Millennium Post

Venezuelan hinterlands under siege

Lorena Meléndez G writes about how the isolated indigenous groups of Venezuela are under threat

One flight in a light aircraft; one boat trip via various tributaries of the Orinoco; layovers in the middle of the hot, dense, green jungle; and more navigating of waters, both turbid and calm. To get to the home of the Hoti, or Jödi, isolated indigenous people who live in the Maigualida mountains between the states of Amazonas and Bolívar in southern Venezuela, one must travel hours through hundreds of kilometres of thick virgin forest. There, among rivers and waterways, they have lived for hundreds of years on their territory, intentionally distancing themselves from the Westernisation that arrived on the continent more than 500 years ago.

But the sanctuary they inhabit is threatened by a governmental decree. The Orinoco Mining Arc (AMO by its Spanish acronym), a controversial initiative of the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, has designated almost 112,000 square kilometres (42,250 square miles) for the exploitation of minerals and precious stones including gold, coltan and diamonds. The far west of this area coincides with the lands of the Hoti, one of three ethnic groups the government recognises as "isolated indigenous groups."

The other two groups have been facing threats from mining for several years. Dozens of Yanomami communities in Amazonas and Bolívar and the Piaroa, or Uwottüja, in Amazonas, are being subjected to abuse from people who illegally exploit mineral deposits. The government is aware of the situation but has done nothing to prevent it, even before the present crisis engulfing the country.

The report, 'Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact', published in 2012 by the Denmark-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and the Spain-based Institute for the Promotion of Social Studies (IPES), confirmed that the three groups, who share similar ways of life, also experience the same threats. "On the one hand, all these places are generally in hard-to-reach areas of forest, and the groups or communities there are geographically isolated, which makes it difficult for them to maintain contact with mainstream society," the report says. "On the other hand, their territories are systematically invaded by groups of illegal miners, most of whom come from Brazil and Colombia."

These indigenous groups are in an extremely vulnerable situation, especially due to the introduction of diseases, the contamination and destruction of their territory, and the reduction of space for them to carry out their traditional subsistence activities, according to the report. Measles and malaria are currently having devastating effects on Yanomami communities, while illegal mining poses a serious threat to all three of Venezuela's isolated indigenous groups.

From measles to malaria

The alarm has not been raised. Last year, an outbreak of measles ravaged the Yanomami, and it remains unclear how many deaths happened. A source from the Ministry of Health, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told Mongabay Latam that various isolated indigenous groups were complaining that medical teams had arrived too late to save them. "Some communities were already devastated," he said.

The best figures available on the epidemic among the Yanomami in Venezuela have come from the Washington DC-based Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). In its most recent update, from May 17 of this year, PAHO said in 2018 there were 513 confirmed cases of measles and 62 deaths among the country's indigenous groups, including 150 cases in Amazonas and Bolívar. It noted that previous data from national authorities showed that in the first half of 2018 there were 126 confirmed cases, including 53 deaths, in Yanomami municipality, Amazonas, alone.

The Venezuelan organisation Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon also expressed concern, having observed 25 Yanomami in the country with measles. Among these, the group said, more than half were over 25 years old, making their condition especially precarious. Twenty-two of the victims were men. "Measles is not being treated in Venezuela," said Davi Kopenawa, a representative of indigenous Yanomami in the state of Roraima, Brazil, in a video released by the international NGO Survival International. He said the government and health institutions in the country had not done anything to prevent the outbreak.

"They were carrying out vaccinations, but the vaccination programme wasn't suited to the needs of indigenous peoples," said the source from the Ministry of Health, who emphasised the severity of the epidemic. The vulnerability of isolated indigenous peoples to these kinds of diseases has to do with both physiological conditions and access to public health. "Their limited contact with other people makes their immune systems more vulnerable to these diseases that they haven't had before," said the source from the health ministry. "It is also usually more difficult to reach them with vaccines and treatment because of their situation. Medical technologies don't get to them."

