Dioce Camico is a young activist and the political secretary of the October 27 Movement, an organization with university origins that is committed to popular power. The movement works with communes and Indigenous communities in Amazonas state. Here, Camico talks about the advances that Indigenous peoples have seen in the Bolivarian Process and about the impact of the blockade.
Settler colonialism and white creole hegemony configured an imaginary where Indigenous peoples were little more than a folkloric blip in Venezuelan society. That began to change with the Bolivarian Process, which made the histories and struggles of Indigenous peoples more visible. The Bolivarian Government also promoted healthcare, education, and housing initiatives for Indigenous communities. Talk to us about the progress that Indigenous peoples have seen over the past 20 or so years.
We could spend hours talking about the advances of Indigenous communities in the revolution, and we would only be scratching the surface. I will try to make a synthesis.
Indigenous peoples have been protagonists in the Bolivarian Process since its early days. Let’s begin with our most important milestone, the 1999 Constituent Assembly: in the making of a new constitution where all voices were heard. There were three seats for Indigenous people in the formal constituent assembly. However, more importantly, in the territories where Indigenous people live, the pueblo, organizations, and Indigenous leadership – including caciques and captains – met and debated for months. They were the protagonists, the ones who drafted Chapter VIII of the Constitution, which recognizes the specific rights of the Indigenous peoples of Venezuela.
The old 1961 Constitution was a text tailored to the interests of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its imperialist bosses: it was drafted by white men in suits. Our constitution was written by the people.
But the 1999 Constitution was just the beginning. Shortly after its massive popular approval, Chávez created the Ministry for Indigenous Peoples and promoted social programs that reached the most remote Indigenous communities. Then there was new legislation, including the Organic Law for Social Programs, which guaranteed further rights.
The advances have been numerous. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tensions and contradictions between the state and Indigenous communities, and it also doesn’t mean that the government did everything right. Still, there is no doubt that the Bolivarian Process brought important advances and that Indigenous peoples regained protagonism with Chávez.
The economic crisis, the imperialist blockade, and the pandemic have affected the lives of Indigenous peoples with greater intensity. What can you tell us about the present situation of these communities?
Materializing the rights granted by the Constitution in a country under siege becomes very difficult. In fact, the blockade led to stagnation in the process of transformation.
Let’s take our state as a case study: Amazonas has 177 thousand square kilometers, and Indigenous communities are spread through a vast territory. Many communities can only be reached by boat. What happens when fuel is not available? How does the state maintain social programs in territories that are hours away by boat? And, what’s more, how can children go to school when in many Indigenous communities schools are a boat-ride away and fuel is nowhere to be found?
The blockade has snatched away so much from Indigenous peoples! It has taken many, many lives. It has also narrowed the horizon so much that communities are shrinking quickly: some move to the city, others leave the country, and others go to the mines.
When we say that the blockade is a crime against humanity, we mean it. To that, I would add that the criminal dimension of these coercive measures is even worse when it comes to the devastation it wreaks on Indigenous communities. All this fills us with anger!
They want to bring us to our knees, and they want to snatch our utopia from under our feet. The imperialist enemy also wants to break the link between the organized communities, the party [PSUV], and the government. We have to do everything we can so that the blockade won’t become a centrifugal but a centripetal force, so that the coercive measures won’t destroy communities, social fabrics, and political alliances.
Amazonas and Bolívar are some of the states with the largest Indigenous populations. In these states, mining is an important part of the economy, and it has been growing over the past few years. How is this situation affecting Indigenous communities in the territory?
Western mining practices are all about the destruction of the earth and they have one objective only: accumulation. That is why capitalist mining creates so much environmental and social devastation.
Indigenous communities have a different relationship with nature that is both respectful and reciprocal. This means that while mining is not foreign to some Indigenous peoples, their small-scale practices don’t cause havoc.
Western capitalist mining is a kind of neo-slavery: a few get rich and the mafias expand like cancer, while the majority becomes trapped in a dead-end system that offers no life and no future.
The crisis generated by the blockade has forced many Indigenous peoples toward the land-grabbing mines. They do it, of course, because the situation is critical and they need an income… but the exodus destroys families, culture, and nature, all in one blow.
For many Indigenous families in Amazonas, the conuco was the economic base of their lives, and artisanal mining was a supplementary activity. The conuco is not just a plot of land with some plantain trees; the conuco is a space where ancestral practices are preserved. However, with the departure of the young and the healthy to the mines, the conucos begin dwindling and the endogenous practices begin to vanish. This is of great concern to us.
Western mining brings a macabre metabolism with it: mafias, drugs, alcoholism, de-territorialization of the struggle, human trafficking, environmental destruction, health problems, and, ultimately, the end of life.
Now the streets of some Indigenous communities are vacant: the only people living there are the elderly and children, and the latter are often unschooled. Of course, the devastating impact of occidental mining, which has been growing over the past few years, is not only on Indigenous communities. However, Indigenous peoples are the most violently impacted by these practices.
Finally, as mining advances, its logic begins to encroach on territories that are not only reserves, but also sacred to Indigenous peoples. In short, lang-grabbing mining is not only destroying our environment and culture – which is bad enough – but also wrecking sites of great spiritual importance.
The situation of Indigenous peoples is very sensitive, and in recent years we have seen an increase in migration, which you mentioned before, but also human trafficking. How are these phenomena affecting the integrity of Indigenous communities?
These are indeed sensitive issues. However, since external factors tend to weaponize the situation, we have to address them with precision. The blockade and the pandemic generated an exodus that is undeniable. However, when it comes to the Indigenous peoples of Venezuela, most live in border areas. Moreover, the imaginary line that some occidental politicians and geographers put on the map is not necessarily part of the actually-existing Indigenous geography. In fact, before colonialism, the only frontier was the ocean.
