Conflicts Between Indigenous Politicians and Conservationists in the Upper Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve


On August 1, 1991, the largest biosphere reserve in the tropical world was created in the Upper Orinoco region of southern Venezuela. The creation of the Upper Orinoco Biosphere Reserve (RBOAC), encompassing an area the size of Maine, was meant to protect the headwaters of the Orinoco River and the livelihoods of the two ethnic groups who live there, the Yanomami and Ye’kwana. Although established more than a decade ago, local and national officials have yet to develop a management plan to regulate activities within the reserve. The absence of any official regulations regarding the biosphere’s use has become a pretext to build airstrips and establish a military presence in the region. This has damaged the credibility of the conservation agencies in the minds of the indigenous people who live there.

Further complicating the situation, the area containing the reserve underwent political-administrative changes in the early 1990s. At that time, the central government in Caracas implemented political decentralization and granted Amazonas Federal Territory official statehood. This change catapulted the indigenous peoples of the Upper Orinoco into state and national politics. Although previously shut out of the political system, they were suddenly expected to elect officials to represent their administrative district.

One result of the new statehood is the emergence of a nascent indigenous political class that is increasingly critical of the biosphere reserve project. Its members claim that the Ministry of Environment, with the support of indigenous rights groups and the Catholic Church, is foisting isolation on the Indians—a situation the Ye’kwana and Yanomami no longer want. In response, the environmentalists contend that the indigenous politicians are no longer “real” indigenous people and are in the pocket of mining interests and other powerful politicians. This contentious situation is one in which each group questions the other, steadily undermining the legitimacy of both and providing no basis for the groups to work together.

A Biosphere Without Rules

According to the official decree creating the biosphere, responsibility for the administration of the reserve, along with the development of a zoning and regulation plan, fell to a government agency created in 1989 as an autonomous secretariat to the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment (MARNR). This organization, Servicio Autónomo para el Desarrollo Ambiental del Estado Amazonas (SADA-AMAZONAS), was charged with defending and conserving the environment of the state of Amazonas (at that time a Federal Territory) while ensuring that all development activity in the area was environmentally friendly. In conjunction with the creation of SADA-AMAZONAS, a research center, Centro Amazónico de Investigaciones Ambientales Alejandro de Humboldt (CAIAH), also was established in order to conduct basic scientific research and help make informed decisions about sustainable development initiatives in Amazonas (Garcia-Montero, 1993).

The presidential decree that created the reserve also mandated the completion of a management plan for the biosphere within two years. Furthermore, the decree stated that after an additional three years the area was to be completely demarcated. The original proposal explicitly stated that the indigenous people were to be consulted during the planning process. It also called for the implementation of small-scale development projects and public health programs specifically for their benefit. In order to meet these objectives, the Venezuelan government initiated a process to solicit funds from international donor agencies. With the protection of the largest biosphere in the tropical world at stake, SADA-AMAZONAS, along with CAIAH, secured funding of nearly $11 million: $2 million from the Agencia Español de Cooperación Internacional; $3 million from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ); and $6 million from the European Community for elaboration of the biosphere reserve zoning and management plan. These projects were envisioned to have follow-up phases funded by additional available money that would help manage the reserve.

The initial hopes of the early 1990s for the biosphere’s bright future gradually dimmed as time passed. As is typical with many development projects, buildings were constructed and hardware purchased, but there was little substantive progress in the development of a management plan. CAIAH, for example, built offices in La Esmeralda, Puerto Ayacucho, Santa Bárbara, San Carlos de Rio Negro, Tencua, and Ocamo, but conducted only a few preliminary scientific studies. By 1995, GTZ, which was funding CAIAH, withdrew from the project, alleging serious corruption and mismanagement by top SADA-AMAZONAS officials (Colchester, 1998). At the same time, the European Community funds for the biosphere management plan were slow in coming because the Venezuelan government’s promised contribution of $1.8 million (23 percent of the proposed costs) to help fund the project was not tendered. The Venezuelan government did not allocate its share until 1996. With a total of $8 million, $6.2 million from the European Community and $1.8 million from the Venezuelan government, the first phase of the project could finally begin.

