Amazonas: Venezuela’s Forgotten State, part I

The state of Amazonas in Venezuela’s south is the most unexplored region of the country. Traveling the rivers in Amazonas still has the character of an expedition. This is the first of two parts of Amazonas stories, about a dozen ethnic groups, the influence of Plan Colombia, the role of missionaries and illegal mining.

The boat The Iguana traveling up the Orinoco.
Credito: Ronald de Hommel

Part I: Sailing up the Orinoco until the mouth of the Casiquiare.

Samariapo, state of Amazonas—So this is where the road ends. From Samariapo onwards, the tiny port about 40 miles south of Puerto Ayacucho, there is no transport by car any more. From now on, it’s just boats, or, for the happy few, planes. Here I will start my trip, almost an expedition to San Carlos de Rio Negro, about 1,000 miles further south. The tour will take eight days. Eight days of rivers, of jungle, of mosquitoes, of heat. From here on, it’s only rainforest, millions of square kilometers of rainforest, spreading all across the Amazon basin.

The expedition to San Carlos is carried out by Selvadentro, an eco-tourism company from Puerto Ayacucho. Together with four other travelers, I am slowly sailing downstream the Orinoco with the Iguana, a funny, cozy boat which once was part of the fleet of French discoverer Jacques Cousteau. The owners of the boat are Natalia Bird Jové, a young woman from Puerto Rico, who came to the Amazon region six years ago, fell in love with it, and never left. She also fell in love with Lucho Cherry Navarro, a Baniwa Indian from the state of Amazon. “I did everything that is forbidden here”, Lucho tells me. “I worked in the illegal goldmines and I smuggled gasoline to Colombia. Many people make a living out of that; it’s very easy. 100 liters of gasoline cost about 15,000 bolivares ($7) in the southern part of Amazonas; in Colombia you get 100,000 ($50) Bolivares for it. If you know the people in the Guardia Nacional, you just give them some money and you do your business.”

US chemicals flowing downstream

After a few hours of sailing, we make our first stop at the Isla de Raton, the biggest island in the Orinoco. After we have registered with the Guardia Nacional, we visit the central village of the island. The place looks like it is constructed for better times in the distant future. Although there are broad roads, there are no cars, expect for one lonely tractor, standing useless along the road. What would you need a car for here? About 800 people live on the island, a mix of criollos, Piaroa and other Indian groups, and some Colombians. “They live here because on the Colombian side of the Orinoco, the situation is not that good”, according to Lucho. “The area used to be controlled for a long time by the FARC, but since a year or so, the Colombian army regained control of the region, with US help, through Plan Colombia. A lot of cocaine is produced in that region. The Americans are now spraying the area regularly. Of course they also spray the conucos (small farm plots) of the Indians, which is why they flee the region. During the rainy season, the chemicals get into the rivers and flow down towards the Orinoco. In that way we also get our share of Plan Colombia.”

Rubber plantation

After one and a half day on the Iguana, we arrive at San Fernando de Atabapo, a sleepy nest along the border with Colombia where the Orinoco meets the Guaviare and Atabapo rivers. It is hard to imagine that this place used to be the capital of Amazonas state until 1928. There are about 4,000 people living here, coming from all directions, because the place is still an important trading center. Some Colombians from the other side of the river live here as well. “Each day we hear them shooting on the other side of the river”, says a bored soldier of the Guardia Nacional. About 100 Venezuelan soldiers are based here. Most people in San Fernando work for the municipality or for the state. Some of them sell gasoline for the boats and the generators in the region. All gasoline from PDVSA has to be shipped here.

After walking around the dull centre, we take a brand new bus out of town towards a rubber plantation. The bus is new, because it is one of the four or so busses in San Fernando that was financially supported by the state agency FONTUR. As soon as we leave the built up area, we drive on sandy roads with huge holes through dense jungle. These roads lead to nowhere; the few cars and minibuses in San Fernando were brought here by large cargo vessels over the Orinoco. After half an hour of shaking, we get to the rubber plantation, which is owned by the Venezuelan state company CVG. About 40,000 trees are waiting to be tapped. The plantation provides work for about 100 people, who daily tap about 8,000 liters of rubber from the trees. The white, sticky liquid that is slowly dripping out of the barks of the trees is collected in little baskets, which are tied to the trees. “The rubber is used for gloves and condoms,” according to Lucho. “There is a factory in Puerto Ayacucho.”