Luis Bello, a representative of Wataniba, said the measles outbreak coincided with a complaint about a settlement of garimpeiros (Brazilian illegal miners) on the border with Brazil. It is thought that people with measles were in the camp and that frequent encounters with Venezuelan Yanomami in the area could have contributed to the epidemic. Years ago, the isolated indigenous groups experienced outbreaks of leptospirosis and yellow fever. However, malaria is the disease that causes the most problems for the three groups in Venezuela. Malaria is caused by a parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, that infects humans via mosquitos. While the disease is closely associated with mining, in these ancestral territories there is also endemic malaria that often affects communities.

The occurrence of onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a parasitic disease that ages the skin and can cause blindness, led to a programme for the eradication of the disease among these peoples. According to the source from the Ministry of Health, the programme is achieving satisfactory results. However, doctors only visit the communities once every three months and they aren't able to combat other problems. A network of clinics in the Alto Orinoco municipality of Amazonas that was run by Christian missionaries until a few years ago has effectively been dismantled. The indigenous peoples in the area do not even have the capacity to communicate via radio in an emergency.

This situation reflects Venezuela's ongoing political, economic and social crisis, which includes a health service that is practically out of orders nationwide. According to the 2018 National Hospitals Survey, carried out by the Caracas-based Doctors for Health, 88 per cent of public institutions does not have the medicines needed to treat a disease or condition. In 83 per cent, emergency services only function intermittently, while 79 per cent lack clean drinking water. The study does not include the state of Amazonas, where most isolated indigenous people live, because researchers could not access public health workers in the region.

Arc created without consultation

In 2016, a report called "Human rights in the context of the Orinoco Mining Arc project in Venezuela," presented by GTAI and the Caracas-based organisations Venezuelan Programme for Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA) and the Peace Laboratory before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), warned that "the polygon" of the AMO included lands belonging to the isolated Hoti and the Eñepá indigenous peoples. "In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a report on special protection measures for these peoples," the report says. "If measures to protect these communities are not taken, it will result in conditions favourable to their disappearance."

The government not only did not respect the indigenous territories with this project but also kept its plans from the people living there, who were never consulted before the plans were announced. Despite the requirements of Venezuelan law, neither the Hoti nor any other indigenous group were consulted about the implementation of the AMO. The right of indigenous peoples to the consultation is enshrined in treaties and conventions that Venezuela has ratified with the United Nations and International Labour Organisation (ILO).

This right is also contemplated in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and other national laws. In the Magna Carta, for example, the chapter "On the Rights of indigenous peoples" refers to the demarcation and guarantee of indigenous lands and states that the exploitation of minerals in the surrounding areas "will be done without harming the cultural, social and economic integrity of the latter." Nevertheless, the AMO is going ahead and the Hoti are more and more exposed to threats as a result.

"The big problem with the Orinoco Mining Arc is that the frontier is constantly expanding because uncontrolled mining is eating up the land like termites," Aguilar said. "The frontier does not stop with the polygon, these are just lines that were drawn to legalise what is illegal." Aguilar did not dismiss the possibility of the state project taking over more indigenous territories.

In addition to these ancestral territories being violated, Aguilar said the AMO also represents a threat to "the principal forest and water reserves of the country and the area with the highest biodiversity in the Amazon and the Guyana Massif." He emphasised that although the Maigualida mountains, inhabited by the Hoti, and the Alto Caura-Erebato, where there are Yanomami communities, are within the boundaries of the recently created Caura National Park, the limits of the AMO have not been altered and include part of the park, which is protected by the constitution.

"Another conundrum is that this park was created in the context of the development of the AMO, which has been widely criticised by environmental, social, scientific and indigenous organisations, due to its potential environmental and socio-cultural impacts on the region," says the report to the IACHR. "There is doubt about whether its creation was just a formality to mitigate criticism, or if it came out of a genuine intention to protect and consolidate the area."

(Translated by Theo Bradford. This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Rebecca Kessler. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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