Venezuela: indigenous protest for land rights

A delegation of some 60 members of the Yukpa indigenous group from Venezuela’s western Sierra de Perijá held a rally in Caracas Nov. 7, protesting violent aggression against their communities by cattle ranchers who covet their traditional lands near the Colombian border. Community leaders charged that seven Yukpa men have been have been killed this year at the hands of ranchers or their sicarios (hired assassins) in the municipality of Machiques, Zulia state. Ironically, the violence escalted after the government granted Yukpa communities title to their traditional lands last December. Ranchers claim they never received the 250 million bolivars ($58 million) pledged them by the government as compensation for contested lands. “The title to the land has been granted to us, but it hasn’t been enforced because the cattle ranchers still live on our territory, and there are still massacres occurring in our community,” said Yukpa leader Zenaida Romero, who still carries a bullet from a recent attack. The Yukpa are demanding direct talks with Minister of Indigenous Peoples Aloha Nuñez  to resolve the issue.

The Yukpa have seen their territory dwindle over the past genertions as cattle ranchers encroach on their lands. “They outright massacred us, and now we live in the higher parts, in the mountains, and the landowners have taken all the flat land from us,” said Romero. Efforts to recover lands now officially titled to the Yukpa have met with continued violence by the ranchers, who consider the indigenous families to be land invaders.

Venezuela’s indigenous peoples have won significant gains under the Hugo Chávez government, including article 119 of the Constitution that grants them the right to the lands that they “ancestrally and traditionally occupy.” But some indigenous leaders, especially in the Sierra de Perijá, charge that government development plans conflict with indigenous land claims. (VenezuelAnalysis, Nov. 8; Venezolana de Televisión, Nov 7; Kaos en La Red, Nov. 6)