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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Venezuela

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Venezuela Facts
Area:    912,050 sq. km.
Capital:    Caracas
Total Population:    21,483,000 (source: UN, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The indigenous of Venezuela have few of the risk factors for rebellion. They are minimally cohesive and have restricted their activities largely to nonviolent protests in the recent past. Venezuela is also one of the longest established democracies in Latin America. Furthermore, under the 1999 constitution passed under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, both political and economic remedial policies are in place to address indigenous concerns.

Indigenous are likely to continue low to moderate levels of protest. While protests have been directed at the government as groups struggle for the implementation of their constitutional rights, almost all indigenous groups are very clear that they support President Chavez. Demonstrators have also protestsed against United States military operations in the Caribbean, echoing Chavez's anti-imperialist stance on the U.S.


Analytic Summary

Indigenous groups comprise about 2 percent of Venezuela's population of 26 million. There are some 28 different indigenous groups in Venezuela, but only four of those groups, the Wayuú, Warao, Pemón, and Añu, have populations in excess of 10,000 people. The Wayou ethnic group (also known as the Guajiro) makes up more than half of Venezuela's indigenous. They are a semi-nomadic traditional group living along the Columbian border on the Guajiro peninsula. Of surviving indigenous groups today, the Wayuú are the most assimilated, having adapted to the modern economy. A community of 10,000 Wayuú live on the outskirts of Maracaibo, though health and sanitation is a problem here as few have running water or drainage. They also lack schools and decent housing.

When Spanish conquerors arrived in 1498 they found both settled and nomadic tribes, as well as some semi-nomadic indigenous groups, generally organized by their traditional power structures on communally held land, called resguardos. Venezuela's indigenous peoples were traditionally warlike, presenting fierce resistance against the Conquistadors. Most native groups either fought until they were destroyed or were forced into the Venezuelan interior. Their resistance delayed the final conquering of Caracas until 1567. Prior to that, only a few other settlements had been set up, although slave raiding of indigenous populations had started in the 1520s. Generally, though, the scattered tribes were largely left alone except for the missionary efforts of Franciscans and Capuchins. By the end of the colonial period, much of the Venezuela territory remained unknown to the Spanish. To this day, many groups (especially the Yanomami) have had limited contact with Venezuelans and are largely ignorant of the outside world. However, in the last half a century, Venezuelan mestizos and some whites have come into greater contact with Venezuela's indigenous.

There are some significant cultural differences between the indigenous and the rest of Venezuelan society. A wide variety of native languages are spoken in Venezuela and the degree to which tribal members speak Spanish varies widely according to geographic and economic factors (LANG = 1). In 2002, 31 native tongues were made official languages of the state, in addition to Spanish. Yanomami and Warao are the languages most widely spoken by indigenous people of Venezuela. Some tribal languages such as Mapoyo, Ano, Bare, Saliva, Yabarana, Uruak and Sape are in danger of extinction as more and more children are speaking Spanish. Some tribes still only speak their native tongue, such as Joti speakers in the Amazon region, while others such as Wayuú speakers are bilingual in Spanish. Visual customs also highlight their differences, such as the use of bows and arrows and blowguns, traditional indigenous dress and tribal dances (CUSTOM = 1). Most indigenous practice Catholicism mixed with traditional religion.

The majority of the indigenous population (between 170,000 and 330,000) live in the northwestern state of Zulia, although they are not the plurality group there as whites and mestizos outnumber them. The rest of the indigenous are mostly in Amazonas state, where they are the majority population. There are also small indigenous populations in Anzoategui, Apure, Bolivar, Delta Amacuro, Mondagas and Sucre (GROUPCON = 2). The Yanomami, the most isolated group with a population of about 15,000, live along the Orinoco and Amazonian tributaries in southern Venezuela. The Piaroa live along the Colombian border in central Venezuela and the Warao live along the Caribbean coast near the border with Guyana. Many indigenous groups have begun to officially demarcate their territory with the help of the Chavez government. The Yukpa, Bari, Karanakae and Saimadoyi indigenous groups inhabit designated indigenous territories totaling over 18,000 acres in the Sierra de Perija region of Zulia state, and they continue to seek more territory. In August 2005, Chavez granted property titles to six Karina indigenous communities in the states of Anzoategu and Monagas, in eastern Venezuela. The titles recognized indigenous ownership of 313,690 acres. The Chavez government had plans to title the lands of fifteen more indigenous communities by the end of 2006. Until only recently have indigenous peoples partially succeeded in obtaining protection of their ancestral lands from development and other forms of encroachment.