According to him, prices for rubber are good at the moment. That used to be different, after an Englishman stole some rubber trees and managed to smuggle them out of the region more than hundred years ago. Since then, cheaper rubber was produced in Malaysia, although the rubber tree has its origin in the Amazon basin. The capital of the Brazilian Amazonas region, Manaus, got its fame and wealth from the rubber production in the area.

Cassave and a bible

The next day we disembark for an hour or so in a tiny hamlet of about eight huts, circled around a grassy soccer field. The people living here are Curipaco-Indians. In one of the houses, an old Indian woman is preparing cassava bread. She is spreading the cassava pulp on a huge metal plate, which she holds above the fire in the corner of her hut. It is almost pitch dark inside, and for somebody as unaccustomed as me, almost unbearably smoky. “The smoke it good for the roof”, according to Lucho. “It seals the roof. After some months, the people usually move to another corner of their hut.” A little boy appears with a sloth, one of the strangest and shyest animals I have ever seen. Its eyes are almost invisible. The sloth makes a terrible high, scary sound. Usually, it just hangs around in a tree for the better part of the day.

Before we leave, we buy some cassava bread from the old woman. Outside, more of the bread is drying in the sun on a huge cassavera, a sort of long table where the Indians put their bread. Cassave, made out of yucca, is the staple food here in the jungle. Up to 70 percent of the diet of the people can be yucca products. Apart from that, they eat a lot of hunted meat, fruits from the jungle, and bananas from their conucos.

We take a walk around the village. Most of the people are gone to their conuco in the jungle, to work their field. We can just walk into whichever house we like: some of them have no walls, only a roof. The people here sleep in hammocks, and they own surprisingly little. In one of the houses, I see a cassava plate, some charcoal-black pots, a few shorts, a blowing pipe which is used to blow the curare, little poisonous arrows while hunting, and the only paper in the house: a bible. That`s all. People here still live in an almost self-sustaining way.

Only with special permit

During the next days, time has acquired a different meaning. I start to understand the family of one of our two captains, who live further down south, along the Casiquiare. This family is traveling home, by boat. The trip takes five, six days. Who cares? Time comes and time goes. We visit different villages along the rivers, each of them occupied by different ethnic groups. Amazonas consists of more than of dozen different groups in total. Each of the ethnic groups has its own, completely different language. None of these groups are larger than 12,000 people. The whole state of Amazonas has only about 120.000 inhabitants. You can only travel here with a special permit; we are more or less guests of the indigenous people living here. This is their territory, more than ever since the new constitution of 1999. This constitution explicitly gives the rights of the ancestral lands to the indigenous people living on it. Lucho understands this. “This is our land”, he says. “We can do with it, what we want. We can construct our hoses where we want, we can fish and hunt where we want to. It is our place.”

Illegal mines shut down

One of the places where people used to do what they want, but where things have changed, is the mining village of Karida. The village lies on the southern shore of the Cerro Yapacana, an isolated table mountain which mysteriously elevates itself from the vast, damp jungle. Though the southern side of the river is not protected, the northern side is: the cerro Yapacana lies in a national park with the same name.

The moment we disembark in Karida, a few young guys from the Guardia Nacional (GN) approach us. What are we doing here? Just looking around, that’s not forbidden, or is it? No it isn’t, but the atmosphere in the village is tense, as we soon find out. The roughly 200 inhabitants of the village seem to be hanging around, without anything to do. “The Guardia Nacional closed down our mines a few weeks ago,” says one of the men sitting outside his palm reed hut. Inside, a television plays loud. Next to him, an Indian put a bottle of Santana Teresa rum up to his mouth. A few seconds later, one third of the bottle is empty. Burp.

Corrupt Guardia Nacional

From the miners in the village, we understand that the whole batch of GN that used to be in the village until a few weeks ago was exchanged for a completely new one. The reason: the old group of the GN was utterly corrupt and involved in the gold smuggling. It didn’t seem to bother the miners that much, because it gave them the possibility to keep on mining. The new group of GN seems to be here to enforce the law. “A few months, then they are just as corrupt as the former ones”, says Lucho, when we walk on.

