Venezuela’s Indigenous Pemon are Caught in Time on Land Too Valuable for Numbers

In the shadow of Columbus Day, venezuelanalysis.com writer Z.C. sketches, through interviews, an intimate portrait of a changing people – the Pemon of Venezuela’s mineral-rich Southeastern border. Their testimonies of struggle reflect the country’s changing political landscape and highlights a stark generational gap that afflicts many of Latin America’s first nation peoples.

On the heels of Columbus Day, known since 2002 in Venezuela as the Day of Indigenous Resistance, President Nicolas Maduro handed over ‘collective property titles’ encompassing 8,382 hectares (21,000 acres) to six different indigenous ethnic groups in the eastern state of Anzoátegui.

During last week’s honorary ceremony, representatives of Venezuelan indigenous groups met in Miraflores presidential palace in ceremonial dress; looking quite comfortable in minimalist loincloths and beaded necklaces amid plush red carpets and gilded portraits of the country’s (white) 19th century independence leaders.

The thirty-four representatives, elected by their respective communities by popular vote, will make up a presidential council whose purpose will be to further breach the communicative gap between indigenous peoples and federal administrators. The council is expected to improve the outreach capacity of the Indigenous Ministry, headed by Wayúu native Aloha Nuñez.

But the colorful images that flooded the nationals news, which delighted urbanites with visions of rich diversity, reached our television sets here in the isolated grasslands of the South like a bizarre mashup of romanticized ideals.

Excluding the most remote Yanomami tribes of the Amazon, Venezuela’s autochthonous peoples dress similarly to most other rural folk; although knockoff Crocs and misspelled European brand names stamped onto polyester t-shirts hardly makes for as good a picture.

It’s true that many indigenous people wear their ancestors’ garb with historical pride when visiting the capital, but recently I witnessed the career of a young, talented rapper catapult into ruin when he showed signs of departing from the wardrobe favored by his forefathers for the cameras.

Lest we forget the covetous imagination of our modern society; the hypocritical demand that first nation peoples be actively purer than ourselves, as if frozen in a time of innocence…when we know in our hearts that no creature of the New World truly escaped the conquest.

Bloody Gold

The grasslands from which I write this, otherwise known as Canaima National Park- a place so picturesque it was painted over by Disney/Pixar animators to create the films Dinosaur and Up, is home to an estimated 10,000 Pemon people. The Pemon, who are part of the larger Cariban language family, likely escaped the worst of the Spanish conquest thanks to this hard-to-reach inland location which, as if by some mocking twist of fate, is incidentally brimming over with that accursed mineral; that object of European lust- gold.

But by the 18th century, the divine grace period was over. Upon the arrival of Europeans to the region, the Pemon were converted to either Roman Catholicism or British Evangelism, depending on whose nuns got where first. For this reason, Saturday nights in two neighboring communities today looks radically different, while subscribers to the former religion may be raucously drunk, those of the latter are startlingly sober.

On a Saturday night of the Catholic variety, I found myself in Manakrü, the urban indigenous hub, visiting my sister-in-law’s family.

Clarivel Farfan married into a criollo Venezuelan family after leaving her community, Wonken, to study tourism and hospitality in the city. Around the same time, I married into that very family while studying Spanish abroad. Living next to each other, our attempts at assimilation ran parallel; grappling with the complex Spanish verb tenses, adjusting to the general absence of silence in a typically boisterous and loud(!!) Venezuelan family, cooking with foreign ingredients and tools while all the while trying not to appear too foreign ourselves.

Gratefully, Clarivel’s hometown is only a short Cessna ride away, or a three-day walk through the jungle, and her parents visit every so often. Her father, Santiago Farfan, is the democratically elected capitán of Wonken’s local government which I suppose, by Western standards, makes Clari the chief’s daughter, a venerable indian princess.

With Maduro’s recent land demarcations in mind, I asked Captain Farfan what he thought of the Indigenous Resistance Day ceremony as we sat in plastic chairs on the patio of his nephew’s Manakrü home, reggaeton music floating through the evening air.

Why, I asked, had the government never given any collective property titles out to the Pemon?

“They tried once, but we wouldn’t accept their conditions,” the captain said, his sandaled feet planted firmly on the ground, a quietness in his body that one never sees in city folk. According to Santiago, the government would still have priority over the land’s natural resources even under the granted property titles.

I pointed out that this entire area is national park territory, making mining illegal within these borders.

“Tell that to the National Guard,” he responded. The National Guard (GNB) is in charge of making sure no one reaps gold and diamonds from this protected land. Unsurprisingly, with no one to monitor them, the GNB have sanctioned the illegal transport of huge mining machines to strategic areas, for predictably high fees. Each time the government has tried to crack down on illegal mining, the GNB have forced the miners out and shut it all down, but it’s only ever a matter of time before men return to put the irresistible get-rich-quick cycle back in motion.

