VENEZUELA'S DEBT TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
What the Boliviarian Revolution Owes the Yukpa and Bari
by Sybila Tabra and Jorge Agurto, Servindi
Amid the homages that pay tribute to the late Hugo Chávez, we cannot forget the historical debt that the Venezuelan state has to the territorial claims of the Yukpa and Bari peoples, whose leader, Sabino Romero, was brutally assassinated March 3 by sicarios (hired killers) that respresent the interests of various sectors that occupy their ancestral territories.
The Yukpa people inhabit the Sierra de Perijá, on both sides of the frontier that divides Venezuela (Zulia state) and Colombia (César department). The original territory of the Yukpas extended from the valley of the Río César to the shores of Lake Maracaibo. During the 20th century, the Yukpa and Bari people were dispossessed of their territory by cattlemen, industrial mining, and oil exploitation—all legalized and legitimized by the Venezuelan state.
The Yukpa people continue to be threatened by these activities even now—especially by the exploitation of coal, and the emergence of a sicariato (campaign of assassination) on the part of ranchers against indigenous leaders.
The Yukpa Struggle
The Yukpa people speak a language of the northern branch of the Carib linguistic family. They have been struggling throughout several decades for the recovery of their ancestral lands. In the '90s they began a very complex process to recuperate their ancestral territory, at the cost of confrontations with the government, the army, the police, and detentions and assasinations exectued by the sicarios of the cattlemen. In 1997, then-president Rafael Caldera agreed that the national government as well as the regional government of Zulia state should pay compensation for all the haciendas and parcels the Yukpa were seeking to recover their usurped space.
The convention set out a timetable that was also extended to the Bari indigenous group. Payments began to the haciendas El Trébol y Los Chorros.
But with the arrival of Hugo Chávez in the presidency of the Republic, the executive decalred, through the National Commission for the Demarcation of Habitat and Indigenous Lands, that demarking lands did not mean the payment of compensation to the haciendas.
Then, the process of land demarcation—due to pressures brought by the ranchers and land-owners—was halted on two occassions, and prolonged for seven years, from 2004 to Dec. 15, 2011.
On Oct. 12, 2009, President Hugo Chávez delivered titles to 41,600 hectares to three communities of some 500 Yukpa in the Sierra de Perijá. Among them, the communities of Tinacoa, Aroy and Shirapta received plots of land located between Sierra de Perijá National Park—which sits on the Colombian border in the extreme west—and flatlands occupied by ranchers near the city of Machiques.
Additionally, six trucks and agricultural credits were delivereds for the Yukpa beneficiaries to encourage cultivation of coffee.
But the demarcation provoked a split in the indigenous movement, because it left unresolved the demarcation of the entire territory claimed by the ethnicity, made up of some 10,000 peoples.
The anthropologist Lusbi Portillo told Inter-Press Servince (IPS) that "with the partial delivery of titles to three communities, the government is simply 'covers the wrinkle' [corre la arruga, puts off a solution], and does not resolve the cardinal problems."
"This government has refused to recognize or pay compensation, and therefore the ranchers will refuse to let go; therefore, the conflict will continue for the remaining 85% of the claimed land, and more than 90% of the Yupas," concluded Portillo.
The Continuing Struggle for Integral Demarcation
In the zone of Tokuko, southwest of Machiques, are communities that make up nearly half of the indigenous population. They are committed to continue struggling for an integral delimitation of Yukpa territory.
The community leader Reina Uvirishe told IPS that the demarcation should go form Toromo to Kishashamo, communities on the north and south of the claimed territory—over which half a hundred farms and haciendas owned by criollos (whites of pure Spanish background) have proliferated.
The area claimed by the Yukpas amounts to 285,000 hectares, stretching from the foothills of the Perijá to the flatlands.
A part of the Yukpa people has decided since 2008 to carry out their own demarcation and to recuperate their ancestral lands through the occupation of six haciendas. Among these communities was that of Chaktapa, whose leader was the recently assassinated Sabino Romero.
