Venezuela’s isolated indigenous groups under siege from miners, disease and guerrillas

The Hoti, Yanomami and Piaroa, isolated indigenous groups in Venezuela, are under threat on several fronts

By Lorena Meléndez G
Published: Tuesday 02 July 2019
Yanomami people. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon

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, an 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 kilometers 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 kilometers (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 recognizes 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. 

Mining has forced indigenous Hoti to become more isolated, going deeper and deeper into the forest. Photo: Óscar Noya.

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 and guerrilla groups pose 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 have resulted.

Yanomami women. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon.

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 Organization (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 organization 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 program 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 an endemic malaria that often affects the communities.

The occurrence of onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a parasitic disease that ages the skin and can cause blindness, led to a program for the eradication of the disease among these peoples. According to the source from the Ministry of Health, the program is achieving satisfactory results. However, doctors only visit the communities once every three months and they aren’t able to combat other problems. 

The Yanomami have been decimated by the recent measles epidemic in Venezuela. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon.

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 order nationwide. According to the 2018 National Hospitals Survey, carried out by the Caracas-based Doctors for Health, 88 per cent of public institutions do not have the medicines needed to treat a disease or condition. In 83 per cent, emergency services only function intermittently, while 79 pe rcent 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.

Brazilian miners, gold and guerrillas

Bello of Wataniba accused garimpeiros of introducing “slave labour” in the southern Amazon during multiple incursions into the territory of the isolated Yanomami since the 1980s.

“When the garimpeiros come here, they use the Yanomami to work in the mines,” Bello said. “It’s slave labor, because they are the ones who carry out all the hard work and heavy lifting. Indigenous peoples have no control and must do what the garimpeiros say in exchange for matoji, which are things like machetes, axes, cloths, clothes and knives.”

These invasions have included violent episodes. Between June and July 1993, a group of armed garimpeiros killed 16 Yanomami in Brazil, mainly women and children, inside their shabono (traditional housing), due to conflicts over land. The episode is known as the Haximu Massacre.

Bello also said the miners occasionally violate Hoti territory via the Iguana, Asita, Parucito and Mosquito rivers, and that this phenomenon is nothing new. Four years ago, the Organization of Indigenous Yabarana of the High Parucito in Amazonas (OIYAPAM by its Spanish acronym) complained to military authorities about the presence of miners who were using machinery on Hoti land.

“In October and November 2014, there were groups of illegal foreign miners extracting gold from around the Corobita River, a tributary of Parucito, using machinery for this purpose — motor pumps, power hoses and mercury, all of which cause severe environmental damage and water pollution in the area, which is inhabited by our communities,” says a 2017 report on the three isolated indigenous groups’ situation that Bello co-authored.

“The illegal miners, after leaving the Corobita River, relocated to the area around the Mosquito (Yuepa) River, another tributary of the Parucito, further upstream.”

What is most worrying, according to the report, is that around the Mosquito River there are various Hoti communities who remain isolated and have made little contact with the outside world. The mining activity poses a serious threat to their health, as they are extremely vulnerable to diseases that could be introduced by miners. Their environment, land and health are also threatened by the destruction of the forest and mercury contamination in the water. Over the years this illegal activity has damaged large swaths of jungle and has even altered the course of rivers.

A Piaroa man in Alto Cuao, in the Venezuelan Amazon. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon.

The same report revealed that illegal mining has also been taking place in the territory of the Piaroa since at least 2014, with the occupation of parts of the Alto Sipapo, Alto Guayapo and Alto Cuao rivers, where there are deposits of gold and coltan. “This situation and the environmental and sociocultural impacts have not been evaluated by the relevant State institutions. This intervention of miners and armed groups is happening in areas close to places with small communities of Uwottüja (Piaroa) people in voluntary isolation, who have rejected contact,” the report says.

The incursion of armed groups mentioned in the report sheds light on another phenomenon: the exploitation of gold has attracted new visitors to territories close to isolated indigenous peoples. Troops of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombian guerrillas who participate more and more frequently in the Orinoco Mining Arc and illegal mining, and members of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have arrived in areas close to indigenous populations, according to a report on the independent news website

Vladimir Aguilar, a lawyer who specialises in indigenous law and the director of the Working Group of Indigenous Affairs (GTAI) at the University of the Andes in the city of Mérida in western Venezuela, told Mongabay Latam that the settlements of irregular armed groups in these areas serve as a defense. “Sometimes, guerrillas act as security personnel for the miners,” Aguilar said. “This is one of their survival mechanisms.”

However, Américo de Grazia, a legislator in the National Assembly, has repeatedly indicated that the ELN incursions are backed by the government, which hopes to carry out a “cleansing” of the area to get rid of the criminal gangs that control the mineral deposits, so that they can be handed over to foreign concession holders in the AMO.

Faced with this new challenge, indigenous peoples have not been able to merely stand by and watch. “They have had to negotiate and reach agreements on their territories, habits and customs, with regards their women, children and young people,” said Aguilar, the lawyer. “They have had to do this because the state is absent in these areas. The guerrillas, for their part, have also made contact with indigenous groups in Colombia, which is why they make agreements with the groups here.”

The response of the Hoti, at least, has been to draw even further back. “They go further and further upriver, deeper into the middle of the forest, into the mountains and river basins, because the threats get bigger and bigger. Their intention is to isolate themselves further because they see this civilisation as a civilisation of disorder and annihilation,” said Aguilar. “Their isolation is proportionate to the threat to their territories, their fragmentation.”

Thus, indigenous Hoti, Yanomami and Piaroa are at the mercy of mining, both legal and illegal. The contamination, epidemics, abuse, prostitution and crime that come with the chaotic economy of mineral deposits in southern Venezuela endanger their lives and their right to remain in an environment undisturbed by foreign customs.

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 Program 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. 

Homes of indigenous Yanomami in Venezuela. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon.

“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 favorable 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 consultation is enshrined in treaties and conventions that Venezuela has ratified with the United Nations and the International Labour Organization (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 legalize what is illegal.” Aguilar did not dismiss the possibility of the state project taking over more indigenous territories.

A Yanomami woman. Photo: Wataniba Socio-environmental Work Group for the Amazon.

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 criticized by environmental, social, scientific and indigenous organizations, due to its potential environmental and sociocultural 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.

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