Saturday, 17 October 2009

Amazonas, state of oblivion

With 180,145 km2,
Venezuela's second largest state, Amazonas, is much larger than Greece and about the same size of Cambodia. It is the most thinly populated state: only some 143,000 people live there (Greece has 11.3 million inhabitants and Cambodia almost 15 million). The 1991 census showed 60207 inhabitants, which means a 231% growth for 2007 if governmental estimates are right.

Population density (population/km2 in ea
ch municipality)

Amazonas' people are mostly very poor. Most live from subsistence economy, state jobs as well as on the activity of the many military bases there. There is some "ecotourism" (mostly not ecological) which is managed mostly by outsiders and a lot of ilegal mining. The state is rich in natural resources and it constitutes Venezuela's Southern border with Colombia and Brazil. The military presence there has been strong for decades.

Amazonas was one of the few regions where native Americans, our First Nations, were not completely assimilated. Few outsiders ventured to this area. Alexander von Humboldt visited it in his quest to find the connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon River (a connection native Americans knew well).

Non-Indian settlers started to arrived in the mid XIX century, but they had little impact. It was only in the XX century when the outside influence started to be felt, mostly in the Northwest, where the capital is, and along the shores of the Orinoco, which runs from South to North at this stage and forms the border with Colombia.

Most people in the state capital and along the Orinoco are now criollos or mixed people. Outside influence has increased for several decades. Miners arrived and with them diseases, alcohol and abuses of all sorts.

Catholic priests set up shop in the Amazonas state from the XIX century onwards. US evangelical missionaries (mostly New Tribes) followed beginning 1945. A few years ago, in 2005, Hugo Chávez expelled the New Tribes. Wikipedia says:

In October 2005, the BBC reported that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had announced his intention to expel New Tribes Mission from Venezuela. He accused New Tribes Mission of imperialism, of collaborating with the US CIA, of violating Venezuela's national sovereignty, and of violating the country's laws by making unauthorized flights into and out of the country. He also attacked the group for building lavish camps in which to live next to poverty-stricken villages. Responding to the allegations, NTM said, "Any kind of air travel we do, we always do within the guidelines of what the government allows. We always file reports." With respect to "luxury" living, they "live in homes that make it possible for them to continue the work that they do. The homes that they live in are very simple." On November 3, 2005, hundreds of Venezuelan indigenous people marched in Puerto Ayacucho protesting against the expulsion of NTM by the Venezuelan government. Although the Venezuelan constitution recognized their collective ownership of ancestral lands in 1999, "poverty remains acute among many Indian communities and many protesters said the missionaries were the only people who have tangibly improved their lives."

Accusations have gone back and forth: "spies, imperialists, people helping in illegally prospecting for precious metals", "the government has abandoned the Indians, the Indians are now worse off". There have been accusations since 2005 about chavismo cooperating with the Iranians, among other things, to provide uranium that could be used for weapons. You can read one of those sites here, with quotations from the accusers and the president.

It is very hard to find out what was and is really going on there. Unfortunately, few Venezuelans in the capital and other major cities pay attention to the rural areas unless they are into the already mentioned "ecotourism". Besides: the military in Venezuela have always behaved in a very arbitrary manner and it is almost impossible to hold the military to account, specially that now one of them is the "jefe de Estado".

Some of the problems that we do know for sure are these:
  1. very bad health services for the First Nations
  2. few and low-quality basic schools
  3. uncontrolled miners, settlers, companies selling "ecotourism" without clear permissions
  4. military men bullying people
  5. a porous border where drug dealers and Farc guerrillas come and go
  6. an increasing clash of civilizations where criollos bring products, customs and viruses for which native Americans are unprepared
All this could change for good if Venezuelans wanted and put their act together. They would need to force accountability in all spheres, demand the state fulfills basic needs according to specific deadlines and conditions and promote the development of the region by allowing it to foster its particular heritage.

The politi
cal picture
Look at the first map. Over half the population (around 91386 persons) live in the Atures municipality.

The Alto Orinoco, in blue, is larger than the Netherlands and yet it had for 2007 around 17767 inhabitants.