Gold nugget that is worth about 100,000 bolivars or $50.
Credito: Ronald de Hommel

A bit further on we drink a cup of coffee with Rosaura, a lady of about 40 years who makes her coffee on a fire in an old oil drum. Flies buzz around, sweat drips from our heads. “In this village we didn`t have money, we used to pay with gold nuggets”, she says. A Brazilian garimpeiro (gold miner) appears in the door of the hut next door. He shows us a tiny gold nugget. “It is the last one I found”, he says. “It is worth about 100,000 Bolivares. Most of the gold is brought to Puerto Irinida, just over the border in Colombia. There, nobody cares where it comes from. In Venezuela, if the GN catches you with the gold, you are sure to lose it.” The Brazilian does not see a future for him in this village anymore. “Now that the mine is closed, I am thinking about leaving. There are enough other mines in the region.” Another woman joins us, with a three week old baby. It doesn’t have a name yet. Did the doctor help her to give birth? “There is no doctor here, no Cubans, nobody. We did it ourselves. The closest doctor is in San Fernando, hours and hours away on the river.”

When we walk back to our boat, Lucho points at a few pale-skinned women. “Colombians”, he says. “There are many prostitutes here, and there usually is a lot of violence in these villages. Nobody will help you, you’re on your own. Being a miner is a very tough life.”

I am a missionary

A few days later, we arrive at Tamatama, a small missionary post close to the point where the Orinoco river joins the Casiquiare. As usual, the Guardia Nacional wants to know who we are and what we want to do. The local commander, Jaime Ramirez, has been stationed here for two years already. “Most of the soldiers staying here hate this place. It is too quiet for them, especially if they grew up in the city.” So how is life in a place like Tamatama, counting maybe 80 inhabitants? “It is fine. We have everything we need. There is a small airstrip behind, and thanks to the American missionaries here we have electricity. They have huge generators, and donate the electricity to the village. Thanks to them, we even have DirectTV. If there is something to complain about, then it’s the mosquitoes. And sometimes food supplies are not so good. They are constructing a Mercal now in La Esmeralda, a village close to here. That will make things better.” What is his opinion about the missionaries? “They are OK. They have been here for years, and their Spanish is good. We are a mix of people anyway. We have Ye´kwana Indians, Piaroa Indians, a bit further down the river there are the Yanomami and there are criollos.”

I leave Martinez behind at its military post and walk through the grassy land of Tamatama. The place looks different, even strange, in this region full of indigenous groups. The few villages that we saw during the days before were mainly situated in the middle of the jungle, but Tamatama is located on a large, sunny patch of grassland. The place has an almost Northern American feeling about it, with large houses and a few storage halls. This is not so strange, since the place used to be inhabited by about ten American families, the majority of them missionaries. Now, there are less of them. Why? After passing some empty houses, I walk into the house of Matthew Cochran, a white, red-haired man in his forties, who is busy with helping an ill baby as I enter. He is talking an incomprehensive language to the mother of the baby: Ye´kwane, he tells me later. The baby is suffering from prickly heat. Am I in a medical post here? “No, no, I am a missionary, from a Baptist church, although, to be honest, I do not even know myself from which branch exactly. But concerning the baby: I know a bit about health, that is why I am helping people, just as anybody would do. There are no doctors here, a few villages further down the rivers there are some Cuban doctors.”

Matthew Cochran offers me a chair and tells me about his life. “My parents are from the USA, where I lived the first five years of my life, in Michigan. But I grew up here. I played football with the boys from the village. I even speak their language. I studied in the USA, but I feel at home here. Tamatama is a beautiful place, we have all we need. Things are even getting better here all the time. Especially when the Mercal will be finished in La Esmeralda, although it was supposed to be ready a year ago already. But in general, people here have what they need. The municipality wants to start with the Mision Robinson here as well, but we do not need it here.”

Cochran tells me that most of the American families that used to live here, moved away about three years ago because of fears for Colombian rebels spilling over into Venezuelan territory, during the height of Plan Colombia. “That is also the reason why we, as missionaries, changed our storage post from Puerto Ayacucho, on the border with Colombia, to Puerto Ordaz, which is much further inland.” I tell Cochran that according to rumors, the Americans are not there because they are missionaries, but because of the supposed presence of uranium near Tamatama. According to Cochran however, this is an absurd story. “We have been here for more than thirty years. The Guardia Nacional is here as well. If we were here to get uranium, they should have known that by now.”

Just as I am about to talk with him about his work as a missionary, one of the boatmen comes over to pick me up, because we have to move onward. Back on board, I ask Lucho his opinion about the missionaries. “I do not like them”, he says. “Why are they here? Look at the Yanomami. They used to have their own religion. Then the missionaries came. Now some of them are Catholics, some of them are Evangelicals, and some still have their original faith. What is the result of this? Division between the Yanomami. What is it good for?”

Part II of the expedition through Amazonas