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RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: Indigenous Lift Roadblock in Run-up to Talks

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Aug 14 1998 (IPS) - Indigenous protesters in southeastern Venezuela lifted an over two-week blockade of the only highway connecting the country to Brazil, a gesture of reconciliation prior to Sunday’s meeting between indigenous leaders and five government ministers.

Yaritza Aray, a leader of the Karina indigenous community, told IPS by telephone from the town of San Jose, in the state of Bolivar, that the demonstrators decided to lift the roadblock after the ministers agreed to their call for a direct dialogue and other preliminary demands.

The meeting will take place in San Jose, where indigenous protesters have been gathered since Jul. 27, and at least 2,000 indigenous people from throughout the state are expected to flock in by Sunday to defend their rights.

Since late July, 800 to 1,000 members of the Pemon, Arawak, Akawayo and Karina indigenous groups have been partially blocking traffic along the only road running from Venezuela to Brazil, demanding that the government recognise their collective ownership of ancestral lands.

The protest was triggered by the start of work on a 700-km power line to run from Venezuela’s Guri dam to Boa Vista, the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, through communities of the four ethnic groups in question, who were not consulted.

The Guri dam, at the confluence of the Caroni and Orinoco rivers, has a capacity to produce 10,000 megawatts of electricity, part of which is surplus. The power line to Brazil is defended by the two governments as an engine for development in remote areas of both countries.

The Guri dam is located 750 kms southeast of Caracas. It is part of a project exploiting the Caroni river’s heavy rapids to produce more than 13,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity.

Aray, a leader of the Bolivar Indigenous Federation (FIB), stressed that the indigenous groups were protesting violations of their ancestral land rights and the fact that the power line was being built through their communities and fields, “without any indigenous participation or consultation” with our communities.

“The crux of our demand is that our legal right to property and land tenure be recognised,” said Aray, one of the spearheads of a battle which, if successful, will set a precedent that would benefit Venezuela’s 28 indigenous groups, which account for more than 315,000 of the country’s 23 million inhabitants.

The meeting between five ministers of the government of Rafael Caldera and a group of indigenous chiefs was agreed on Thursday in Ciudad Bolivar, the capital of the state of Bolivar, during a session of the social cabinet set up to assess the heavily criticised programmes focusing on Venezuela’s indigenous peoples.

Since the start of the blockade of highway BR-174 between kms 14 and 16, FIB has been demanding direct talks with representatives of the central government, the only authority that can recognise indigenous land rights.

Since late July, the demonstrators had only allowed lorries and tourists through every four or five hours, during which time the protesters discussed their cause with the occupants of the vehicles and distributed material on the situation in their communities.

But Aray pointed out that the roadblock still stood for the vehicles of the companies building the power line and the ‘Corporacion Venezolana de Guayana’ (CVG), the public enterprise in charge of developing the jungle and industrial region along the border with Brazil and Guyana to the east.

FIB notes that the demand for title deeds recognising ancestral lands as the collective property of indigenous communities is backed by Convention 107 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which Venezuela has signed and ratified.

Venezuela has failed to ratify, however, the more recent ILO Convention 189, which expands the property rights and right to autonomy of native groups. And a draft law designed to correct the country’s neglect and obsolete treatment of indigenous peoples has been pending in Congress for the past decade.

FIB president and Pemon leader Jose Luis Gonzalez said the battle unleashed on Jul. 27 was aimed at gaining recognition of ancestral rights to “areas of influence” of indigenous groups.

He explained that the “areas of influence” encompassed rivers, forests and other natural resources where the indigenous communities of the state of Bolivar have long subsisted, and which are increasingly sought-after for their mineral wealth and timber and water resources.

The state of Bolivar, which with its 238,000 square kms accounts for 26 percent of Venezuelan territory, is home to 18 ethnic groups comprised of a combined total of 35,000 individuals, as well as the site of the Canaima and Gran Sabana national parks.

Salto Angel, the world’s highest waterfall, is located in Canaima national park. And in the Gran Sabana national park, which is larger than Belgium, are found the unique “tepuyes” or flat- topped mountains considered the world’s oldest geological formations.

The fragile ecosystem of the Gran Sabana inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure story “The Lost World”, while the mythical gold-rich “El Dorado” so eagerly sought by European conquistadors was also said to be located in the area which is today the state of Bolivar.

The power line project is to run right through Canaima and the Gran Sabana, home to the four ethnic groups directly participating in the conflict, which also enjoys the support of the rest of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples.

Interior Minister Asdrubal Aguiar took the decisive position in favour of the dialogue to take place Sunday in San Jose, while Minister for Border Affairs Pompeyo Marquez warned in Ciudad Bolivar that the power line would go in, “come what may.”

The agreement was reached after a crackdown Wednesday by the military National Guard, which broke up the roadblock by force and mistreated demonstrators and damaged their property, FIB denounced.

“We are not opposed to electricity,” said Italo Pizarro of the Pemon community. “But work on the power line began without our knowledge, and the machines passed through our crops and our communities, while the project will not even bring us light.”

“The logging companies, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the gaps opened by the construction of the electrical line to extract large quantities of wood,” added Gonzalez, who noted that logging activity had already affected 2,000 hectares in the Gran Sabana park.

The protesters have also sought to sound the alert against the government’s aim to open the nearby Sierra de Imataca forest reserve – consisting of 3.6 million hectares, or the size of the Netherlands – to mining and logging concessions, which is pending a ruling by the Supreme Court.

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