The first map shows most municipalities have mayors who support the current government (red) and only one (in blue) has an independent one: Jesus Manosalva. Here you see how his budget was more than halved on April 2009. The central government reduced the budgets for all municipalities, but we have heard from many sources that part of the money from areas with opposition governments are being diverted to the other areas via "special programmes".

The support is relative. There are two regional parties supporting the Indian interests: PUAMA and MUPI. PUAMA has been working together with the officialdom whereas MUPI is against. MUPI has now a seat in parliament. The deputy is Jesús Castillo. Strangely, it is impossible to find what party he is now in just by looking at the site of the National Assembly.

Although it is possible to find a meaningful support for independent or non-chavista groups on a local level, the figure of Chávez is particularly popular in Amazonas. On the second map you can get an impression of the vote preferences in the 2009 referendum. The referendum was about allowing or not indefinite nominations for public offices but it was mostly about whether Venezuelans wanted to allow the president to run without limits. A cyan circle represents 1000 vote s against indefinite reelection and a red one one in favour. I rounded up or down: there were cyan votes in every state but often less than 500.

Of course: one thing is the real or optimized vote to enable this president to run again in 2012, another thing is what will happen when the moment arrives.

The region elects 3 of the 167 deputies at the National Assembly and voters contribute in voting for a fourth one reserved for the Indian groups.

You realise how primitive the services are in Amazonas when you try to find out something about the civic services in the most populated municipality. Here you have the municipality site. Internet is not real life, but the Internet presence does give some hints about it.

Language and identity
Although native Americans are now becoming a minority even in Amazonas, they still form a very varied lot. Here you can see a map showing the general distribution of Indian ethnicities and languages in the Amazonas state. Mind: some of those languages are as similar to one another as Spanish to Italian, whereas others are as different as English and Japanese. Most are endangered: less and less people speak them, most do not read or write or if they do, they only do so in Spanish.

Languages and language families: Arawac languages (like Baniva) or Carib languages (like Ye'kuana, a.k.a Yekwana) are completely different from Hoti or Yanomami.

The National Assembly has passed some laws for Indian matters. I wish something good would really come out of that. The main topics related to that legislation are:

- a law for the protection of Indian languages (this sounds nice, but I still want to see how it is implemented, in Spanish here) and

- the creation of an Institute for Indian languages (again, I want to see it firstly)

Now there are plans for

- a legislation for the protection of Indian handicraft (here in Spanish) which, I suppose, will would theoretically lead to something like the protection of Indian products as in Canada, at least if a miracle takes place and the law is implemented.

So far I haven't been able to find real proofs something out of this has been put effectively into practice.

Some ideas
I wrote in a post (here) a couple of measures a government could implement to promote the culture of our First Nations. I wish there were some people out there among the political parties who would pay attention. Language is not everything, but it is the main tool for individuals to express their culture and reafirm their identity. Effectively promoting the written use of American languages would be a step forward in the preservation of Venezuela's particular heritage. It could also become one of the initial steps for developing assertive communities.

We could learn a lesson or two about how regional languages are protected in Spain.

Apart from the language issue I believe all Venezuelans should start paying more attention to regions such as Amazonas and that not just for some videos of beautiful rivers and tepui.


In this video
(in Spanish, some Yekwana) you can watch some news from the chavista channel about a visit of the Minister of Indian Affairs in Yekwana territory. They stress the fact that the people can talk in their native language with the minister. A couple of things are worth noticing:

1) the minister is a Yekwana and I very mu
ch doubt she will be able to talk to the Wayúu in Wayúu, to the Waraos in Warao, to the Yanomami in Yanomami and even to the Pemones in Pemon. She talks about how much her Indians love "the government in the capital". She should really care about whether all Indians are getting basic services, whether they have the right medicine, quality basic schools and are left alone by miners and military.

2) the vi
ce-minister, a young woman, keeps repeating how the chavista government is helping the warriors to be prepared, to "fight imperialism" and to be trained in the ideology. She repeats the world ideology several times. I wonder if she is aware of Chinese imperialism or of pluralism.

