Mérida, August 28, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- Responding to President Chávez’s instructions last Sunday, Venezuelan government officials promised this week to accelerate the granting of land titles to Yukpa indigenous communities who have occupied private estates to demand their constitutional right to ancestral lands. The officials also promised to investigate attacks by hired hit men against the Yukpa.
However, the officials also reiterated requests that the Yukpa abandon the land occupations and return to the negotiating table, something the Yukpa say is impossible because of continued death threats orchestrated by elite landowners against indigenous chiefs.
According to Yukpa spokespeople, peaceful negotiations continue to be impeded by regional security officials who remain complicit toward attacks against the Yukpa and cut off humanitarian aid and media access to the occupied lands.
On Tuesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado announced that the federal land demarcation commission would meet this week to advance the demarcation process, which she assured is already 70% completed.
“All of this work has been underway, but of course it is necessary that it be accelerated and worked on permanently,” Maldonado told the state television station VTV.
Maldonado has consistently opposed the occupation of private lands, which began after negotiations stalled last year. Five Yukpa leaders also oppose the occupations and support the minister, advocating “respect for the White Man's law.”
Maldonado and the Vice Minister in charge of indigenous issues in the region, Norelys González, urged the Yukpa to return to the negotiating table.
“The indigenous people know that the Bolivarian government is the only one that has recognized their rights,” Maldonado said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Minister of the Interior and Justice, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, assured that federal officials are investigating the attacks against the Yukpa and the National Guard’s detention and beating of the leaders a humanitarian delegation sponsored by the federal student loan program last Friday.
The minister emphasized that out of thousands of Yukpa who live in the region, between 200 and 300 are currently occupying the privately owned lands, “but they are being treated like they are two or three thousand.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s top Public Defender, Gabriela Ramírez, confirmed that the national constitution and the Indigenous Peoples Law favor the Yukpa, since the two documents clearly obligate the government to demarcate indigenous lands and compensate the previous landowners for their losses.
But the Yukpa who are occupying lands remain skeptical that talking will benefit their struggle for the lands that were violently stolen from them in the second half of the 20th century.
“We do not trust the military officials in the state of Zulia,” said María Fernández, a Yukpa spokesperson, in an interview with a municipal television station in Caracas this week. “Send a reinforcement... but not to attack the community and the pregnant women, not to use weapons of war against us,” she demanded.
“We want you to get the hit men out of the Sierra de Perijá, since they are in charge of the large estates... we want the ministers who are in the cabinet of Hugo Chávez Frías to work,” Fernández pleaded.
Fernández explained why she and other spokespeople, not Yukpa chiefs, were sent to Caracas to defend the Yukpa struggle this week.
“The chiefs are threatened in the Sierra de Perijá, that is why they are not present and they have not shown their faces, because they have been threatened that those who go to Caracas will be killed,” Fernández told state news reporters.
Yukpa spokesperson Deisy González Romero expressed her community’s disillusionment with the land demarcation process managed by the government in conjunction with the elite landowners.
“We are not leaving here, in fact we are now demarcating [our lands] for ourselves. We do not want the cattle ranchers to be demarcating for us, because if they do, they will give us 50 meters and we do not want that,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
Ecologist allies of the Yukpa struggle, also interviewed by the state media in Caracas this week, said regional officials in Zulia support the exploitation of the vast mineral deposits in Yukpa lands, which is why they will continue to oppose and sabotage the process of land demarcation.
“The Venezuelan state has handed over the entire Sierra de Perijá to [state mining corporation] Corpozulia to exploit coal... and another part is handed over to the North American transnational coal companies,” explained Lusbi Portillo, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Zulia who has worked with the indigenous peoples of the region for more than two decades.
Despite President Hugo Chávez’s decisive declaration of support for the Yukpa last Sunday and positive steps taken by federal officials this week, the situation in the Sierra de Perijá remains tense.