Two days after the land titling, the indigenous caciques (chieftains) who had accepted the lands granted by the government of Hugo Chávez attacked Sabino and his family, leaving the leader injured, along with two of his sons and a grand-daughter. A son-in-law of Sabino was killed.
Then, dozens of social organizations complained that the government had fragmented the communities through clientelist manipulation of housing programs, the purchase of trucks and the granting of credits to the communal councils integrated into its "Plan Yukpa."
In addition, they noted that it had not complied with the free, prior and informed consultation in the technical reports on the demarcation, a fundamental process required by the regulations in force in the country.
The environmental group Homo et Natura maintains that the government cannot comply with the territorial rights of the indigenous peoples of Orinoco Delta, the Amazon or the Sierra de Perijá, because these vital spaces are already delivered to transnational energy and mineral interests.
This has been the case since Nov. 12, 2003, when President Hugo Chávez announced at El Menito, Lagunillas (a municipality in Zulia), the tripling of coal exploitation to 36 million metric tons annually in territories inhabited by different aboriginal peoples, according to a report in the publication El Libertario.
One of the leaders who headed the mobilization to reject the expansion of mega-mining in the region was Sabino Romero, who also directed his efforts to demand an integral demarcation and titling of indigenous territories, rather than a fragmented one.
The Price of the Yukpa People's Struggle
The violation of rights of the Yukpa people and the violence against their leaders has not gone unnoticed by James Anaya, Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) of the Organization of American States (OAS).
On Aug. 22, 2008, during a day of mobilizations by the Yukppas, 50 troops of the Bolivarian Army fired some 200 shots to scatter a hundred families and bar access to some 30 social activists who had been bringing food and medicine.
President Hugo Chávez pronounced on state radio during his weekly "Aló Presidente" program in favor of the Yukpa, and promised to take up again the process of demarcating Yukpa land and territory, and payment to the haciendas.
Nonetheless, three years later, with the delivery of the final titles on Dec. 15, 2011, the Yukpa people had still not even acquired the first hacienda. From Aug. 13 to 20, Yukpa families had occupied the hacienda El Rincón, an action that generated many acts of violence on the part of the ranchers. Several indigenous residents of Toromo community were injured, including Abraham Romero (60 years old), Rodrina Romero (60), Luz Marina Romero, Redrina Romero and Juan Carlos Montiel Montiel (28).
The government ordered the security forces—the army, police and Bolivarian National Guard—to safeguard and protect the physical integrity of families occupying the haciendas, and also ordered an investigation into the attacks on the Yukpa.
On Dec. 19, 2011, at the land parcel Las Flores, La Estrella sector, Yukpa native Darío Segundo García Fernández, 32, was assassinated. The brothers Alberto Fernández Fernández (20) and Gerardo Fernández Fernández (19) were wounded, as was the son of Anita Fernández, cacique of the neighboring community of Kuse.
None of these attacks were investigated; neither were the assassinations with firearms of Wilfrido Romero and Lorenzo Romero, Yukpa youths, in the same ranching sector.
A Destiny Committed to His People
Sabino Romero was imprisoned for 17 months thanks to an arbitrary judgement, the fruit of fabricated evidence and a base of suppositions. In the end, he was declared innocent on May 10, 2011 by Judge Antonio Moreno Matheus of Trujillo state of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. [The charges concerned internal Yukpa violence related to the conflict over whether to accept the government's land offer.]
But on March 3, 2013 the Yukpa leader was assassinated in an ambush in the Sierra de Perijá on his way to Chaktapa community for a meeting to elect a new cacique mayor. According to witnesses, sicarios on a motorcyle shot him to death, also wounding Lucía, his life partner.
The assassination—with the perpetrators unknown, as in previous crimes and aggressions against the Yukpa people—has cut down the voice of de Sabino Romero, but not the debt that the Bolivarian Revolution has to the historic territorial claims of his ancestral people.
This article first appeared March 14 on Servindi, Peru.
Translated by World War 4 Report.
Photo of indigneous march in Caracas via Servindi.
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Reprinting permissible with attribution