The best he has got

Here you have a video of a Piaroa Indian speaking in his language. He has a Guevara T shirt and he ends his speech in Spanish with the Guevara chant "Hasta la victoria siempre". He is full of hope. I am sure he got some explanations, a lot of half-truths, of why they are so poor and others so rich. He has probably got more help now than any of his ancestors did from the powers that be in the capital. Still, he has probably not heard about how the new Boliburguesia is gettings ints share of the eternal plunder.

It would be great if a future goverment provided education that showed different perspectives, if it provided a view of different ideologies and, above all, if it provided people with the tools for critical thinking.


After I finished this post I found an interesting article by lefty Jeroen Kuiper, now a journalist for, among others, German Freitag. You should read his account here. The title of his article is "Venezuela's Forgotten State", which is almost the same as the title I chose for my article. Kuiper gave a good picture of the situation in Amazonas in 2005 (although I think he still was too naive regarding chavismo). Since then things have changed quite some, though: the rumours about people wanting to use the uranium that is supposed to be in Tamatama regard now not the missionaries but to the Iranians. Are those rumours just baseless? I don't know. I know we should be extremely cautious, to the left and to the right, if we want to move forward.


  1. A further reference about what Venezuela's officials have been saying (in Spanish):

    It is a bit different from what I read in Israeli newspapers, though.

  2. Have you been there?

  3. I visited the southern tip of that region in the early 90s. The natives were obviously poor but things seemed to be improving for them (as far as I could see of course). The people looked healthy, there was new construction everywhere and I distinctly remember kids playing soccer with brand new equiptment on well maintained field in one of the towns I saw. When I told other Venezuelans who had visited in the past they were surprised and said that the area had always been desperately poor and the people plagued by various diseases brought by outsiders to which they had no resistence. Either missionaries had helped the particular natives I saw or perhaps ecotourism dollars back then were having a positive impact.

    In any event, your description seems much more like what people told me the region has been like since the Spanish came and that any improvements in the intervening years have been rolled back in favor of political control over the area.

  4. Juan,
    Only in the Northernmost part (capital), as a child.


    Of course "poor" is relative. Many Indians were living in their natural environment, with some assistance they can live better off than many people in cities.

    What municipalities are you referring by South? Alto Orinoco?
    I see the link to the article based on a trip in 2005 is not working now.

    You can see it by looking at the cache of Google for this:
    "Amazonas Venezuela El Nacional"
    It is from 2005.

    I am not saying "ecotourism" is bad, but most of what people call "ecotourism" is not really "ecological", it is tourism in areas that have not been urbanized. Also, it is mostly controlled by outsiders. They have the money and the know-how, which is natural, but I think that could be optimized so that the native population sets up their own.

    There is also very little accountability about land posession (even if 40% of Amazonas is supposed to be protected).

    The Farc is also an issue at the border.

  5. Amazonas has always been better off than other areas in South America regarding the environment but it had and has problems.

    I am going to write on environment in Amazonas alone later on, I am reading some reports from people working in that area.

    The miners are an issue and on the border with Brazil there were, at least until very recently, heavy deforestation.

    The Venezuelan government claims to have done more on that issue than before. It is hard to say what part of what group is right.

    Thanks God Chávez's stupid idea about the gasoduct came to nothing, that would have been a complete disaster.

  6. Anonymous,

    The perception on environment is a tricky one.
    In Bolivar I kept meeting a Dona Barbara attitude: many people saw the area as almost limitless and underestimated the impact on the environment. It does not mean we cannot do anything there, but people have to be extremely careful.

    My perception is that although the government has made a mess in environment in other areas, control has become a bit better regarding the deforestation and mining issue in Amazonas. Once I am through the reports and get some responses from some people I will write another post about that.

    Regarding viruses: the big wave of deaths through Western virus
    happened centuries ago. There have been cases mostly on Yanomami
    in the last decades. Other viruses are still going in and although not fatal,
    are an issue (among them hepathitis B in Alto Orinoco)

  7. I see what you are saying. I agree that the most important issue with tourism and native populations is local control and being able to manage how tourism impacts their communities on their own terms. I have traveled in the Southwestern USA extensively and it's pretty clear that some native groups have been able to do this and others, not so much. I've seen developments where the community is able to have a commercial area and a residential area where they don't have to deal with the constant impact of tourists and yet still can benefit economically from the tourist traffic. Tourists get all the educational and entertainment values they were seeking without becoming another type of invader.

