Photo from Bernd Kroening

The outcry of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro indigenous peoples

EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.

According to data from the State’s Indigenous Census in 2011, 23 indigenous peoples inhabit the Venezuelan Amazon (Amazonas, Bolívar, Delta Amacuro). They represent 22.86% of the country’s total indigenous population, which translates to approximately 160,020 people out of the national total of 700,000. However, as time passed, this figure is now inaccurate.

Pressures from the extractivist mining model, the lack of an intercultural approach in public policies, and the co-optation of traditional organizations, have seriously impacted the life plans1 of indigenous peoples and communities. In this short article we review the rights violated in some of the indigenous peoples and communities whose territories are in Bolívar and Delta Amacuro; a reflection of what is happening throughout the country.

Bolívar, between dispossession and resistance

Since Decree 2.248 creating the Strategic National Development Zone, Orinoco Mining Arc (ZDEN-AMO in Spanish), violence, forced disappearances, and massacres have intensified in Bolívar state where gold mining is carried out. The municipalities of Roscio, El Callao and Sifontes concentrate the greatest numbers of massacres and homicides. This situation extends to the Amazon and Delta Amacuro states. From 2018 onwards, we have observed how these massacres have moved further south in Bolívar, directly affecting indigenous peoples and communities of the Pemón ethny.

A few salient examples were: the Canaima Massacre in December 2018, when members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM in Spanish) murdered Charlie Peñaloza and wounded two other people, all Pemón. Then, the Santa Elena Massacre, which took place in the municipality of Gran Sabana in 2019. Between the 22nd and 23rd of February the State’s security forces murdered eight people (five indigenous) and more than twenty were wounded by firearms. That same year, in November, another massacre in Ikabarú reached the public light. Indigenous leaders have faced harassment, persecution, and criminalization in the state media and have had to take refuge in
Brazil, causing family fragmentation.

Successive lockdowns in the border with Brazil have put indigenous peoples in a situation of food, health and even educational insecurity. Indigenous people currently face a high risk of contracting Covid-19 due to the high number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees returning on foot through the border with brazil. These people are been kept in lodges and hotels in the border town of Santa Elena de Uairén without any kind of sanitary control. As of July 2020, 127 positive cases of Covid-19 have been recorded among Pemon people from Gran Sabana2. The Ministry of Health has not yet published a protocol to prevent, contain and control Covid-19 infections among indigenous peoples and communities.

In the midst of the complex humanitarian crisis the country is experiencing, many indigenous people are engaging in illegal mining within their own territories. Many have been buried in landslides inside illegal mines, fallen ill with malaria or been either forced to disappear or killed by criminal groups and agents of the government who control the activity.

At the other end of Bolívar state, the Caura Kuyujani Basin Indigenous Organization has denounced the presence of armed gangs -self-named “Sindicatos”- within their territories3. On May 6, 2020, at La Puerta “La Bullita”, located in the middle of Caura, Sucre municipality, a group of Yekwanas who were guarding the area were attacked with firearms by the Sindicato. The indigenous people escaped and hid in the jungle. There were no deaths during this event, only the disappearance of a man of Wayuu origin nicknamed “the Baker”.

This spread of violence evidence that interests surrounding business models based on extractive activities of highly-priced commodities, do not admit the rights for self-determination, self-organization and property of indigenous peoples. These interests only accept them as either victims or victimizers. For example, members of the General Council of Pemón Caciques have been co-opted by the government4 to maintain their extractive businesses while Pemón communities who operate mines are criminalized by some experts and the government under the fallacy of “Indigenous Mining Arc.”

Extractivism is not the way of the communities and therefore devastates them. When peoples and communities have asked the government for protection, it has responded with increased militarization and control because it operates under a logic of force. The State is not a caretaker.

This systematic aggression against indigenous peoples’ rights continuous to increase. On April 8, 2020, a resolution was promulgated by the government which authorizes mining activities within stretches of ecological and strategically important rivers in Venezuelan Guiana. Such rivers include the Cuchivero, the Caura, the Aro, the Caroní, the Yuruari and the Cuyuní, five of which are tributaries to the Orinoco river and are important for multiple indigenous peoples as a source of potable water and food and as waterways.

