By Daniela Damiano
Indigenous communities in Venezuela have been historically neglected by the authorities. Today, amidst the wreckage of a complex humanitarian emergency, their survival is almost a miracle.
Basic things such as going from their communities to the city, receiving quality medical care, or simply buying food or growing it on their own land, have become very difficult for these people in Bolívar state. Higinio Montiel, 28, leader of the Yekuana people of the Caura region, tirelessly denounces that corruption and the indifference of the state is killing his people.
“We are tired of being ignored by the government and when we demand the guarantee of our rights, we are mistreated and even arrested,” Higinio says. He remarks that in the month of May alone state security officials have arbitrarily detained three social leaders whose work has always been to claim the rights of their people.
Indigenous peoples attacked
On one occasion, an indigenous leader was arrested because he was carrying fuel to drive a person from his community, seriously ill with malaria and who had not received medical treatment for 2 weeks, to the hospital. “The shortage of gasoline has isolated us even more and prevents us from going to health centers or to the city to run errands.”
The military accused this leader of trafficking fuel, confiscated the fuel and arrested him for 72 hours, but the truth is that the indigenous peoples of Venezuela’s largest — and in terms of minerals, richest— state, are forced to buy gasoline on the black market or exchange it for food or medicine, which they do not have to spare.
“The military takes advantage of our people’s desperation. They are often arrested anytime from a week to a month, beaten and forced to give false testimonies. While this happens, the military have already set up their business and they resell the confiscated fuel to miners or armed groups.”
“It’s been over four months without knowing what to do about the fuel shortage. It’s terrible. We need it to navigate the river because our community is seven days away from the city, where we go to do our errands or when we need specialized medical attention.” Not only the leaders are distressed by the repression and violence caused by state and illegal armed groups, but so are other people who are not directly related to claiming rights.
“Silvia Delgado, the only nurse who worked in the type 1 clinic of the Pemón community, decided to leave after violent events between indigenous people and the military took place in February, where several brothers were murdered. She was very afraid of something bad happening to one of her three children and decided to leave everything and flee to Brazil,” Endy Rodriguez, a Pemón and doctor at the same health center, said.
The Pemón people in the Gran Sabana municipality of Bolívar have not received justice after the murder of four members of their ethnic group in the military assaults in the Kumarakapay community on February 22, 2019 and in Santa Elena de Uairén the following day.
Olnar Ortiz, lawyer for the Penal Forum, denounced that the persecution and the fear of a new attack have not stopped, which has motivated 966 indigenous people from 14 communities of Gran Sabana to move to Brazil. This was made public during the hearing to follow up on the precautionary measures in their favor and in favor of the indigenous people of San Francisco de Yuruaní convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as part of the 172nd session in Kingston, Jamaica.
He requested the cautionary measures in their favor and in favor of the Kumarakapay community to be ratified and extended to all the Pemón people of the Gran Sabana municipality and to the three indigenous communities in Brazilian territory, such as Bananal and Tarau, where Venezuelan Pemón people have taken refuge.
Between viral diseases and parasites
The diseases that most affect Pemón and Yekuana people are malaria, respiratory infections, scabies, hypertension, neuropathies, diarrhea, vomiting and parasites. The clinics near these communities do not even have bandages, so residents are forced to leave their lands in order to be seen by a doctor, especially when their ancient medicine is no longer working.
Endy Rodríguez, a 26-year-old resident doctor, works alone and with very few resources for a population of over 1860 people. There is a shortage of everything in the clinic. The last shipment of medicines arrived 2 months ago. Now, all she can do is refer the patients she cannot cure to the hospital in Santa Elena de Uairén, 45 minutes away.
“Each time I tell a person that we can’t take care of them here in the clinic due to medicine shortage, it breaks my heart. I know that if I refer them to the hospital, they probably won’t treat them either, in addition to having to spend a lot of money to get there. Drivers are charging up to 20 Brazilian reals, which is 30,000 bolívares per person. They no longer accept bolívares.”
“To have a seriously ill person in the community is distressing because it is very hard for us to get them out of town, but the tragedy is that when we are able to take a brother or a sister to the hospital, they tell us that they cannot take care of them because they don’t have medicines or that we must buy them first so that they can see them.”
In May, five Yekuana people died, among children, adults and the elderly, all because they did not receive adequate treatment for their illnesses. “Every day we see how our people get sick, get worse and die. Nobody cares about our suffering.”
Mining activity has significantly worsened the lives of indigenous peoples and those living on the banks of the Caura River know this firsthand. The extraction megaproject imposed by the Venezuelan government, the implementation of which was not consulted with the inhabitants of the region, has become the main cause of hunger and poisoning.
“We cultivate the land to eat — we’ve done it our whole lives. However, mercury from mining is contaminating our food. The plants and animals that we eat are poisoned by this chemical and we are getting poisoned too,” Higinio said.
A study conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) —a Brazilian health organization—, together with the Hutukara Yanomami Association and APYB, the Yekuana Association, exposes alarming levels of mercury in the Yanomami and Yekuana indigenous peoples.
“Illegal gold miners operating on Yanomami land are polluting the Indians’ rivers with mercury, used in the gold-extraction process. The metal then enters the food chain via the river water which the Yanomami drink, and the fish on which they rely as a key part of their diet.”
In addition to the contaminated food they eat, these communities are displaced by armed groups who arrive in their territories demanding immediate eviction.
In many occasions, they subjugate the indigenous people and make them carry out activities against their will. “They have kidnapped our brothers to be their motorboat drivers. This makes it easier for armed groups to transport shipments without fear of being detained.”
“Instead of protecting our culture and territories, the government allows illegal groups to kick us out like dogs from the places we have lived in for centuries,” says Higinio, who wants his two children to learn the customs of their people and live in peace.
Run away rather than die
The lack of state protection, and the danger to which indigenous peoples are exposed as a result of mining activities, has caused many of them to flee their lands and cross borders —resourceless.
“At least 25% of the Sanema indigenous people —also from the Caura region— have left Venezuela. Many friends from that people could not endure the crisis any longer and decided to leave, alone or with their families, in search of greater security and better living conditions,” Higinio said.
Endy is part of the Venezuelan talent that is forced to migrate in order to survive. For her, the situation is unsustainable and she is only waiting until she completes her rural practice to go practice medicine in Brazil.
“Here, I earn 36,000 bolívares a month and a kilogram of Harina Pan (corn flour) costs 28,000. I have an aunt who is also a doctor waiting for me in Brazil; she will help me get a job in a hospital.”
Others are not as lucky to have someone waiting for them across the border. Many other indigenous people do not have the means to get to Brazil and have to spend months working in precarious conditions somewhere else to get the money that will take them to their destination.
Tags: Venezuela, Bolívar, Emergency, indigenous.
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