    By "poor" I wasn't referring to the natives living a native way of life without developed world amenities. More like they were living like poor Criollo rural folk.

    As for disease, it is my recollection that the diseases that the Venezuelans I talked to were referring to were not necessarily fatal but things like hepatitis and something that produced a kind of rash. (Chickenpox? Measles?) Poverty and disease/poor health correlate pretty highly even when at least basic health care is available as on Indian reservations in the US. Somewhat better economic conditions=better nutrition, public health education etc.

    I was in La Esmeralda which I guess was Alto Orinoco, now that I look it up.

  8. 1998:
    See Amazonas

    I have read some other reports (more into genetics) where biologists suspect hepatitis B there having an European (i.e. non Indian) origin.
    Probably it will be possible to find that out the same way as they found where my paternal and maternal haplogroups came from.

    I read another text about malaria, it shows some increases in one type, decrease in another. It is now hard to find out what the real results are as chavismo is not very keen on transparency.

  9. (I know you will want to remove this but...)
    The deeper one penetrates the jungle, the less 'criollo' poverty one will see. Poverty will still exist but not as visible in the means of tattered clothing, broken down shacks and such.
    La Esmeralda has been a poor village for a long time due to its proximity to Puerto Ayacucho and the miners in that area. It is very different these days because of the military influx there.
    The amazonian jungle of southern Bolivar state is much more pristine.
    Sadly, the Orinoco has become 'super highway' which has brought in a lot of good and bad in Las Amazonas.

  10. Sure: poverty is relative. Native Americans have had little power but if left alone in the jungle, they were often doing better than people in shanty towns and the like (even if they could also profit from medical service, good education, etc).

    As I said: the population in the state as a whole has dramatically increased, most people are now non-Indians. This is putting pressure on Indian communities and the environment as a whole.

    1991: 62000
    2007: 142000

    I can the pattern: miners setting in along the Orinoco, children with the Indian women, initial boom, more people flow in to see if they can join in the petrol smuggling/gold mining/other sort of murky jobs, not enough for all, random military control, people losing the income but staying in the area...a whole vicious circle in the making.
    Sustainable development is needed. I hope one day politicians in the capital and elsewhere in Venezuela try to think a little bit better about possible solutions.

  11. Kepler,

    First of all, let me commend you on the great post. It is often impressive to find out how little information there exists on some of the most remote corners of one´s own country.

    On the other hand, the situation in Amazonas is clearly dire, yet I do believe that one of the main causes for the lack of attention given to the problems has been the atribution of the responsabilites to the nacional government, which, oh surprise, tends to be focused on the pressing issues in Caracas and other heavily populated (hence vote ladden) areas instead of the problems of more sparcely populated areas. Perhaps federalism and decentralization might be the best way to bring quality basic education and decent medical services to this people?

  12. Mcasas,

    Yes, one of the problems is the strong centralization there is in Venezuela and the obsession of city dwellers with themselves. It gets worse because of the heavy dependency on oil revenues distributed by the State, as we know.
    Now, apart from giving back power to the region I think national mechanisms need to be introduced to foster transparency, good education in the regions and regional procedures for spending so as to avoid as far as possible our fatal caudillismo.

    One thing I have realised is that even in relatively centralized countries such as the UK (as opposed to Germany or Switzerland or the US) many national state institutions - like central tax processing units are not located in the capital. This develop a new dynamic. Another thing is that there is legislation to avoid that each leader of a region uses money to plaster his/her face on every service the government he/she presides is providing

    The images of the mayor as here
    would be inconceivable in developed nations.

    If the opposition took a little bit of time when going to the countryside and listened, listened to the normal people there, they would start learning a thing or two.

  13. Another thing: it would not be as hard as many thing to win over some of these municipalities and states...if our politicos spent some time studying their cases. The psychological effect of having a big chunk of blue in the South of centre of Venezuela cannot be underestimated.


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