining companies: General Carlos Martínez, the head of Corpozulia.”

Portillo said these interests are shared by local authorities of the National Land Institute – which is responsible for carrying out demarcations of indigenous land – and the regional military commander, General Gerardo Izquierdo. “The army in Machiques is divided into two factions: the revolutionaries (Chávez supporters), and those who are aligned with the paramilitaries,” he said.

Minister Maldonado said the “demarcation of land for the 164 Yukpa communities is 70 percent complete,” but Portillo and the four young Yukpa emissaries remain unconvinced. “The lines on the map drawn by the president in Caracas are one thing, but the result of negotiations between power factions when the lines are drawn on the ground in Perijá is quite another,” said the activist.

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