[Documents menu] Documents menu

Sender: owner-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Wed, 15 Oct 97 14:19:08 CDT
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Venezuelan Indians Battle Miners and Modern Life
Article: 19938

/** headlines: 162.0 **/
** Topic: Venezuelan Indians Battle Mines and Modern Life **
** Written 7:34 PM Oct 13, 1997 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 11:56 AM Oct 10, 1997 by saiic@igc.org in saiic.indio */
/* ---------- Venezuela/Gen Info: Indians Battle ---------- */

Venezuelan Indians battle mines and modern life

By Michael Christie, Reuters,
Wednesday 8 October 1997; 2:47 PM EDT

SANTA LUCIA DE INAWAY, Venezuela (Reuter) - Hemmed in on three sides by gold and mineral mines and facing the scourge of alcohol and drugs brought by miners, the Venezuelan Indians of Santa Lucia de Inaway have long felt besieged.

Now times are set to get even tougher for the 350 Pemon Indians trying to maintain a semblance of their culture here on the edge of the mining town of Las Claritas in the Imataca forest reserve, some 600 miles southeast of Caracas.

A new decree seeks to turn Imataca into Latin America's top gold-producing region, allowing more than half of the reserve's 8.6 million acres to be auctioned off as concessions for large-scale controlled mining.

We used to have tranquility here, sighed village chief Jose Sifontes, gesturing at the wall that shields his people from the bars and brothels of Las Claritas.

They have surrounded us and destroyed our life of hunting and fishing, added his niece, 26-year-old Divizay Delfino. Now the big companies are arriving. There's no way we can leap up to their level. Basically, they are annihilating us, she said, her eyes burning with rage.

In all, 10,000 Indians from five tribes -- Warao, Arawako, Karina, Akawaio and Pemon -- live in Imataca, a luscious biodiversity hot spot north of the Canaima national park, a World Heritage site and home to the towering Angel Falls.

The Indians, most of whom now wear jeans and baseball caps and live in ugly concrete houses built by the government, are contesting decree 1850, as is the Venezuelan Congress, which says it was not consulted before its publication last May.


The government says the decree will end widespread unregulated mining in Imataca, where some 50,000 wildcat gold-diggers have been scraping a living since the 1980s, poisoning the rivers with mercury, scarring the earth and bringing alcohol, drugs and prostitutes in their wake.

The mining industry is naturally delighted. So far, say environmentalists, nearly 600 firms have requested concessions to exploit Imataca's $113 billion in gold, including Canadian, British, Australian, American, German and Chinese companies.

Canada's Placer Dome has already arrived in a joint venture with Caracas to develop the Las Cristinas mine, five miles from Santa Lucia, thought to hold 11.8 million ounces of gold. Rival Crystallex is contesting the claim.

But the Indians are not convinced. Some 30 miles north of Santa Lucia, leaders of the indigenous community of San Antonio say the concessions affect their hunting grounds and threaten their sources of drinking water.

We are haunted by the fear of losing our way of life. If these concessions keep on coming we will, said Bellis Daniel, head of the 742-strong community where trees are heavy with oranges and orchids droop from baskets hung from the branches.

Environmentalists denounce the decree as a test case to see whether the government can get away with turning other forest reserves into industrial money-earners.

The Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment predicts a surge in cyanide and mercury contamination and a mad influx of people, drawn by the gold rush. The U.S.-based group says mining accidents are inevitable, pointing to the Omai gold mine in neighboring Guyana where in 1995 some 3 million cubic yards of cyanide and other waste leaked into the Essequibo River.


The threat that mining poses to Imataca is enhanced by a joint Venezuelan-Brazilian project to stretch a high-tension power cable from Venezuela's Guri hydroelectric dam to poverty-ridden Roraima in northern Brazil.

The transmission line will provide much-needed energy to the Amazonian state, where blackouts are the rule. But, apart from its immediate environmental impact on the forest reserve and on Canaima, it will also provide more than enough electricity to fuel a mining explosion in Imataca.

In order to generate extra energy, moreover, state electricity firm Edelca plans to flood another valley at Guri. Indian leader Kuyujani Yecuana Rene said 16 communities with about 200 people each would have to move.

The valley is bursting with wildlife and the river with fish. It's totally virgin forest, he said. The cable may be a good thing from a business point of view but from the point of view of the Indians and the environment it means an awful lot of destruction.

The Imataca Indians say they are not against sustainable development. In fact, communities such as San Antonio have carried out small-scale cooperative mining for years. But first they want land rights to protect them from outsiders and a veto on any projects in their territories.

In Venezuela, where activists say attempts to seek special legal status for indigenous people are regarded as threats to territorial integrity, such rights are not forthcoming.

Sifontes says he knows his people cannot escape from the impending modernization or bury their heads in the sand. He demands education so the Indians can leapfrog into the 21st century and help shape the area's economic development.

We know we must adopt some aspects of Western culture, he said. But we must be allowed to keep the good bits of our culture too. Drinking rum, sleeping with whores and taking drugs: that doesn't strike me as good culture.

Others, like San Antonio's Daniel, are defiant and vow to fight the government's plans. We will not be discouraged. Our elders died fighting for land rights without success. We too shall not give up, he said.