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Conflicts and Conundrums: How the Venezuelan State Must Strike the Balance With its Indigenous People

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To the west of the country, the Sierra de Perijá, a stretch of both mountains and plains, traces the conflictive border zone between Colombia and Venezuela. The region's inhabitants are, today, a mixture of indigenous groups, cattle farmers, both rich and humble, and the inevitable generational pool of all three. Although historical indigenous territory, colonisation saw the settlement and growth of private, large-scale agriculture and farming, hence reasserting occidental dictates in usages of land. This meant that production was channelled towards profit rather than sustainability, thus prioritising the values of cattle ranching over traditional indigenous practices.

In the year 1999, Hugo Chavez' government inaugurated Venezuela's new constitution, freshening up political and anthropological takes on minority and indigenous populations, granting for the first time constitutional recognition and institutional backing in order to protect and defend ethnic and cultural diversity, The indigenous were promised autonomous indigenous territory, a necessary undertaking if cultural and social practices were to be maintained. In effect, there is little point in defending culture if the land where this culture is traditionally practised has been usurped by alien understandings of land and society, as has been the case in the Sierra de Perijá. Thus, in line with the law, at the start of 2002, procedures began to demarcate indigenous Yukpa territory, identifying 25 large haciendas and other smaller-scale farms in the same area that no longer were legitimate. The deal was to buy out the land owners, in payments called bienhechurías, and relocate them to non-indigenous territory.

The new laws have caused both controversy and resistance, creating a conflict as uncomfortable as any thorn in the thigh of a government under questioning. Uprooting the economical elite meant toying with the premises of production and the historical political make up of the region that had always favoured the interests and ambitions of the cattle ranchers. Severing international business ties with important families such as the Rockefellers and the Brillenbourgs in support of a minority group that fishes and cultivates just enough produce to survive is never going to go down well in the country clubs, no matter how much of their freshly milked milk is poured into their coffee.

However, despite the wave of discontent expressed amongst the cattle ranchers, those who have created the greatest stir have been the indigenous. The tardiness of the law's implementation has frustrated the more militant branches of the Yukpa people, who feel that four hundred years of domination has been more than enough time to wait for their land to be returned and for their people to recover years from of enslavement. Confident they now have a government that backs their needs, yet, reluctant to remain subservient to cattle ranching until all the bienhechurías have been paid, groups have taken over farms and chased out numerous land owners who found themselves within the newly drawn out indigenous territory. The latter, when sufficiently wealthy, have been reported to have hired paid assassins to attack back at the occupations, resulting in several instances of heavy crossfire, such as was the case in the Medellin farm roughly a month ago. Although the indigenous affected have travelled up to Caracas to denounce the shootings, the incidents have yet to be chased up in court. To date, the majority of the payments still need to be made, a situation that has done little to appease relations between the indigenous and the farmers. Both parties express that until all transactions are finalised, neither will let go of what each in turn believe to be rightfully theirs.

To further complicate the situation, rumours are running of potential plans to exploit reserves of carbon and uranium buried in the soil of the Sierra de Perijá. Local opinion is strongly against the mining, as is of course indigenous sentiment, which, considering the current struggle, would be further antagonised if the Yukpa were thereafter forced to leave their land to allow for its exploitation. As to whether the government is in support of the mining is still up for debate. So far president Hugo Chavez has stressed that unless sufficient evidence is presented proving that there are indeed extensive reserves of carbon, the Sierra would be left alone. So far there exists no such survey. Nonetheless, the threat remains.

What Venezuela currently faces is a dilemma also known and lived by many other neighbouring Latin countries, wherein the need for progress and development essential to guarantee national sovereignty and economic might is challenged by the equally important endeavour to safeguard the environment, natural resources and the indigenous populations that inhabit the same regions. Evo Morales of Bolivia knows this plight all too well. In order to access the country's reserves of natural gas so as to administer the supplies themselves instead of a foreign company doing so, the construction of an important high way was proposed, passing through Bolivia's forests whilst also displacing indigenous groups living in the area. Considering Morales stands as an indigenous president in defence of indigenous rights and interests, he soon was heavily criticised and lost considerable support. Road work has since begun whilst Morales' supporters now fear the outcome of the following elections.

Back in Venezuela, Yukpa leader Sabino Romero, a determined figure leading the fight for demarcation, already having been unjustly imprisoned once and demonised as a murderer, rapist and guerrilla by certain private media groups, believes that the government, on having pronounced its stand on indigenous rights and after having designed the appropriate legislative support for the struggle through its constitution, cannot and may not turn back on itself, with or without a threat of carbon exploitation. Defending what rightfully belongs to the indigenous from the standpoint of a socialist government that favours human growth over capital growth is what many continue to expect of the Venezuelan state. Still, considering the current international arena, ensuring Venezuela's economic growth and sustainability is also important if the very same socialist values wish to be maintained. A productive national economy means that there is less reliance on external management, a dynamic that is forever embedded with innumerable political conditions. The question for the state today is; what is easier to sacrifice, people or production?