Saturday, May 14, 2022

Venezuela's 'silent genocide'

 According to the 2011 census, at least 720,000 of Venezuela’s 28 million inhabitants are indigenous, belonging to some 40 native peoples, and close to half a million live in rural indigenous areas, mainly in border regions.

Although the largest indigenous group (60 percent) is the Wayúu, an Arawak-speaking people who live on the Colombian-Venezuelan Guajira peninsula in the north, most of the native peoples are in the south of the country. Some groups have thousands of members but others only a few hundred, and their languages and ancestral knowledge are at risk of dying out.

The voracious search for gold in southern Venezuela, practiced by thousands of illegal miners under the protection of various armed groups, represents the greatest threat today to the lives of indigenous peoples, their habitat and their cultures, according to their organizations and human rights defenders. 

In this part of the Amazon jungle, “mining, violence, habitat destruction, death from disease and forced migration make up a context that indigenous people are calling a silent genocide,” researcher Aimé Tillet, who has worked in the area for many years, told IPS.

At the other end of the country, along the northwest border with Colombia, indigenous people are fighting for their territories, which has led to clashes and deaths in their attempts to recover ancestral lands, while they are often reduced to destitution.

There are common features of life in border regions that are home to indigenous peoples, such as neglect by the government, which fails to fulfill its duties in health, education, security, provision of food, fuel and transportation, supplies, communications and consultations with native peoples regarding the use of their land and resources.

The government foments mining activity and in 2016 decreed the “Orinoco Mining Arc” on the right bank of the Orinoco river – an area of 111,844 square kilometers, larger than Bulgaria, Cuba or Portugal. In parallel, it established an armed forces company, Camimpeg, to spearhead the mining of gold, diamonds, coltan and other conventional and rare minerals, in which the country is rich.

The local press has reported on the involvement of military and police units in the region in incidents related to mining activity that have sparked protests by indigenous people and human rights activists, ranging from deaths of native people in altercations to massacres in which “unknown groups” have killed dozens of people. Artisanal and illegal mining, in hundreds of deforested areas and along rivers contaminated with mercury used to extract gold from ore, are often controlled by criminal gangs that call themselves “syndicates” and that traffic in gold and supplies, as well as in people who work in the mines, who are often subjected to forced labor.

According to human rights groups, for some years now another danger has been Colombian guerrillas, particularly the National Liberation Army (ELN), which is involved in mining and other illegal activities in the southern state of Amazonas, as well as dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which laid down its arms under a 2016 peace deal. In the Sierra de Perijá mountains, home to three native peoples and part of the northern border between Colombia and Venezuela, the ELN has made inroads into indigenous communities, setting up camps, collecting “vacunas” – taxes or protection payment – from cattle ranchers, overseeing cattle smuggling and recruiting young people as guerrilla fighters.

In the “currutelas” or mining villages, young men and boys work extracting gold-rich sands, while women are employed to cook, sweep, wash and clean the camps, and are exploited sexually.

This situation, seen in the hundreds of mining camps in Amazonas and the southeastern state of Bolívar, which covers some 238,000 square kilometers, is aggravated in the case of indigenous peoples, lawyer Eduardo Trujillo, director of the Andrés Bello Catholic University’s Human Rights Center, which is conducting several studies in the area, told IPS.

“Under the control of armed groups, dynamics of violence are generated, with confrontations and deaths, and conditions of modern-day slavery, where omission translates into acquiescence on the part of the Venezuelan State,” Trujillo added.

In particular, indigenous women recruited to work in the camps “are caught up in a dynamic of violence: their work is not voluntary, sometimes they are not paid, and they are subjected to risks to their health and lives,” he said.

Mining in Venezuela contributes to the figures of the International Labor Organization (ILO), according to which more than 40 million people around the world are victims of modern-day slavery, 152 million are victims of child labor and 25 million are forced laborers.

The environmental organization Provita reports that 380,000 hectares have been deforested south of the Orinoco in the last 20 years, while the area dedicated to mining increased from 18,500 to 55,000 hectares between 2000 and 2020.

Riverbanks and headwaters have been especially affected, many in areas theoretically protected as national parks. Tillet stressed that, in addition to the environmental damage they suffer, these are areas of limited resources for subsistence, for which indigenous communities and miners are now competing.

“Because they depend on mining for an income, indigenous people are forced to abandon their traditional activities of planting, fishing and hunting, their diet deteriorates, malnutrition and diseases such as malaria increase, and they are forced to say goodbye to their land, to move and migrate,” said Tillet. The researcher said that health services, which are the responsibility of the State, have practically disappeared, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, while education has collapsed as teachers move away and migrate, with the result that “children who should be in school now work in exploitative conditions in the mines.”

The Yanomami and Ye’kuana organizations said they were victims of selective killings, contamination of water with mercury, contagion from diseases and, in short, “a silent cultural genocide.”

Mining Destroys the Lives of Indigenous People in Venezuela | Inter Press Service (

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