Land disputes still exist, however. Indigenous groups have repeatedly protested the government in their campaign to end coal mining in the Sierra de Perija region where they say it negatively impacts their traditional life and environment, and therefore violates their constitutional rights. Some Yukpa communities have stated they are willing to fight the miners off the disputed lands, although no militant actions have been reported. Though the Chavez Government has been very supportive of indigenous land demarcation, he has also been very clear that there is a limit to their claims, saying "Don't ask me to give you the state's rights to exploit mines, to exploit oil. Before all else comes national unity." In 2005 there were ongoing disputes between Ano indigenous people (numbering about 3,000) and ranchers near Lake Sinamaica, between the Limon River and the northwestern Gulf of Venezuela. In the Sierra de Perija mountains, 20 armed men in October 2005 destroyed roughly 50 huts and injured seven Yucpa Indians because they had partially occupied the land (INTERCON05 = 1). The UN has called on the government for immediate action to stop the violence affecting the indigenous, and took very seriously the 61 deaths of Afro- and indigenous people who were murdered by armed groups over land disputes between 1995 and 2003, though their verbal support has not translated in action on behalf of the indigenous.

Despite the protection of the Venezuelan government, Yanomami land is still encroached upon; the Guiana Gold Rush (which started in 1989) introduced disease, as well as prostitution. The military has repeatedly tried to protect the tribe and the resources of the region from exploitation, but the soldiers often bring diseases just as the goldminers. More than 2,000 Yanomamis have been killed due to conflict and disease since 1986. In addition to the problems associated with gold mining, power line construction in the Gran Sabana, Orinoco delta, Mapauri and Canaima National Park has affected the Pemon, Karina, Akawaio, Arawako, Ye'kwana, Warao and Wayuu peoples. Indigenous groups knocked down electrical towers and demonstrated to protest the project. International environmental groups (such as Conservation International) have provided some support for these indigenous groups, though how effective this support has been remains unclear. In 2000, President Chavez and 54 indigenous leaders signed an accord that would respect the rights of indigenous communities in the area and allow the project to continue – a sign that the Chavez administration may be more willing than past regimes to negotiate and facilitate the demands of indigenous peoples. Other indigenous groups of Venezuela suffer from similar problems from oil and coal exploitation. As mentioned above, hundreds of indigenous from western Venezuela have demanded an end to coal mining causing environmental degradation near their lands in the Sierra de Perija region. The Warao and the Karinas in the northeast have been adversely affected by oil exploration. Karinas land has been overtaken by oil companies, and bauxite mining has affected groups in the interior.

The situation facing indigenous Venezuelans has historically been quite bleak. Many lack health and educational services and are undernourished. Many also lack clean water and sewage facilities (ECGR06 = 2). Increased contact with non-indigenous persons of both Venezuelan and non-Venezuelan descent has increased their susceptibility to diseases such as cholera, hepatitis-B and malaria. In 2001, Chavez announced several programs – including establishing indigenous-run cooperatives, provision of telecommunication centers and scholarships for indigenous youth – designed to alleviate indigenous poverty (ECDIS01-06 = 1). In 2005, Chavez gave the executive order for the "Special Economic and Social Development Plan for the Construction, Repair, Equipping, Outfitting and Operation of the Civic-Military Endogenous Development Units, Air Bases and River Commandos for the Defence, Development, and Consolidation of the South". The plan guaranteed the rights of the indigenous in the states of Amazonas, Apure, Bolivar, and Delta Amacuro. $23.6 million dollars was allocated to fund the project to supply basic services to over seventy-six thousand indigenous people. Also in 2005, new environmental laws afforded greater protection of indigenous communities. Many more programs exist, though it is too soon to tell the impact of these efforts.

A variety of non-governmental actors have lent material and sometimes political support to the indigenous in recent years. In particular, there has been an upsurge in recent years in collaboration and mutual support among the various indigenous groups and organizations throughout Latin America.