Other than the construction of a few buildings in the state capital, it remains a mystery exactly how the money donated to the biosphere project was spent. Several Ye’kwana leaders in La Esmeralda explained that only a few meetings, ostensibly the mechanism for the involvement of the indigenous peoples in the development of the management plan, were held with them. To the Indians, one Ye’kwana teacher said, it was clear by the number of Toyota Land Cruisers and chartered airplane flights taken by SADA-AMAZONAS officials that most of the money “fue comido por los burócratas” (was eaten by the bureaucrats).

By 1998, when the first phase of the biosphere project ended, SADA-AMAZONAS planned to have the management and zoning plan completed. But no such plan emerged. When a European Community commission met with SADA-AMAZONAS in Puerto Ayacucho, the commission intended to provide another $2.6 million for the second phase of the biosphere project, which entailed the implementation and evaluation of the management plan. Since no plan existed, the European Community commission abruptly withdrew its funding of the project. The commission cited “unsatisfactory cooperation by the partner institution,” and the commission left Venezuela with the $2.6 million intended for the biosphere (El Nacional, 1998). Since that time, the European Community has granted no additional funding.

Development Within the Reserve

To some extent, changes in the national political scene in Venezuela contributed to SADA-AMAZONS difficulties. In 1994, a conservative and development-minded government led by Rafael Caldera replaced the relatively environmentally friendly government of Carlos Andres Peréz. One of the first policies of the new conservative administration was the Program for the Sustainable Development of the South (Programa para el Desarollo Sustentable del Sur, PRODESSUR). Ominously similar to CODESUR, a destructive development plan of the early 1970s, PRODESSUR set out under the auspices of the military to “reaffirm national sovereignty” by “integrating and organizing” the southern part of the country (República de Venezuela, 1996). Cloaked in thinly veiled rhetoric about sustainable development and respect for the indigenous populations, the project’s true intention was synthesized in the Tricolor Scorpion Strategy. This was an aggressive policy of frontier colonization that supported the building of air bases, fluvial routes, and roads. Platanal, a tiny mission settlement in the heart of Yanomami territory, was slated to become a self-sufficient frontier military post that would secure and defend these areas “empty of Venezolanidid (Venezuelaness)” (República de Venezuela, 1996). Clearly, the interests and integrity of the indigenous peoples, as well as the environment, were of little concern.

The change in government resulted in changes within SADA-AMAZONAS. Its director was replaced by Luis Gonzalez Herrera, an advocate of economic development. Gonzalez pushed for a strong development policy, citing the completion of the road between Puerto Ayacucho and San Fernando de Atabapo as his first goal as director (Colchester, 1998). SADA-AMAZONAS, created to protect Amazonas from uncontrolled development, was now spearheading road-building efforts. This turn of events outraged many within the Environment Ministry and led to a series of protests urging the replacement of Gonzalez. Eventually he was dismissed, but his replacement was also a pro-development advocate who had close ties to mining and logging interests.

This new leadership incorporated SADA-AMAZONAS and the European Community biosphere project into the PRODESSUR program. As originally envisioned, the biosphere project allowed for sustainable development; but this allowance was exploited in order to carry out development schemes in the Upper Orinoco. PRODESSUR proposed the building of a military command post in the indigenous community of La Esmeralda. The Ye’kwana and other indigenous groups living in La Esmeralda protested this decision. Nevertheless, in violation of their rights and counter to the most basic premises of the biosphere concept, the military built the command post. In addition, plans for a 2,700 foot asphalt runway that dissected the indigenous settlement were unveiled in La Esmeralda, where the Ye’kwana vehemently opposed the project. Most of the villagers would have to cross the runway on a daily basis to get from their village to the Orinoco. As an alternative, the Ye’kwana proposed building the runway on an open and flat savanna behind the village. The military ignored the Ye’kwana requests, however, because it wanted the runway positioned within easy access of the river.

Intrusion of State Politics

In July 1992, only one year after the creation of the biosphere reserve in the Upper Orinoco, an even bigger change was thrust upon Amazonas—it was granted official statehood. The region’s new political status was the result of two laws enacted in 1988: the Law of Decentralization (which focused on the role of regional governments), and the Law of Municipalities. The laws decentralized territorial and fiscal responsibilities and reformed the political system. Now, regional governors and municipal mayors were to be elected by popular vote. The conversion of Amazonas from a federal territory to the 22nd State of Venezuela has had a more widespread impact than any other event in the region’s recent history.