Santiago hates the mines. But not for the ecological reasons we might expect. “Young boys are drawn to them, they want money and motorcycles. But whatever they make, they spend right here,” he said, waving a leathered hand to indicate Manakrü, with its numerous liquor stores.

He said that Wonken’s traditional methods of sustenance farming are less and less appealing to each generation, especially when a few more hacks at the soil could bring up something far more valuable than yucca. But, he said, echoing centuries of tried and proved wisdom, “you can’t eat gold.”

“Do you think those boys bring anything home to their families? Do you think they remember their mothers? No. They bring nothing,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I don’t allow any mines within our borders. I’ve said many times, let’s organize ourselves, we can invest and work collectively. But I realize- mining is an individual pursuit….I don’t think I can change that.”

Thankfully, the largest goldmines nearby are downriver of Wonken, meaning there’s no danger of mercury poisoning in their water supply. For those communities downriver of the mines, however, there have been reports of grotesque skin diseases and fetal deformations from the contaminated water.

But the mines have brought other evils to Wonken, including drugs, alcohol, and firearms, which has led to a significant increase in crime. And since the death of Hugo Chavez last year, Santiago claims the GNB have settled deeper into corruption.

“Now they charge us money to transport our criminals to the city’s jails, even to transport our sick to the city hospitals,” he told me, referencing a service that should be guaranteed through Chavez’s 1999 constitutional reforms.

Santiago recalls the years before the government provided Cessna planes for indigenous transport, when he himself would have to escort criminals through almost a hundred miles of jungle and savannah to be tried in town. Petty criminals, he informed me, we deal with on our own. “It’s just the murderers and rapists I would bring to the state authorities.”

I left Manakrü somewhat in awe, unable to get the image of the elderly Santiago ferrying capital criminals through rugged terrain out of my mind, all in order to keep the peace in his village. Imagine if all community leaders had to carry the weight of their own sentences in a similar way.  

On the way home, Clarivel told me her dad was tired and had long been awaiting his retirement. He tried to withdraw from the role of captain in 2008, she said, but the man who replaced him was “no good.” I asked her to elaborate. “People didn’t respect him,” she said. “They called him names. No matter what he tried to do, they made it impossible for him.” She was silent a moment, then reflected, “It’s similar to how people act toward Maduro.”

Santiago was somewhat more relenting in regards to the president notoriously doomed to fill Chavez’s giant shoes. While discussing the GNB’s increased corruption he recounted his attempts to create a security force in Wonken, made up of local boys. “I gave them authority and responsibility,” he said. “And it worked for a time, but then there was a bulla [a slang term for the discovery of a prolific vein of gold, i.e. a gold rush], and they all disappeared.”

In the end, he concluded sadly, it seems nowadays that people are more governed by money than by any singular power.

The Land’s Papers

I was still curious. To my knowledge, the Bolivarian government has made a habit of demarcating indigenous territory every year around this time, and I wanted to know why the Pemon had been left out yet again.

I called a friend, a Pemon adviser for the committee for indigenous health, named Lisa Henrito.

“The first thing you have to ask,” Lisa told me, “is why we’re fixated on these papers. Who was it that put this idea in our heads?”

She harkened back to the 1960s and 70s, when the government first took note and began to develop the region, most notably building the Lake Guri Dam and the road that splits the park in two.

“State functionaries arrived with their tools and told us, this land belongs to the state,” Henrito recounted. She explained to me that the Pemon way is “without fences, but when we enter into a territory to hunt or fish, we ask permission first. Either from the family who presides over the area, or the spirit of the forest, the mountain. We always as permission.”

The state functionaries simply asked, “Where are your papers? Where is the proof you own this land?”

“And that,” Lisa told me, “is how we became obsessed with papers.”

Still, she said, the Pemon are far better off when compared to other indigenous groups.

“The Kariña [of Anzoategui state] are surrounded by oil fields and industry, they had nowhere to go,” she said, indicating that the government has prioritized the demarcation of land for those communities that had been displaced and scattered to the outskirts of cities.

The Pemon live in the land of their ancestors. They awake to the morning mist enshrouding those otherworldly flat-topped mountains, the tallest of which is called Roraima, and take their evening bath in the rivers that flow, crystalline and icy, through each and every village.

Canaima National Park, as the sixth largest park in the world, is roughly the size of Belgium. Only Pemon are allowed to live within its borders, and only Pemon may serve as guides to the natural wonders Angel Falls and Mt. Roraima.

But how long will the Pemon have to wait to see their land on paper?

Lisa is not optimistic. “These are virgin territories of great wealth, both in the sense of biodiversity and endemic species, but also in minerals; gold and diamonds,” she said, suggesting that the land’s exorbitant value is what makes the government so cautious.

