By Humberto Márquez
Children and adolescents in a Yanomami community in Parima, on the southern border with Brazil, the area where four indigenous people were shot dead and others injured when they confronted military troops last March. CREDIT: Wataniba
The voracious search for gold in southern Venezuela, practiced by thousands of illegal miners under the protection of various armed groups, represents the greatest threat today to the lives of indigenous peoples, their habitat and their cultures, according to their organizations and human rights defenders.
In this part of the Amazon jungle, “mining, violence, habitat destruction, death from disease and forced migration make up a context that indigenous people are calling a silent genocide,” researcher Aimé Tillet, who has worked in the area for many years, told IPS.
At the other end of the country, along the northwest border with Colombia, indigenous people are fighting for the delimitation of their territories, which has led to clashes and deaths in their attempts to recover ancestral lands, while they are often reduced to destitution.
There are common features of life in border regions that are home to indigenous peoples, such as neglect by the government, which fails to fulfill its duties in health, education, security, provision of food, fuel and transportation, supplies, communications and consultations with native peoples regarding the use of their land and resources.
The government foments mining activity and in 2016 decreed the “Orinoco Mining Arc” on the right bank of the Orinoco river – an area of 111,844 square kilometers, larger than Bulgaria, Cuba or Portugal.
In parallel, it established an armed forces company, Camimpeg, to spearhead the mining of gold, diamonds, coltan and other conventional and rare minerals, in which the country is rich.
Opacity is a stain on the management of military companies by the authorities, according to non-governmental organizations such as Citizen Control for Security and Defense.
The local press has reported on the involvement of military and police units in the region in incidents related to mining activity that have sparked protests by indigenous people and human rights activists, ranging from deaths of native people in altercations to massacres in which “unknown groups” have killed dozens of people.
Artisanal and illegal mining, in hundreds of deforested areas and along rivers contaminated with mercury used to extract gold from ore, are often controlled by criminal gangs that call themselves “syndicates” and that traffic in gold and supplies, as well as in people who work in the mines, who are often subjected to forced labor.
According to human rights groups, for some years now another danger has been Colombian guerrillas, particularly the National Liberation Army (ELN), which is involved in mining and other illegal activities in the southern state of Amazonas, as well as dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which laid down its arms under a 2016 peace deal.
In the Sierra de Perijá mountains, home to three native peoples and part of the northern border between Colombia and Venezuela, the ELN has made inroads into indigenous communities, setting up camps, collecting “vacunas” – taxes or protection payment – from cattle ranchers, overseeing cattle smuggling and recruiting young people as guerrilla fighters.
Shots in the jungle
On Mar. 20, four Yanomami Indians were shot and killed in the Sierra de Parima mountains that mark the border with Brazil in the extreme south, by Venezuelan Air Force troops after an altercation over the internet signal and a router shared by the military and members of a native community.
The Yanomami, who have lived in the jungles of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil for thousands of years – considered a living testimony to the Neolithic era who only came into contact with the rest of the world a few decades ago – have found mobile telephones a useful means of communication in their widely dispersed communities.
What happened in Parima “cannot be taken as an isolated reaction, but must be seen as the result of an accumulation of tensions and abuses, of a lack of a differentiated treatment based on the right to positive discrimination,” declared Wataniba, an organization supporting the indigenous peoples of Venezuela’s Amazon region, at the time.
“All these tensions that are experienced daily on the borders are a consequence of extractivism, coupled with abuses of power by the military, transculturation and the lack of concrete actions by the State to meet the basic needs of indigenous peoples,” the organization added.
In 1989, a decree law by then President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1922-2010, who governed the country from 1974-1979 and 1989-1993) banned for 50 years all mining activity in the state of Amazonas in the extreme south of the country, an area of 178,000 square kilometers of jungle with fragile soils, home to 200,000 inhabitants, more than half of them members of 20 indigenous peoples.
For decades, however, thousands of garimpeiros – the Brazilian name for informal gold prospectors, who originally came from Brazil – have made incursions into Amazonas, and in recent years on a larger scale, using airstrips and a large number of motor pumps, and imposing relations, sometimes involving trade but above all exploitation, with indigenous communities and individuals.