With the first elections in 1992, the non-indigenous elite quickly assumed control of both the state legislature and the governorship. The region’s second governor (elected in 1995), Bernabé Gutiérrez, won on a pro-development platform that advocated mining and timber exploitation in the state’s interior. The governor overtly challenged the conservation policies imposed on the state by publicly calling for a repeal of the ban on mining activates and timber extraction. This announcement caused an outcry among Venezuelan conservationists and indigenous rights activists. Ultimately, because of national and international pressure on the Venezuelan central government, the Amazonas state government was forced to respect the decree prohibiting mining in the state (Miranda, Blanco-Uribe, Hernández, Ochoa, & Yerena, 1998).

In 1994, the newly created state legislature passed a law that divided the state of Amazonas into seven new administrative entities, or municipios. One of these, the Alto Orinoco municipality, contains most of the biosphere reserve. The municipalization process was standard practice throughout Venezuela as decentralization of the political system continued, but the new law outraged many pro-Indian organizations. They argued that the law did not take into account the needs and interests of the indigenous populations, nor were the indigenous peoples of Amazonas consulted during the decision-making process. The opponents felt that the municipal boundaries should have reflected the territorial boundaries of the indigenous groups of the state. The boundaries, as proposed by the state government, were instead drawn to divide up the state’s population equally. The opponents of the law also argued that depending on the “socio-cultural conditions” of the ethnic group, a special administrative structure should have been developed that took into account traditional systems of leadership and forms of social organization. Eventually, they challenged the law in the supreme court of Venezuela. The court ruled in favor of the indigenous rights groups, saying that the Indians were not involved enough in the creation of the law. Despite this ruling, the state legislature officially ratified the law in October 1997, flagrantly disregarding the high court’s decision.

During the legal battle over the political boundaries law, mayoral elections were held throughout the state in December 1995. Jaime Turón, a Ye’kwana, was elected mayor of the Upper Orinoco municipality. The election catapulted Turón, a former schoolteacher from the village of Tokishanamaña on the Padamo River, into the political arena. As mayor, he gained political control over a region rich in mineral wealth and home to the Yanomami, one of the highest profile indigenous groups in the world. The focal point of local, state, and national attention, his political position became a contentious and disruptive issue for the Upper Orinoco region.

Indigenous Politicians and Conservationists in Conflict

Several years into Turón’s term as mayor of the Alto Orinoco municipality, an indigenous peoples movement composed of pro-Indian non-governmental organizations, environmental groups, and the Catholic Church mounted a campaign to remove him from office for alleged corruption and disregard for the environment. Like most Venezuelan politicians, Turón has benefited financially from his political position and had become known for big cars, bodyguards, and flashy watches. Although he was convicted in 1997 of corruption, that court decision was subsequently repealed (Chiappe, 1998). More recently, in April 2002 and during his second mayoral term, he was convicted again for embezzling public funds and imprisoned. This conviction, too, was challenged in court and repealed, but the case is still being disputed. Turón was released from prison, but the governor of Amazonas State prevented him from reassuming the position of mayor.

Turón defends himself against these corruption charges by arguing that the Catholic Church and its non-governmental organization have unfairly singled him out, since he threatens their hegemony over the region. The mayor is an outspoken critic of the conservation agencies and the pro-Indian organizations, which he claims are denying the state’s indigenous people political expression and control over the activities on their lands. During his time in office, Turón has advocated for development. The construction of a dozen schools, clinics, and other small infrastructure projects is evidence of his success in that regard. One project that received heavy criticism involved the installation of satellite television in several of the larger villages.

To be sure, Turón has garnered a large following in the Upper Orinoco because of his development projects. Several small indigenous and evangelical organizations, as well as the Accion Democratica political party, have supported Turón. Indigenous peoples support him because they feel he is an authentic leader who has improved the living conditions of the indigenous people of the upper Orinoco. During Turón’s imprisonment in 2002, his followers staged a large protest in front of the Catholic Mission in La Esmeralda, demanding his release and the expulsion of the mission from the region (Gómez, 2002). His constituency has voted Turón into office twice, and both times he won by a large majority.

