Amazonas, Venezuela's Forgotten State, Part II

The state of Amazonas in the south of Venezuela is the most unexplored region of the country. Travelling the rivers in Amazonas still has the character of an expedition. This is the second of two parts of Amazonas stories, about a unique water channel, the famous Yanomami people and modern-day politics.

By Jeroen Kuiper –
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The state of Amazonas in the south of Venezuela is the most unexplored region of the country. Travelling the rivers in Amazonas still has the character of an expedition. This is the second of two parts of Amazonas stories, about a unique water channel, the famous Yanomami people and modern-day politics. Today part II: sailing down the Casiquiare and the Rio Negro.

Click here for Part I

A few miles behind Tamatama, our boat comes to the point where the Orinoco lets off about one third of its water into the Casiquiare channel. Here we leave the Orinoco, and enter the Casiquiare, a smaller, but still quite broad river. This is the stretch that was made famous by the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled the area 205 years ago. He was the first one to find out that the river basins of the Orinoco and the Amazonas, two of the world’s largest rivers, are connected by a water channel: the Casiquiare, which is also called the bifurcation.

This part of the route is one of the most uninhabited areas. We see no villages for hours. We haven`t passed a boat for days. Here, we are alone with the jejenes. Every now and then, a few parrots leave the tree tops. I see king fishers flying low above the river. The jungle is full of sounds, but I do not see the animals.

The fierce people

The next day, we pass the deserted hamlet of Capibara, where a few families used to live, but who moved to La Esmeralda, where their kids can attend a school. We sail along the entrance to the laguna of Pasiba, where in the dry season American tourists are brought to, on fishing trips. We pass Momoni, a hamlet of two houses, where a few Geral Indians live. Thousands of lemon-colored butterflies are circling over the river water. In the afternoon, we get to one of the places I have been really looking for. In the distance, I see the village of Viriunaveteri, one of the westernmost villages of the famous Yanomami people.

Many books have been written about these people, and most of these books have put the Yanomami in an almost mythological perspective. Some of the anthropologists, however, who described them, are in deep conflict with the Venezuelan state now. The most famous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who described the Yanomami in his book The Fierce People as a sort of beautiful but savage people, is not allowed entry into the country anymore. According to Lucho, the same goes for Kenneth Good, an American anthropologist who lived for about twelve years with the Yanomami and then returned to the USA with his Yanomami wife Yarima. The two are divorced now, however, and Yarima is supposed to have returned to Venezuela.

When we arrive at Viriunaveteri, the question is who is looking at whom. On the bank of the Casiquiare river, dozens of barely dressed Yanomami appear, staring at us westerners, dressed in long pants. Most of the Yanomami men wear shorts and nothing else. The women wear skirts; the majority of them are bare-breasted. Most of the women and the girls wear the typical sticks around their mouth: two are pinched on each side, one under the under lip. They wear a stick in their nose as well.

The governor is coming to buy our votes

The village of Viriunaveteri consists of 13 large houses thatched with palm leaves, around an open, muddy square. Although there are about 150 inhabitants, there is no shop. “We don’t need one”, says Guillermo, the captain of the village. He is the sort of man you don’t want to get in trouble with. Guillermo has three wives, and even more kids. He tells me there is no doctor in the village either; but a Yanomami school teacher they have. He teaches both Spanish and Yanomami. The people in the village live from hunting and fishing, and the food which they collect in the jungle. Apart from that, they have their conuco as well, slashed pieces of jungle which they use for agriculture. On the conucos, the Yanomami grow bananas, yucca and tobacco. For the next day, the village is expecting Liborio, the governor of Amazonas, because he is on an election tour. Why is he coming here? “He will bring a motor for our boats”, says Guillermo. “He is coming to buy our votes.”

We enter one of the huts of the Yanomami. In the darkness, I see a wooden rack with a small fire under it. Once my eyes are accustomed to the light, I recognize the meat of slaughtered bakiro, or swine. I see the tail of an armadillo as well. Most of the meat has turned black. “It needs at least 24 hours to be smoked”, says an old man, lying in his hammock. “The swine is very fresh; we hunted six of them this morning. There are many of them here. We hunt swine, monkeys, small deer and water rabbits.” We decide to buy two big legs, which are still standing around in a bucket, for 20.000 Bolivares.

The hut is full of hammocks; I count at least eight of them. Most of them are occupied with Yanomami of all ages. They do not seem to care about privacy. The old man starts to cough and spit at the floor. I notice a sort of small pepper vase hanging next to his hammock. “It contains yoppo, a drug made out of herbs”, according to Lucho. The men blow it through a pipe into each others’ nostrils. “Do you want to try?”

Outside it is getting dark, and we decide to return. That night, Natalia tells me that there are about 12.000 Yanomami living in Venezuela, and another 11.000 in Brazil. During recent years, quite a lot of the Yanomami in Brazil have moved to Venezuela, because here they are protected better. In Brazil, many Yanomami are murdered by gold diggers in their territory. Many Brazilian gold prospectors have moved into the southeastern part of the state of Amazonas as well, traditionally the homeland of the Venezuelan Yanomami. That is why many of them moved westwards.