“It’s also a border zone,” she reminds me, “which means even more bureaucratic red tape.”

The area borders British Guyana in the East and Brazil in the South, and the Pemon race extends beyond both those borders. Lisa herself is from British Guyana, and speaks English fluently, as well as Spanish and her native Taurepan. Brazilian Pemon are known as Macuxi.

“Sometimes I joke, if we don’t like what our government’s our doing, we may just organize our own nation,” Lisa laughed, “But the ministry doesn’t find it funny.”

The Forgetting

There was something else worrying Lisa. As a healthcare worker, she had seen a sharp increase in high-risk births and illness. Could it be mercury poisoning? I asked.

“No,” she said slowly. “How can I explain this? Part of my role as a health adviser is reminding people what they already know, what we’ve known for centuries. They know how to stop diarrhea, how to give birth and how to heal themselves. But there is a forgetting. Only when someone is cursed by a tarem [black magic, characterized by an empty look in the victim’s eye], only then do they remember. When it’s a tarem, they leave the doctors out of it.”

The same thing happens when a representative reaches the capital, she explained, or whenever they leave this land to work in the government. Their vision becomes clouded, she told me, what was once so clear becomes abstract and, in a way, they stop working for their community.

“That’s how we see it,” she said. “Aloha Nuñez, although Wayúu, works for the government. She comes here to do the government’s will unto us, all the while saying she works for us.”

“Even our own people, we may fight, rally, and gather together when we have a need… but at the hour of negotiation, we relent. Why? It is a forgetting. Maybe it’s like they say, a people oppressed will work together, but when free, they defend their own interests.”

I was reminded of Santiago’s frustration that the young men of Wonken forget their mothers in the mines. I was struck by how the biggest threat to the Pemon, as told by they themselves, is not the gold mines or the GNB or even the Catholic nuns; it’s individualism.

Because we both know how fierce the Pemon are when they organize. How they knocked down dozens of electrical towers when the government wired the park in 2001. How they took a 42-man GNB company hostage without firing a shot in 2013, and proceeded to send a list of demands to the president. How they marched in Caracas earlier this year, calling for the return of a sacred stone taken to be part of a German exhibition. Even their stubbornness in refusing the same property titles given to all indigenous groups is fierce; an unyielding rejection of that clause laying an ambiguous claim to their subsoil.

“For as long as we can remember we’ve been fighting against the state,” Lisa told me, whether it’s in a GNB uniform or public workers laying down roads. But since the arrival of Chavez and the 1999 constitutional reform, “we now have maybe the best protective laws in the world.”

“We identified with Chavez, we felt that he was one of us, that he joined our struggle. When he died, everyone went outside and cried, across the savannah. I’ve spoken to friends about this. In every Pemon village, Chavez was mourned like a member of the community.”

“We intend to protect the legacy he left us,” Lisa affirmed. “We will fight tooth and nail for those laws to be fulfilled. Even if it’s the state we’re fighting.”

The Legacies

The problems indigenous people face in order to see their laws fulfilled are similar to those that plague Venezuelan public administration in general, which many believe have worsened significantly since the death of Chavez. Santiago’s example of the GNB growing bolder in their corruption is not an isolated case.

As for social services, Lisa told me that bureaucracy is to blame. Inefficient procedures make it difficult for indigenous to get their elderly pensions, no matter that Maduro last week lowered the threshold age to 50 (for Criollos its 60).

Of course, the farthest flung communities are the least likely to see government aid, for the simple reason that there are too many middle men needed to transport building materials that deep into the woods.

In a nearby community, Wará, you can see round brick houses with expensive asphalt roofing, built by the government to emulate the Pemon building style and large enough to fit big families. In Manakrü there’s a spanking new soccer stadium, and just about every village has benefitted from upgraded schools and info centers with computer access. But for Santiago to get free government roofing to Wonken, the stars have to be in his favor. And when agricultural grants were given to some Pemon farmers, the trucks sent to transport the goods to market never came through. The fruit now spoils in a faraway field.

It’s these paradoxes that characterize government aid to first nation people. The opposition stigmatizes that aid as a cheap way to buy votes, in spite of indigenous Venezuelans making up only 2% of the total population, but the fact remains that the Bolivarian constitution recognized 34 ethnicities that had previously been invisible, and that can’t be undone.

Time keeps moving forward. The Spanish conquest has been replaced by transnationals, colonialism by neo-liberalism. Though our instinct might be for indigenous communities to remain untouched, that’s not a reality available to most of them.

Especially now that there is a legal framework set in place to protect these ethnic groups, the more politically versed their representatives are, the better protected their communities will be. After all, if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that no one can sit peacefully for too long on an untapped mountain of gold, diamonds and oil.

“We see ourselves at a crossroads,” Lisa told me. “But we refuse to take one step backwards in history.”