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Date: Mon, 10 Aug 98 16:27:25 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: VENEZUELA: 500 Years of 'Purgatory' for Indigenous Peoples
Article: 40814
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.8000.19980811121634@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 454.0 **/
** Topic: RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: 500 Years of 'Purgatory' for Indigenous Peoples **
** Written 4:09 PM Aug 3, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

500 Years of 'Purgatory' for Indigenous Peoples

By Jose Zambrano, IPS, 31 July 1998

CARACAS, Jul 31 (IPS) - Five hundred years after Christopher Columbus first arrived to the South American mainland, descendants of the indigenous peoples who welcomed him with fruit, fermented beverages and casabe (mandioca tortillas) blockaded an international highway demanding recognition of their ancestral land rights.

Columbus landed near the Orinoco river delta, territory that today is Venezuela, on Aug. 1, 1498. But the fifth centennial of that historic event is going virtually unnoticed in Venezuela, amidst the economic crisis exacerbated by this year's crash in international oil prices and the launching of the campaign for the December general elections.

On his third journey, which set out from Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain on May 30, 1498, Columbus sailed southwest until sighting, on Jul. 31, an island whose three mountains led him to name it Trinidad.

The next day he ran into the Orinoco river delta, which he initially called Isla Santa, later changing its name to Tierra de Gracia. He then travelled along most of the northeastern coast of what is today Venezuela and finally turned towards the island of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo), tells Venezuelan historian Pedro Reixach.

The Italian admiral also found that the needle of his compass pointed northeast instead of north, which led him to the conclusion that the earth was not round but pear-shaped.

It is impressed on Venezuelans from primary school that Columbus not only named the area tierra de gracia (grace land), but commented that the garden of Eden may well have been found there.

As the area was rich in pearls, local indigenous residents soon found out what hell was like, as they were forced by the consquistadors to dive incessantly for mollusks (the island of Cubagua, 1500-1550).

And their descendants have been condemned to live in purgatory.

The most recent protest by indigenous people consisted of a roadblock mounted this week by 800 members of the Karina, Pemon and Akawaio indigenous communities along the highway connecting southeastern Venezuela and northern Brazil - the main route for trade between the two areas and tourism in these lands of mythic proportions, immensely rich biodiversity and flat-topped hills containing their own unique mini-ecosystems.

On the very eve of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival, the demonstrators protested the destruction of the cultivated land and forests from which they draw a livelihood by the construction of a power line stretching towards Brazil through the Imataca forest reserve, an area the size of Holland just south of the Orinoco delta.

They also demanded recognition of their ancestral right to access to sufficient land to allow them to maintain their way of life.

But the roadblock was only the most recent flare-up. A month ago, the Yucpa and Bari communities, which speak Carib languages and live in the northwestern Sierra de Perija along the Colombian border, asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to help them halt coal-mining in the area.

The coal is being mined by the oil company PDVSA, property of the Venezuelan state, which as heir to Spanish law is considered lord and master of the subsoil.

Under that same law, King Carlos III handed out plots of land in 1783 to the Jesus, Mary and Joseph Karina community in Aguasay in eastern Venezuela's plains region - plots which 200 years later are considered communal property by a municipal government that has, moreover, declared the ethnic group as no longer existing in the area.

Alonso de Ojeda and Americo Vespucio - from whom the continent took its name - reached Venezuelan shores in 1499. They found Anu indigenous communities living in houses on stilts in lake Maracaibo, which led them to call the area Venezuela (little Venice).

Today the Anu community amounts to some 3,000 people living along lake Sinamaica, which is threatened by salinisation after works designed to use the Limon river, which runs into the lake, as an aqueduct and for irrigation altered the lake's ecosystem. The Anu are facing a serious risk of completely disappearing as an ethnic group.

The thousands of Yabarana living in the extreme southern Venezuelan state of Amazonas last century worked as rubber-tappers until the early 1900s. Over the last 50 years they have lost lands to church groups, settlers and other indigenous communities.

The 1992 census found only one large surviving family of 318 Yabaranas, 134 of whom no longer spoke the language. The ethnic group's faint hopes for survival lie in campaigns launched by non- governmental organisations like the London-based Survival International.

Venezuela, a country of 23 million, is home to some 315,000 members of 30 indigenous groups living in border areas. Their relations with the state and the rest of society are still governed by legislation that dates back to the start of the century.

The groups are increasingly organised in movements seeking to maintain their culture and demand recognition of their rights, as well as political parties, such as two which have been formed in the state of Amazonas.