In 1948, indigenous grievances were first acknowledged by the Venezuelan government through the establishment of the National Indigenous Commission. The foundation of the Central Office on Indigenous Affairs (OCAI) followed in 1952, though the degree to which it has protected indigenous rights has varied with the times and political tides. The 1990s has seen considerable progress in the protection of indigenous culture and political rights. Discontent with the ability of the government to protect indigenous rights led to the establishment of autonomous institutions (GOJPA06 = 2). The Indigenous Congress of Venezuela was formed as a forum for protecting indigenous rights. Indigenous groups had requested for years a system of proportional representation for ethnic minorities, something that was granted under the 1999 constitution. In 1989, the National Indian Council of Venezuela (CONIVE) was founded to save their lands and defend Indian rights in the face industrial and commercial development. It has also promoted indigenous culture and efforts to protect it. CONIVE represents more than 23 indigenous ethnic groups, and works with other indigenous groups in South America to discuss strategies and advocate for internal and international pressure to preserve indigenous lands and rights.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections by a landslide, replacing the unpopular Rafael Caldera, whose administration was plagued by constant protests from workers and indigenous people over IMF-backed economic measures. With strong backing by the poorest Venezuelans, Chavez was sworn into office in February 1999. By December 1999, he had pushed through his plan to write a new Constitution. The Constituent Assembly, in charge of drafting the constitution, consisted of 131 members, three of which were elected only by indigenous Venezuelans. An 11-member Commission on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was able to get a chapter on indigenous rights included in the new constitution, which was ratified by referendum in December 1999. This marked a turning point in the degree of institutional representation afforded to indigenous Venezuelans because the new constitution granted them three seats in the National Congress which they have filled ever since (LEGISREP06 = 1). The 1999 reforms also marked the first time indigenous rights (i.e., cultural recognition and sovereignty, land rights and resource control, and access to basic public services) had been constitutionally recognized. Three indigenous parliamentary members introduced a bill to clarify how the rights were to be implemented, and the Chavez's government has made considerable efforts to put the laws into practice, though progress remains slow and controversies surface as indigenous and the government hammer out the details (POLDIS00-06 = 1). Noeli Pocaterra an indigenous Wayuú congresswoman continues to hold the position of vice president of Congress. Though they now have three seats in the National Congress, and President Chavez (who is part indigenous) continues to significantly include the indigenous in development plans, they remain underrepresented in the cabinet and in agencies overseeing indigenous affairs.

In recent years, indigenous groups have focused on greater implementation of their constitutional rights of self-determination by strengthening economic and political autonomy. However, their goal does not appear to be complete administrative autonomy but meaningful decision-making power with regard to their lands and future development. During a march in 2006, indigenous groups announced their support of Chavez while simultaneously delivering a document detailing their demands to the National Assembly. Among other demands, they called for greater consultation powers by creating and implementing the "Organic Law of Political Participation of the Indigenous People."

Economic grievances have primarily focused on mining and land issues. Local non-governmental groups such as Homo et Natura have been active in protests against coal mining in northwestern Venezuela because it threatens the economic and cultural life of the indigenous in the Socuy River region. Another group, Ezequiel Zamora Agricultural Cooperative, has demanded collective ownership of traditional lands to achieve true socialism and has opposed many of the public works, mining and energy projects of the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration programme (IIRSA) with Brazil and other transnational companies. There are also indigenous groups in Bolivar state asking the government to develop a program to end illegal mining and its associated environmental damage in Venezuela's eastern region. Indigenous have supported the government TO-5 plan to regulate illicit gold and diamond mining in the eastern region, but want the natural resources ministry (MARN) to expedite the land demarcation process, since lack of demarcation makes it easier for unplanned, illegal miners to continue.

Generally there is a positive relationship between indigenous groups and the government. Chavez has demonstrated his support for the indigenous and his willingness to negotiate and enact reforms and legislation to encourage the political, economic and cultural growth of indigenous groups. However, indigenous people have still not been wholly integrated into the political system and face significant economic disadvantages. The isolation of many groups has apparently made it difficult for them to participate meaningfully in either sector. If the government keeps moving forward with programs to benefit them, and indigenous groups continue to organize for their rights, then perhaps their situation will significantly improve over time.



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Information current as of December 31, 2006