Sunday, 25 October 2009

Venezuela's First Nations and land

Main First Nations. The names with circles represent Arawak ethnicities. Those with an underline are for Carib groups.

Promises and the Yukpas

10 years ago the government promised to delimit the protected areas of Venezuela's First Nations. That was a good idea. Until then Indian areas were precariously protected by a vague law about "lands under state of exception". Since then little has happened, though.

As El Nacional says, some 41630 hectares (416.3 km2) were assigned for the Yukpas in Perija, Zulia state (North-Western Venezuela). Just the day after the president announced it, 2 people from the Yukpa community were shot dead. The pro-government Yukpa leader said initially hired killers sent by the ranchers did it, other Yukpa contradicted him (here in Spanish). The Association of Ranchers of that municipality said the murders were caused by an internal conflict. The minister of Justice, Tarek al-Assimi, announced some of the murderers, Yukpa Indians, have been caught now. Al-Assimi rejected that the murders had to do with the land struggle and added that ranchers were trying to hinder the land distribution. There is some messy reporting about the issue in Spanish here, it seems the truth is somewhere in the middle. Whatever happened, the situation is very murky.

Yukpa Indians selling their artcraft

Still waiting

The Yukpas have just got some land in the Perija region, but hardly any other Indian group has received any of theirs, as experts demand. Ye'kuanas, and Sakemas (both in Amazonas and Bolivar) and Karinhas (a.k.a. Kali'na, in Anzoátegui), for instance, presented their demands years earlier and they haven't got a response. Is there something special about their lands? Is it because of the gold and diamonds in the Ye'kuana and Sakema lands? Is it because of the oil fields in Karinha's ground? Is it because of possible politic preferences? I don't know. Anyway, my impression is that:

1- ranchers and other private groups are very reluctant to give back land to the First Nations
2- the government has not investigated properly possible involvements of ranchers against attacks to the First Nations and it has not compensated people as it should
2- the government is even more reluctant to give back state-owned land to the First Nations than the ranchers are and it prefers to give what is currently in the hands of private individuals
3- the government has been incredibly slow in establishing land rights in general (in fact, almost nothing is registered in a centralized, much less in a digital fashion)
4- the government is doing very little to protect the native Americans in the Southern part of Bolivar and Amazonas, where Brazilian and Venezuelan miners have established camps
5- illegal miners are massively polluting rivers in Indian territory with the mercury they use for the gold extraction (for instance, the Paragua river, tributary of the Caroní River, in Southern Bolívar is now an ecological disaster and this is affecting the Pemon community)
6- illegal miners are clearing large amounts of forests in Indian areas (read this, it is from 2006 but the situation remains unchanged)
7- a lack of cooperation between Venezuela and Colombia has lead to guerrillas, paras and drug dealers roaming freely in Indian areas

The government has been reluctant to clarify the rules of the game. It prefers to use confiscation as a political tool. A large extend of Venezuela's surface has no clear property rights: either ownership papers cannot be tracked down to the Independence time as demanded by the state or they do not exist at all. Most of Venezuela's territory has always been in the hands of the state anyway. The government has determined just a tiny fraction of property rights and it uses the insecurity among people as a method of control: "be nice or we take your fuzzy or clear property rights". I have already stated the government should make public (via online databases) all land claims existing now and, progressively, all land rights. The government should then process cases based on a clear set of parameters (area, time and so on).

The Venezuelan government has a very strong military presence in Indian territory. High ranking officials, including the president, are afraid of giving too much land or power to the First Nations. They think this could lead to a fragmentation of Venezuela or to them losing political control in those areas. Individual military men at all levels have always profited from control over Indian areas, turning a blind eye on "cooperative" illegal miners or worse.

In Venezuela much has been announced and little has been accomplished. Brazilian garimpeiros moved to Venezuela because they knew control is much worse than in Brazil.

What we need to do

The Venezuelan people - including the self-annointed opposition leaders - need to demand from the government clear, open procedures regarding land rights. The government needs to explain and abide by the rules and let the national community have a look at the whole process. The government will oppose this as it wants to move towards some sort of communism (never mind they are not even moving towards bad socialism but towards plain banana republic authoritarism). Still: we must insist on a transparent and very public procedure for delimiting land and establishing when it is the state's and when the private groups' turn. This should be in the framework of a comprehensive and very open cadastre process for the whole nation, including the possessions of all the Boliburguesía.

As I have already stated, there is now a legislation for the protection of Venezuela's native languages. Still: little has been done about a real implementation. There is little done about the establishment of public libraries for them, about how their languages will be defended in their territories. Translating some manuals with political content and basic lessons for school won't do.

The general situation of schools in Indian areas is bad and the health care is a disaster.

It is evident that the First Nations must have more power to decide for themselves. They should also have the tools to develop their own local economies. Preserving their identity does not necessarily mean they need to go on working on subsistance economy and dressed as they do now (unless they want).

All in all we need to give them the tools to help themselves. I know this is a big challenge: Venezuelans as a whole, with much better conditions than the First Nations, are still living from the petrodollars they started to depend on over 70 years ago.

I really hope all Venezuelans take the protection of the First Nations to their heart. We own it to them.


As a general reference, here you have a chart of the languages of the First Nations that still exist today in Venezuela (a chart for the Amazonas state only can be seen here) . Each node in white represents a language family, like "Indo-European" or "Semitic" in the Old World. Some of the language families have other languages spoken but they are not spoken in Venezuela. The family languages with the largest amount of speakers are Arawac and Carib. When Europeans arrived in Venezuela, most of the central region was inhabited by Arawacs and a large part of the East by Carib groups. There are some language isolates, like Warao, spoken in the Orinoco Delta. Those languages have so far proven unrelated to others (like Basque in Europe).

Each one of those languages is a world that could be lost. The ones with a red flag are almost gone now. The ones without a flag are in danger. The ones with the green flag have better chances of survival but nothing is sure. Wayúu is spoken by over 150000 people, Warao by some 40000 and Pemón by more than 5000 to 15000.

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