The occidental, sedentary way of life is not compatible with the Indigenous mode. It is no secret that the colonial system was set on destroying Indigenous life, and many took refuge in what we now know as Amazonas and Bolívar states, thus finding protection in the rainforest, while others took refuge in the most rugged regions of Zulia. Thus, moving to preserve life is part of our history.
Also, as I said before, borders are not part of our cosmovision, and many families are binational. There are economic, cultural, spiritual, and affective links across national frontiers, and those bonds are here to stay. In my case, for instance, my grandmother is from San Carlos de Rio Negro [Venezuela]. That’s a sacred land for my entire kin, but my family is spread between the two countries [Colombia and Venezuela].
All this, of course, is not to deny the impact of migration, but when an Indigenous person goes to Brazil or Colombia, they aren’t necessarily being uprooted.
Now, there are situations of uprooting that concern us a great deal, but those aren’t cross-border processes. There are people who are being uprooted from their territory and going to the city: they were in a bad place economically so they sold their tools, then they sold their conuco, and in the end, they were left with nothing, so they came to Puerto Ayacucho [Amazonas state capital]. As this happens, the social fabric begins to fall apart, traditions begin to fade, shanty towns begin to grow around the city, and the services offered by the state become insufficient.
This is a far more dramatic uprooting than crossing a fluid frontier. This exodus to the city – and to the mines, for that matter – tears communities apart.
In recent years, NGOs and international organizations such as the UN have made inroads into Venezuela. It is well-known that NGOs tend to deterritorialize struggles, impose foreign models, and even capitalize on discontent in favor of non-national interests. “Attention to Indigenous communities” is often an explicit objective of these groups. How do people navigate this complex situation?
There is no secret as to why these organizations are here: external factors created a crisis and when the situation got really bad, NGOs and others came in as saviors. However, Venezuela is not diving into this with eyes closed: the government allowed these entities to enter after signing an agreement based on the recognition of our sovereignty and institutions. Of course, that doesn’t keep them from operating with political aims, but it helps.
The truth is that some of the resources that come from these institutions are sorely needed, so smart concessions are necessary. As we speak, there are important collaborations between some non-Venezuelan agencies and several ministries, including the ministries of healthcare, food, education, and women.
The Venezuelan state has also established mechanisms to supervise these agencies. For instance, when the UN visits an Indigenous community, local leaders are briefed beforehand, work groups with all the parties are organized, and binding agreements are drafted before the work begins. In fact, if an initiative is not ratified by the community, the project doesn’t go forward.
Additionally, when resources are handed over, that always happens with governmental presence. For example, if medical equipment is delivered to a healthcare facility, someone from the Health Ministry must be there.
Thus, with direct involvement from the organized community and the government, political malpractice is less likely to happen. Moveover, at the end of the day, if people are not satisfied, the project doesn’t happen.
The objective is to get good, tangible results, to generate better living conditions for the community. A project will only be virtuous if the people and the government are both involved. Also, we should highlight that while an NGO may come into a community and deliver food bags for three months, that does not displace the state, which delivers millions of food bags monthly. Or, if an organization has funds to fix three medical centers, their support will be welcomed, but the 300 centers in Amazonas are actually the responsibility of the Venezuelan state.
We welcome external help, but we are not naive: we know that “help” comes with strings attached and we know that deterritorialized funds are not going to solve the structural problems that Indigenous communities face. From the perspective of the October 27 Movement, the structural problems that we face will be solved by bringing organized communities, the party, and the government into one common deliberative space.
I should highlight, however, that we can’t talk about the Indigenous peoples of Venezuela – or even the Indigenous folks of Amazonas – as a unified block. While many Indigenous people are with the Bolivarian Process, there are others who are with the opposition, and their interpretation regarding international cooperation is often different.
In any case, whether we like it or not, NGOs are part of the landscape wherever Indigenous people are an important part of the population. The blockade and historical forms of oppression and domination have left many Indigenous peoples in conditions of economic vulnerability. Then, to the degree that the government is drained of resources, these institutions have become an option that complements the state’s action in specific areas.
In short, there is no doubt that this situation is complex, but while it’s true that deterritorialization is dangerous, it is also true that the Indigenous peoples that live in areas under the influence of NGOs are not naive, and that we are developing robust mechanisms so that the communities will be in charge.
Given all that we have discussed so far, what does the future hold?
There has been a war-like aggression against us in the past few years, but we have been able to resist it. It is now time to go from resistance mode over to a revolutionary offensive. How to do it? Indigenous communities, movements like ours [the October 27 Movement], and the government must work together to address the many problems that the blockade has generated.
As we speak, there is an interesting government project underway that bears the name “New Amazonas Development Project.” This initiative brings together territories in Amazonas, Bolívar, and the south of Apure – three states crossed by the Orinoco River. Those lands are optimal for agriculture: the ground is fertile and there is plenty of water. We think that this could be a viable alternative to the devastation produced by western mining. Most importantly, many of the Indigenous people in those territories are campesinos and fishermen by tradition, so promoting agricultural production could offer a viable alternative, while also preserving ancestral traditions.
The New Amazonas Project encompasses other areas, including promotion of tourism, fishing, and the determination to go beyond primary production. One such initiative would be building plants for the transformation of cocoa into chocolate and pineapple into preserves and compote.
This is a strategic plan that goes hand in hand with popular power initiatives and communal organization in Indigenous communities.
[19th-century philosopher and pedagogue] Simón Rodríguez talked about the toparquía, the power in the territory, the people defining their future together from the space where they live, the pueblo accounting for their own culture, beliefs, traditions, history, and economic potential. That is where the commune comes in, but the commune in an Indigenous community will have its own characteristics, its own logic, and it will be positively defined by a non-western cosmovision.