On Jul. 28, 2021, the Kuyujani and Kuduno indigenous organizations, as well as the Tuduma Saka court of justice of the Sanemá ethnic group (Yanomami branch) and their Ye’kuana (Carib) neighbors, denounced the presence of garimpeiros in four communities, in documents delivered to the governmental Ombudsman’s Office.
More than 400 armed garimpeiros, according to the complaint, were working with 30 machines extracting precious minerals in the Upper Orinoco area, forcing men and boys to work in mining, and enslaving and forcing women into prostitution.
The report added that the destruction of the forests has also affected the vegetable gardens of local indigenous communities, which have become dependent on food supplies from the garimpeiros.
Tillet said the incursion of guerrillas and illegal miners in the south also creates hotbeds of inter-ethnic conflict, because some indigenous people and communities desperate to find a means of survival accept the miners, while others (such as the Uwottija or Piaroas of the middle Orinoco) strongly oppose such incursions.
In the “currutelas” or mining villages, young men and boys work extracting gold-rich sands, while women are employed to cook, sweep, wash and clean the camps, and are exploited sexually.
This situation, seen in the hundreds of mining camps in Amazonas and the southeastern state of Bolívar, which covers some 238,000 square kilometers, is aggravated in the case of indigenous peoples, lawyer Eduardo Trujillo, director of the Andrés Bello Catholic University’s Human Rights Center, which is conducting several studies in the area, told IPS.
“Under the control of armed groups, dynamics of violence are generated, with confrontations and deaths, and conditions of modern-day slavery, where omission translates into acquiescence on the part of the Venezuelan State,” Trujillo added.
In particular, indigenous women recruited to work in the camps “are caught up in a dynamic of violence: their work is not voluntary, sometimes they are not paid, and they are subjected to risks to their health and lives,” he said.
Mining in Venezuela contributes to the figures of the International Labor Organization (ILO), according to which more than 40 million people around the world are victims of modern-day slavery, 152 million are victims of child labor and 25 million are forced laborers.
Adios habitat, culture and life
According to the 2011 census, at least 720,000 of Venezuela’s 28 million inhabitants are indigenous, belonging to some 40 native peoples, and close to half a million live in rural indigenous areas, mainly in border regions.
Although the largest indigenous group (60 percent) is the Wayúu, an Arawak-speaking people who live on the Colombian-Venezuelan Guajira peninsula in the north, most of the native peoples are in the south of the country. Some groups have thousands of members but others only a few hundred, and their languages and ancestral knowledge are at risk of dying out.
The environmental organization Provita reports that 380,000 hectares have been deforested south of the Orinoco in the last 20 years, while the area dedicated to mining increased from 18,500 to 55,000 hectares between 2000 and 2020.
Riverbanks and headwaters have been especially affected, many in areas theoretically protected as national parks. Tillet stressed that, in addition to the environmental damage they suffer, these are areas of limited resources for subsistence, for which indigenous communities and miners are now competing.
“Because they depend on mining for an income, indigenous people are forced to abandon their traditional activities of planting, fishing and hunting, their diet deteriorates, malnutrition and diseases such as malaria increase, and they are forced to say goodbye to their land, to move and migrate,” said Tillet.
The researcher said that health services, which are the responsibility of the State, have practically disappeared, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, while education has collapsed as teachers move away and migrate, with the result that “children who should be in school now work in exploitative conditions in the mines.”
In the document they presented to the Ombudsman’s Office, the Yanomami and Ye’kuana organizations said they were victims of selective killings, contamination of water with mercury, contagion from diseases and, in short, “a silent cultural genocide.”
Territory, an elusive right
The current constitution, adopted in 1999, recognized the right of indigenous peoples to conserve their cultures and possess their ancestral territories, and provided for the expeditious demarcation of these areas – which has only happened for a small part of their territories.
In the case of the state of Amazonas, which is almost entirely the habitat of indigenous people, the demarcation process has been ignored, preventing indigenous peoples from laying claim to their rights, demanding the required consultation processes and consent for the exploitation of their territory, and eventually obtaining benefits from their land.