Again, and despite the self-demarcation and government-led demarcations of indigenous territories in the area, the government transgresses indigenous rights, and deepens the land parceling and fragmentation of a territory whose sovereignty has been blurred between the informal, criminality, dispossession and suffering5.

Photo from Odimar López

Delta Amacuro, rowing to survive

The Warao indigenous people have lived in the waters of the Orinoco Delta for at least eight thousand years. According to the 2011 population and housing census, there are 48,771 Warao. Currently, the Orinoco River is highly polluted by mercury, cyanide, and hydrocarbons from extractive activities in Bolívar, Monagas, and even Delta Amacuro state itself. Soil with different pollutants affects agricultural indigenous territories as this does not allow them to work the land in a healthy environment.

The distribution of potable water is deficient. Because the Orinoco river outflows into the Atlantic Ocean, many communities cannot access fresh water, so they must go upstream to supply themselves. In other communities that are important harbors, potable water is taken directly from the river. “There they bathe, drink, cook, relieve themselves. Another reality is what happens in the Barrancos de Fajardo, in San Félix, where the indigenous people consume water near the landfill where they live” says Johan Ramos, a Warao and Arawak indigenous man, and a member of the Panamazonian Church Network, Venezuela (Repam in Spanish).

Scarce, and at times complete lack of, accessibility to public health policies is yet another problem the Warao have faced throughout contemporary history. Although there is a small health infrastructure, they do not have timely surgical medical supplies or doctors to accompany the work of health personnel from the communities themselves. “Specifically in the Antonio Díaz municipality, a significant incidence of HIV cases in indigenous people been registered (…). In recent weeks (May 2020) many indigenous people have died with symptoms of fever, flu, headache, chest pain and sore throat. Likewise, the presence of other pathologies such as scabies, amebiasis, as well as a high malaria index and even diseases eradicated years ago, such as measles, has been evidenced, so the high mortality rate in this area is very serious.” Ramos explains. The activist indicates that there are no means to transfer patients who require care that can only be provided in the cities. Many Warao indigenous people die at home or on their way to health centers.

The Warao feed on fishing and farming; but due to the fuel crisis, their mobility has been reduced, restricting these activities, especially fishing. Not having markets within their communities, they need to travel in their curiaras, row for several days. This puts their lives at risk as organized gangs and cargo ships transit the Orinoco river. Their destination is either Barrancas del Orinoco, located in the Bolívar state, or the Maturín municipality in the Monagas state, where they stock up on other food or personal hygiene items. However, malnutrition is prevalent mainly affecting boys, girls and elders.

Waraos who live in urban areas, and who have been affected by the lockdown measures put in place due to Covid-19, begin the houses of neighboring sectors and barter with their fish and handicrafts for food. This leads to abuse and lack of appreciation of their work by many people. “One of the extreme situations is that of the indigenous people who live in Cambalache and in the garbage dump of Ciudad Guayana and Tucupita. Their reality is unfortunate since they feed on the waste that is deposited in these places, living from extreme poverty and forgotten as if they were not human beings” says Ramos.

Access to other utilities such as electricity is also hindered. Only Tucupita, and precariously Casacoima, Puerto Ordaz and Maturín, have an electrical system and service. Municipalities such as Pedernales, Uracoa and, more seriously, Antonio Díaz, do not have electricity. Communications are also precarious. Many indigenous communities do not have landline or cell phone coverage, internet, television, radio or other media. In general, these are areas where their reality is only known within their vicinity and there are no means to communicate with family members. The above has terrible consequences on education; highetened in times of Covid-19.

As the Warao territories do not have their own demarcation, much fewer property titles, many outsiders enter and occupy their territories. “Trinidadians and Guyanese sail through the rivers of these communities, believing themselves to be the owners of our lands, abusing indigenous rights and trafficking with the flora and fauna of these areas. Their activities, in Pedernales, leave communities without work and food, because these people engage in large-scale fishing, taking the shrimp, crabs, snails and killing the fish” denounces Ramos.

There is no river surveillance in the areas of San José de Amacuro, La Línea and the different channels and waterways that border other countries. This is also true for the Orinoco river in Boca Grande, which is an essential navigation passage from the communities to Tucupita and vice versa.

