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Saturday, October 1, 2016
Indigenous people in southern Venezuela are demanding faster progress in the demarcation of their territory, greater attention from the state to their needs, and protection from incursions by gold panners and armed groups across the border from Colombia.
- “All of the countries of the Amazon basin say they want to protect the environment, but they all have agreements with transnational corporations for the construction of roads or for mining and exploitation of forests,” Curripaco indigenous leader Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, from the south of Venezuela, told Tierramérica.*
“In Venezuela there are more than 50 laws and provisions that favour the rights of indigenous people, but it is hard to enforce them, and decisions about our affairs are principally consulted with indigenous leaders who hold positions in the government,” added Díaz Mirabal, coordinator of the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples from Amazonas (ORPIA), which groups 17 of the 20 native groups from this southern state.
“That is the case of the concession granted to the Chinese company Citic to carry out a mining survey of Venezuela,” he added. “We don’t want mines, and we don’t want to be treated as criminals, as destabilisers or agents of the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency), or as if we were defending other foreign interests.”
Since June, 11 native organisations from Amazonas have been asking for a meeting with President Nicolás Maduro to call for a moratorium on Citic’s mining exploration activity, and for an acceleration of the demarcation of indigenous land.
“The only way for us to survive is to defend the environment, our habitat; as guardians of the Amazon we are helping to save the planet,” Guillermo Arana, a leader of the Uwottyja or Piaroa people, told Tierramérica.
He lives in the community of Caño de Uña, which is set against the backdrop of the Autana tepuy – a mountain with vertical sides and a flat top.
After a several-hour journey by boat from Puerto Ayacucho – the regional capital located 400 km south of Caracas – heading upstream on the Orinoco, Cuao and Autana rivers, the tepuy that is also known as Wahari-Kuawai or “tree of life” in the language of the Uwottyja Indians comes into view.
The communities live in clearings in the jungle, near the rivers, which are raging during the current rainy season. On the granite bedrock, the layer of soil and vegetation in this area is thin and fragile.
In Amazonas, a state of 184,000 sq km, 54 percent of the 180,000 inhabitants are indigenous people. Mining has been banned by law here since 1989 and most of the territory enjoys some form of environmental protection.
The demarcation of indigenous territories was established in the 1999 constitution, to be carried out by a national commission under the Environment Ministry.
According to the commission’s last report, from 2009, 40 collective property titles were granted to 73 communities of 10 different native ethnic groups, making up a total of 15,000 people.
No property title has been issued to an entire ethnic group, of the 40 indigenous peoples in Venezuela. Instead they have been granted to certain communities, none of which are in Amazonas.
“It is a complex process due to the multi-ethnicity – several native groups coexisting in the same territory – and because there are specific legal statutes in force in indigenous areas with respect to the environment, security, development and the borders,” said César Sanguinetti, a member of the Curripaco ethnic group and a national legislator representing Amazonas state for the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Sanguinetti told Tierramérica that “the state intends to make progress soon towards the demarcation of the territories, hopefully by the end of the year.”
Another indigenous lawmaker from the ruling party, José Luis González, said “we could serve as a liaison for a meeting with President Maduro if necessary.
“Now, the title that comes out of the demarcation process will enable the communities to strengthen their collective property ownership and step up their demands for their rights, but that won’t put an end to illegal mining,” said González, chairman of the parliamentary Indigenous Peoples Commission and a member of the Pemón community, in the southeast of the country.
While Citic staff are studying Venezuela’s mining resources in different regions of the country, small-scale gold-panning operations are mushrooming across the intricate topography of Amazonas, almost always run by gold panners from Brazil, Colombia or other countries in the region.
Anecdotal evidence gathered by Tierramérica indicates that there are dozens of artisanal gold mines and hundreds of migrant gold panners deforesting entire sections of rain forest, polluting rivers with the mercury used to separate the gold, and exploiting the local population.
“We have found indigenous people with numbers branded on their arms by miners who use them as property, making them work in exchange for almost nothing: a bit of food, rum, a machete. They use them as beasts of burden, and they use the women to service them,” Yanomami activist Luis Shatiwe told Tierramérica at a spot along the upper stretch of the Orinoco river which borders Brazil.
And José Ángel Divassón, apostolic vicar of Amazonas, said “These people have not been consulted, as the constitution requires, about the agreement with Citic, which aggravates the existing situation: for more than 30 years there has been illegal mining here, especially on the upper stretch of the Orinoco.”
For 690 km a river separates the western flank of Amazonas state from Colombia. In this border region, essential goods are scarce – food, gasoline for the boats used for transportation, basic utensils and materials – and they are smuggled across the border, due to the differences in prices between the two countries.
In Venezuela gasoline costs 1.5 cents of a dollar per litre – compared to 100 times that across the border in Colombia.
The local indigenous people also complain that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) make incursions across the border, set up camp, stock up on supplies, and even impose their own laws in their territories.
“The gold and the guerrillas are wreaking havoc,” the governor of Amazonas, Liborio Guarulla, a left-wing indigenous leader who is opposed to the Maduro administration, told foreign correspondents. “The guerrillas behave as the vanguard that protects the business of illegal mining, violating indigenous areas and damaging the environment.”
The Uwottyja communities met in May with representatives of the FARC and asked them to withdraw from their territory.
“The guerrillas have come here to tell us they are revolutionaries fighting against the empire,” shaman José Carmona, the leader of the Caño de Uña Council of Elders, told Tierramérica. “But we are peaceful people, we don’t want weapons – we want to live peacefully in the territories that belong to us.”
* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.