Tillet said that “demarcation is still a pending issue, for which there is no political will, but the avalanche of mining has relativized its importance, because if protected areas such as national parks or natural monuments are violated by mining, you can imagine that the same thing is true for indigenous territories.”
Examples are the 30,000-square-kilometer Canaima National Park in the southeast, rich in tepuis – steep, flat-topped mountains – and large waterfalls, and the 3,200-square-kilometer Yapacana, in the middle of Amazonas state, where mining is practiced while the authorities turn a blind eye.
On the other hand, in the northwest, the struggle for land of the Yukpa people in the center of the Sierra de Perijá continues, with episodes of violence. Like their neighbors, the Barí of Chibcha origin, and the Wayúu, they are a bi-national people, although with more members of the community on the Venezuelan side than in Colombia.
The crux of the conflict is that throughout the 20th century the indigenous people were pushed into the most inhospitable lands in the mountains, while the plains, on the western shore of Lake Maracaibo, were occupied by cattle ranchers.
Some communities have accepted plots of land – the least fertile areas – granted by the government. But a resistant group of Yukpa, led by chief Sabino Romero until he was murdered in 2013, lays claim to land occupied by cattle ranches, while combating incursions by smugglers and guerrillas in the mountains.
“Other members of Sabino’s family and followers of his have been killed over the years and have endured attacks by hired killers and employees of cattle ranchers, and even by the National Guard (militarized police) or the ELN,” Lusbi Portillo, leader of the environmental Homo et Natura Society, told IPS.
Ana María Fernández, a Yukpa activist in the area, said that “we are not only fighting against large landowners, police forces and the National Guard, and the State, which does not allow the demarcation of our lands. We are also attacked by Colombian guerrillas and hired killers contracted by ranchers.”
On the other hand, some Yukpa indigenous people sometimes seize cattle as a way to collect on the damages inflicted on them. Others, less combative, “charge a right of way on what used to be their lands, to earn some money to eat and survive,” said Portillo.
The activist said that one alternative is for the State to fulfill its commitments to compensate cattle ranchers whose farms must be returned to the indigenous people, and to make good on its duty to provide transportation routes for the communities’ agricultural production and health care in the face of the increase in diseases.
Time to migrate
The crisis of the second decade of this century in Venezuela has forced thousands of indigenous people to migrate, as part of the diaspora of six million Venezuelans who have left the country since 2014, overwhelmingly heading to neighboring Latin American and Caribbean countries, the United States and Spain.
The largest group is the Warao, a people living in the northeastern Orinoco delta, whose southern zone is affected by mining and logging activities, and who have gone mostly to Brazil, but also to Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Warao “number less than 50,000, and the migration of at least 6,000, more than 10 percent of them, is a decrease in numbers that speaks volumes about the human rights situation of this population. In northern Brazil there are some 5,000, and Brazil already considers them to be a distinct, nomadic indigenous people in its territory,” Tillet commented.
Pablo Tapo, a member of the Baré people and coordinator of the Amazon Indigenous Human Rights Movement, compiled a report according to which more than 4,500 indigenous people from nine ethnic groups in his region crossed the border into Colombia in three years.
In both cities and rural areas, “communities are left on their own because there is no attention or services, in outpatient hospitals there are no doctors, medicines or supplies, and there is no food security,” said Tapo.
In the southwestern plains state of Apure, the armed confrontation that months ago involved Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan military forced the flight to Colombia of indigenous groups living on the Venezuelan side of the Meta River.
In the extreme southeast, next to Brazil, the Pemón people have suffered from the drop in tourism due to the insecurity associated with mining and the pandemic, which has created an incentive to migrate. And in the northwest, for peoples such as the Wayúu, continuously crossing the border is an ageold practice that has never changed.
At the center of the indigenous people’s plight is mining, particularly the insatiable craving for gold, of which, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this country can produce some 75 tons per year, although actual extraction, both legal and clandestine, is possibly half that.
This post first appeared on IPS News.