Since 2014, many Warao began to migrate. First to the country’s main cities, and then to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Brazil. In the latter, there are approximately 5,000 Waraos who currently live in shelters managed by international refugee and human rights organizations and the Brazilian Government of Roraima. They face deficiencies in health care, lack of water and unbalanced nutrition. Another group of indigenous people is living in the streets. There are reports of deceased Warao indigenous people due to Covid-19 in Brazil. Shelter leaders report they have taken away many indigenous people who, upon presenting flu or fever symptoms, are told that they are infected and are then isolated, but end up neglected without medical treatment.

Photo from Bernd Kroening

Hopeful outrage

If we review structural issues, the situation of indigenous peoples in Venezuela is no different from that of others in the region and the world. They demand the demarcation and titling of their territories; free, prior and informed consultation for extractive projects in their territories; the right to health, intercultural-bilingual education and food. We find that one of the last hopes they have to exercise their rights is through special indigenous jurisdiction6. Indigenous peoples are not poor, they were driven into poverty, and this poverty lies in the fact that many have been stripped of their autonomous ability to feed themselves.

For the Yekwanas, gold or uddu, is the support and form the veins of the land that is in the mountains, rivers, lagoons, and channels. Time passes and that uduu continues to come out of their territories. Violations and criminalization of indigenous people also continue. But while extractivism intensifies and devastates, self-demarcation processes continue in many indigenous peoples and communities; strengthened on the fact the territory is the center of their entire world. Everything is happening simultaneously, providing an account of the existential schizophrenia of these times.

We need to urgently move from homogeneous citizenship to one of a multicultural nature, in which intercultural democracy stands as one of the main mechanisms to overcome the crisis, where each and every citizen feels mournful of what is happening in these territories.

“They killed us but they didn’t kill our roots,” says Wayama, a young indigenous man of the Yekwana people. They are the ancestral roots that still breathe and show the way to re-exist in these territories oppressed by the ambition of gold.

Minerva Vitti Rodríguez
*Journalist. Researcher in the line of indigenous affairs and ecology at the Centro Gumilla Foundation. Member of the Solidarity and Indigenous Apostolate Network of the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America and the Caribbean (Cpal in Spanish). Member of the national team of the Panamazonian Ecclesial Network (Repam in Spanish).
** With information from Johan Ramos, indigenous of the Warao and Arawak people. Responsible for the axis of indigenous peoples and communities of the Panamanian Ecclesial Network in Tucupita. Sub coordinator of the Indigenous Vicar Dani Consolata.

  1. The life plan is a territorial management tool. The life plan is a land-use plan, built from the cultural dynamics that indigenous peoples imprint on their territory, and which is represented through ethnocartography (mind map).
  2. Kapé- Kapé: Indigenous communities of Gran Sabana and Sifontes denounce obscurantism about COVID-19 cases:
  3. Pronouncement of the Ye´kwana and Sanema indigenous peoples and communities of the Caura Basin in the face of a violent event in the ancestral territory. Caura Kuyujani Basin Indigenous Organization May 10, 2020.
  4. Official Gazette No. 6.526. Resolution No. 0010: An illegal measure that aggravates the destruction and poisoning of our water sources. By: Mining in Venezuela – Research Team of @CERLAS (Center for Reflection and Social Action. CERLAS in Spanish)
  5. Article 260: The legitimate authorities of indigenous peoples may apply in their habitat instances of justice based on their ancestral traditions and that only affect their members, according to their own rules and procedures, provided they are not contrary to this Constitution, the law and public order (Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela)
  6. Vladimir Aguilar, lawyer and coordinator of the Work Group and Indigenous Affairs (GTAI in Spanish) of the University of the Andes, explains that jurisdiction should not be limited to the resolution of intracommunity or indigenous conflicts, insists that there is a more important meaning than that of territorial administration. This is how the indigenous special jurisdiction becomes “a mechanism to strengthen the process of self-demarcation, with jurisdictions that are going to actually administer that process, with instances that, according to their uses and customs, administer the territories demarcated (when that happens) and self-demarcated while the indigenous people advance in those initiatives ”.