Caracas, Oct 13 (IPS) – The Venezuelan government handed land titles to 41,600 hectares to three communities of around 500 Yukpa Indians on the western border with Colombia. However, the question of the demarcation of the broader ancestral territory of the entire ethnic group, made up of around 10,000 people, is still pending.
“This land belongs to those who for centuries were left out of any kind of development,” Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El Aissami said at the land titling ceremony on Monday. “It was not until the Bolivarian revolution led by President Hugo Chávez arrived that their rights were recognised.”
“A dream and a demand of the ‘pure’ Venezuelans has come true,” said Environment Minister Yuvirí Ortega, who announced that the three Yukpa communities were also receiving six trucks and 27 loans from the government, to enable them to grow crops, mainly coffee.
The Yukpa, who have communities in the border province of Cesar in northeastern Colombia, belong to the Carib language group and have traditionally made a living from subsistence farming, hunting and fishing.
The three communities, Tinacoa, Aroy and Shirapta, received titles to land located between the mountains in the Sierra de Perijá National Park – which marks part of the border with Colombia at the northwestern tip of Venezuela – and the flatlands occupied by ranchers near the city of Machiques, some 650 km west of Caracas.
Efraín Romero, spokesman for the Shirapta community, said they were committed to the development process being carried out by the Chávez administration, and told the ministers who took part in the ceremony to “tell the president that he can count on us and our votes” in future elections.
But the movement demanding legal recognition of a larger, continuous Yukpa territory is now divided. Communities comprised of around half of the ethnic group’s 10,000 members agreed to continue the struggle for the demarcation of a territory for all of the Yukpa people, rather than parcels for separate communities.
“We have to think of our children, who will grow up and will need flat farmland to grow their crops,” Yukpa activist Rafael Kikenshi, whose community is located on a steep hillside where the land is difficult to farm, said in the town of Tokuko.
Reina Uvirishe, a local native leader, insisted that the Yukpa need a demarcated territory stretching “from Toromo to Kishashamo” – communities in the north and south, respectively, of the area to which the group lays claim, which is now covered by some 50 farms and ranches.
The Yukpa are demanding a territory of 285,000 hectares, located between the Sierra de Perijá mountains and the fertile plains from which they were gradually driven in the 20th century by the expansion of cattle ranching and prospecting for oil.
The 1999 constitution, adopted after Chávez took office, requires the demarcation of indigenous territories. In the case of the Yukpa, whose land was systematically stolen from them over the past century, some communities have come down from the mountains in the past few years and occupied idle land on cattle ranches that they claim as their ancestral territory.
In the resulting conflict between the indigenous people and landowners in the area, Chávez instructed his ministers to find a solution.
The 1999 constitution, rewritten by an elected constituent assembly that included delegates of indigenous organisations, also stipulated for the first time that Congress must include representatives of native groups.
Sociologist Mauro Carrero, a member of the government’s land demarcation committee, said the property handed over to the three Yukpa communities Monday includes two farms and parts of five others, “which shows that allegations that we are giving the indigenous communities infertile, rocky land are false.”
Carrero added that the demarcation and land titling process would continue, and not only in the case of the Yukpa, but also with regard to the four other ethnic groups in northwest Venezuela: the Wayúu, Japreira, Añú and Barí, who represent a combined total of roughly 300,000 people.
But anthropologist Lusbi Portillo with Homo et Natura, an environmental group that works with indigenous people, told IPS that “by granting land titles to just three communities, the government is merely postponing the issue, while failing to solve the underlying problem.”
The first problem, he said, is that the majority of the Yukpa are demanding the demarcation of one large territory for the entire Yukpa people, rather than separate areas for different communities, “which means some groups will continue to pressure ranches that they consider to be part of their ancestral territory.”
In second place, “the government has not recognised agreements negotiated since the 1990s among all of the groups involved in the conflict, which were confirmed at a meeting between ranchers and indigenous people in March, under which the government was to pay the farmers and ranchers for improvements on their land (as well as compensation for the property itself) when it is purchased and given to the indigenous groups.”
“The government has refused to recognise or pay for improvements on the land, and the ranchers are thus refusing to withdraw, which means the conflict will continue over the remaining 85 percent of the land claimed by more than 90 percent of the Yukpa,” said Portillo.
According to Rubén Darío Barboza, president of the local ranching federation, the indigenous occupations of land have affected milk production, because the area in question produces 200,000 litres of milk a year. The area is a major producer of beef and dairy products, of which Venezuela is a net importer.
The third problem, said Portillo, is that “under this system, the indigenous communities are receiving land that has not been formally expropriated and titled, besides the fact that under their territory lie coal deposits that the state would like to exploit in the future, and to which it has granted concessions, although the mining projects have not begun because of the indigenous people’s opposition to the destruction of their land.”
Besides granting communal land titles to indigenous groups like the Yukpa, the government has issued identity cards – through a programme named Mission Identity – to nearly 300,000 of the country’s roughly 500,000 indigenous people, who belong to 32 different ethnic groups.