Natalia doesn’t really know what to think about the contacts which the Yanomami have with the outside world. “Most of their contacts are with miners, politicians, or missionaries. I doubt whether these people will make the right impression on them about ‘our’ world. In many ways, their life is completely different from ours. If they have garbage, they just throw it away. It is easy to think that they do not care about the environment, but of course they do. It is just that they always used to throw their garbage away, because until recently they only had organic waste, which would rot away within a few days.”

Tourism ambassadors

The next day, we sail onwards past the mouth of the Siapa River and the village of Solano. About an hour later, we leave the Casiquiare and enter the Rio Negro. The name is right: the water really is very black here. We are back along the Colombian border now, and getting close to San Carlos de Rio Negro. As if to announce the closeness to San Carlos, the regional centre, suddenly three ships pass us within 20 minutes, while we haven’t seen a single boat for more than two days.

One hour later, on the left shore of the river, the first houses of San Carlos de Rio Negro appear. A strange feeling gets over me, as if I am visiting New York for the first time, though San Carlos is a very small place, it counts maybe about 2,000 inhabitants. Already from the distance we hear the `big city sounds´ of San Carlos. When we are getting closer, we see that the noise is caused by PPT supporters: the current governor of Amazonas, Liborio, is expected to visit San Carlos the same afternoon. When we come into sight of the speakers close to the harbor, where a few hundred PPT supporters have congregated, we are warmly welcomed. “Ladies and gentlemen! Please give our governor a warm applause!” A few minutes later, the man behind the speaker turns out to be a real professional: “Excuse me! This is not the governor yet, but here are Lucho and Natalia, the tourism ambassadors of Amazonas!”

Half an hour later, Liborio really arrives in a speedboat. To celebrate his arrival, the organizing committee starts shooting fireworks over the river, in the direction of San Felipe, the Colombian border town. I hope on that side of the river the people will recognize it as friendly fire. Soldiers, kids and Liborio-supporters almost obstruct his way along the blue-painted cay, saying “Chávez y Liborio 4 anos mas.” (Chavez and Liborio 4 more years.)

On the dock of the bay, the election party really gets going now. Everybody is dressed in blue. Loud music blares through the town, quite a difference from the tranquility we were in during the last week. Liborio takes a seat under a palm-leaf hut, while he listens to the local politicians praising him and San Carlos. Then it is time for Liborio`s speech. He puts a lot of focus on his ethnic background. “I am the only indigenous governor of Venezuela! With the new constitution, for the first time in more than 300 years we have indigenous representatives in the Parliament! That is why we want to continue with the MVR! That is why I ask for your vote.”

Although Liborio is not part of Chávez’s political party, the MVR, on the national level his party PPT is in a coalition with them. Here in Amazonas, the situation is different, however. The PPT is in a clinch with MVR, but still, Chávez decided to support Liborio as his candidate.

Hugging like Chávez

After his speech, I get the chance to talk to Liborio while we are walking in the direction of the local church. While I am asking Liborio how many of the Misiones have arrived in Amazonas already, an old woman comes up to him and whispers her problems into his ears. Liborio puts his hand into his jacket, gets out 10.000 Bolivares, hugs the woman in a Chávez-like way and off she goes. We make a stop in front of the statue of Simon Bolivar, in the middle of the square, surrounded by National Guard and party supporters. “The Misiones are here”, says Liborio. “At least some of them. We do have Cuban doctors in different villages, though not everywhere yet where we want them. You should not forget that this is a special state. Distances are very long, and it is not easy to get the misiones everywhere. Apart from that, we do not have the same health problems here as in the barrios of the big cites in the north. Also with the educational missions, such as Robinson and Ribas, we have our challenges. Under the new constitution, each ethnic group has the right to education in its own language. That means that we had to produce all the materials within a very short time into all of the different languages that the Indians speak here.”

What does he want to do against the illegal mining in Amazonas? “To be honest, we haven’t seen a coordinated policy against it from the national level. It often is unclear who is responsible for fighting the illegal mines, be it the GN, the state police, the Ministries… But it is clear that we have to stop it. It is not only bad for the environment, it also creates a lot of negative side effects, such as health problems and corruption. The most important thing is that we create alternative sources of income for the people here. One of the economic activities of the future here should be tourism. And we want to develop the region as a gateway for trade in the direction of Brasil. We should become the entry port for Mercosur.” Which are the most important problems in the region? “Apart from the mining, many people have problems with the supply of gasoline. We want to improve the supplies. And we want to make a real city out of San Carlos. We should open a bank and improve the airstrip.”

This is how it feels

Before San Carlos turns into that real city, some more decades will have to pass and several billions of liters of water will have to flow down the Rio Negro. Maybe it would be the best if the sleepy place stays as it is. A place, where Indians quietly arrive in their bongo, while the sun sets over neighboring Colombia.

Liborio is already long gone, when the music of the election team still blares over the Rio Negro. In the distance, three drunken men swagger across the street. The sun is setting deeper. A bit later, another man suddenly slaps his wife in the face, who angrily walks away, swearing at him. The sun is setting fast now.

The people in Liborio`s election team who are responsible for the music choice probably do not speak English. A blaring techno song keeps on repeating the same sentence: “This is how it feels / to fuck on cocaine”. It is almost dark now. The next morning I fly out of Amazonas.