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VENEZUELA: Hunger Strike Off as Gov’t Agrees to Talks on Native Demands

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Oct 25 2010 (IPS) - An 81-year-old Jesuit missionary in Venezuela ended a week-long hunger strike Monday after the government agreed to high-level talks to negotiate the release of three indigenous prisoners facing murder charges and to discuss land claims by Yukpa communities.

"Our Struggle Is for Territory; Freedom for Yukpa Chief Sabino Romero" Credit: Courtesy of Homo et Natura

"Our Struggle Is for Territory; Freedom for Yukpa Chief Sabino Romero" Credit: Courtesy of Homo et Natura

José María Korta told journalists outside Congress in Caracas, where he was holding his fast, that in “the dialogue that we have held with government leaders, the main reason for our hunger strike has received a response.”

In the company of two young activists who joined him in the hunger strike over the last three days, the elderly missionary said he felt fine and that he could have “continued the strike, and may still take it up again.”

Korta called off his protest after Vice President Elías Jaua promised to meet with him to listen to his concerns and seek solutions to his demands, along with leftwing President Hugo Chávez, who returned from an 11-day international tour Sunday.

“We hope the dialogue and negotiations with representatives of the government and other branches of the state will bring about the release of Sabino Romero, Alexander Fernández and Olegario Romero,” three indigenous men in prison for murder since a year ago, Lusbi Portillo, with Sociedad Homo et Natura, an environmental group that has been involved in the Yukpa cause for 25 years, told IPS.

But “We also need a road map to overcome the underlying problems, like the defence of indigenous forms of justice and the handing over of ancestral indigenous land occupied by cattle breeders or granted to mining companies in concession,” he added.

Sources in Congress said legislators are working with Supreme Court judges on measures in favour of the three indigenous inmates.

During his hunger strike, Korta told IPS that “Since 1999, when the new constitution –which is very beautiful but has hardly been enforced — was approved, indigenous people like the Yukpa have been awaiting the demarcation of their territories.”

The constitution, which was rewritten under Chávez by an elected constituent assembly that included delegates of indigenous organisations, requires the demarcation of indigenous territories. It also stipulates for the first time that the legislature must include representatives of native groups.

Korta said the Yukpa “are victims of the colonialist viewpoint that predominates among many officials.”

The Yukpa, a Carib-speaking Amerindian population of around 12,000, are one of the five native groups living in northwestern Venezuela, between the Sierra de Perijá mountains, which mark part of the border with Colombia, and Lake Maracaibo.

While some Yukpa leaders and communities have accepted land and other aid distributed by the government, more radical groups led by Sabino Romero — such as the Chaktapa village, of which he is chief — continue to demand legal recognition of a larger, continuous Yukpa territory, instead of areas granted to separate communities.

They are demanding a territory of 285,000 hectares located between the Sierra de Perijá and the fertile plains from which they were gradually driven in the 20th century by the expansion of cattle ranching and oil prospecting.

They don’t want to end up “like ham in a sandwich,” Portillo said, referring to tracts of land offered by the government that are wedged between border areas reserved for military use and the plains along the lake, which are covered by ranches.

Some of these groups have come down from the mountains in recent years and occupied idle land on cattle ranches that they claim as their traditional territory.

Wayúu, Yukpa and Barí communities living on the Venezuelan side of the Sierra de Perijá, from north to south, are also opposed to the coal-mining concessions granted to companies in the area, and maintain that the government is delaying the demarcation of indigenous territories because it would hinder plans for mining activities and the construction of railways and ports.

The Yukpa communities led by Romero are asking the government to pay ranchers compensation for the improvements they have made to the land occupied by the indigenous protesters, such as houses, barns, fences, artificial lakes, dikes, electric wiring, rural roads and fixed machinery.

The ranchers have agreed to give up the land if they receive not only compensation for the property itself but also for the improvements.

But in its agrarian reform effort, the government argues that landowners must be able to show an unbroken chain of land titles that can be traced back many decades, and refuses to pay for improvements to expropriated rural property if the owners cannot do so.

There is thus a political stand-off between the Chávez administration and the cattle breeders along the shores of Lake Maracaibo.

On Oct. 12, 2009, the government handed over communal land titles to 41,600 hectares to three of the more than 100 Yukpa communities.

The next day, a violent incident broke out between Sabino Romero and several of his family members and friends, with people from the community of Guamo Pamocha, led by a rival chief, Olegario Romero.

The heated argument over land spiralled into violence, and two people were shot and killed — Sabino’s son-in-law and Olegario’s 16-year-old pregnant sister — and several were injured.

The courts ordered the arrests of Olegario, Sabino and Alexander Fernández, a member of the Wayuú community who is married to Sabino’s daughter.

They were first held in a local military garrison. But when pressure mounted from the indigenous groups and organisations that back their cause, the three men facing murder charges were transferred to a prison in the city of Trujillo in the country’s western Andes highlands.

This year, Homo et Natura has been fighting in the courts for the three men to be returned to their communities and tried under indigenous criminal justice systems, which were recognised by the constitution.

Article 260 of the constitution establishes that “The legitimate authorities of indigenous peoples can apply in their territory forms of justice based on their ancestral traditions (in cases) that only involve members of their communities, according to their own customs and procedures, as long as they do not run counter to the constitution, the country’s laws and public order.”

The Yukpa justice system is based on reparations rather than punishment. For example, it requires the offender to work several years for the victim’s family, Portillo explained.

According to Sabino Romero’s defence attorneys, the evidence of what happened on Oct. 12, 2009 was altered; the interpreter used in the trial was not fluent in the Yukpa dialect spoken in the village of Chaktapa; and the chief is being held in a cell with evangelical inmates who press him to join them in prayers and rites that differ from his own beliefs.

The Spanish-born Korta is known as Ajishama, “the white ibis who shows the way” in the Ye’kuana language, by students at the Indigenous University he founded.

There are some 600,000 indigenous people from 36 different ethnic groups in this South American country of 28 million people. Just over half live in communities in border regions.

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