Turón’s opponents counter that he is an illegitimate leader who does not represent the complete interests of the indigenous population, since only a fraction of the population participates in the elections. In interviews, native rights activists and indigenous leaders critical of Turón were quick to condemn his “non-Indian lifestyle,” pointing to it as evidence of his corruption and rejection of his “Indian-ness.” Pedro Garcia, the former head of the SADA-AMAZONAS in Puerto Ayacucho, described Turón and his Ye’kwana followers as “predators” and not “real” Indians. These crude characterizations, however, support Turón’s arguments that outsiders fail to comprehend the realities of Native Amazonian communities.

Recently, Turón was involved in an incident that reveals the difficulties created by the lack of formal regulations governing activity within the biosphere reserve. In February 2003, the mayor was arrested in the Upper Orinoco after he organized and participated in a poison-fishing expedition. Throughout the Amazon basin, the indigenous peoples employ a wide variety of naturally occurring toxic plants, commonly known as barbasco, to stun fish and facilitate their capture. During the dry season, when the flow decreases in the small feeder creeks, smaller fish become trapped in the small pools and water holes that dot the streambed. Traditionally, the Ye’kwana and Yanomami exploited these concentrations of fish by placing the roots or leaves of the barbasco plant in the water. The poison is then released, and after several minutes, the stunned fish float to the surface and are easily harvested with baskets or nets.

The mayor organized one of these fishing trips to celebrate his wife’s birthday. He supplied the boats and fuel to carry his gathering of about 15 family members and friends up the Orinoco from the municipal capital of La Esmeralda to the Iguapo River, a smaller tributary that feeds the Orinoco. As the group began to prepare the barbasco, a patrol boat from the National Guard arrived and arrested the entire group for violating the environmental laws of the biosphere reserve. Apparently, the local representative of the Environment Ministry, also a Ye’kwana but from a political party opposed to Turón’s, informed the National Guard that Turón was illegally poisoning the river. The National Guard took all the members of Turón’s group to its outpost in La Esmeralda, where they were interrogated. The group was eventually released, but only after being given a stiff warning that poison fishing is an “illegal” activity in the reserve.

This incident enraged Turón’s supporters, who considered it a thinly veiled political attack to damage his credibility. According to Julio Santiño, the headman of Toki, and several other Ye’kwana in La Esmeralda, it was public knowledge that the Ye’kwana employee of the Environment Ministry also poison fishes, like all Ye’kwana do during the dry season. Turón’s supporters found it obvious that he was more interested in undermining Turón’s political image than in protecting the environment of the Upper Orinoco. Without a clear set of rules and regulations, it is impossible to prevent this kind of politically motivated incident, in which ambiguous environmental protection laws are invoked for persecution.

Necessary Partners

Turón’s case sheds light on the difficulties of conservation initiatives when indigenous people become co-opted into the political system of the state. If indigenous political leaders criticize restrictive environmental policies and promote development, then those leaders are targeted as enemies of the conservation agencies and indigenous rights groups. At the same time, incompetent and corrupt conservation agencies that fail to develop management policies for protected areas while holding unrealistic assumptions about the nature of indigenous communities lose their legitimacy among local politicians and their followers. If the goal is to protect the environment and allow indigenous people to determine their own futures, conservationists and indigenous politicians must support, rather than undermine, each other’s effectiveness.

In the case of the Upper Orinoco, environmentalists’ targeting of indigenous politicians may disenfranchise the people who could be their biggest allies. Indigenous leaders like Turón are the first generation of literate Ye’kwana and Yanomami who have the potential to participate in the co-management of the biosphere reserve. Equally, indigenous politicians cannot be allowed to exploit their position of power and ravage the environment under the banner of indigenous self-determination. Locating the middle ground is the challenge.

Matthew Lauer is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


References and further reading

Chiappe, D. (1998). Conflicto en el Corazón de la Selva. In Primicia. Pp 26-32.


Colchester, M. (1998). Conservation Politics: The Upper Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve. In From Principles to Practice: Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America. Proceedings of the Pucallpa Conference: Pucallpa, Peru, 17-20 March 1997. Copenhagen: IWGIA. Pp 131-154.


Cousins, A. & Arvelo-Jiménez, N. (1992). False Promises: Venezuela Appears to Have Protected the Yanomami, but Appearances Can Be Deceiving. Cultural Survival Quarterly 16(1), Pp 10-13.


Garcia-Montero, P. (1993). El Servicio Autónomo Para el Desarrollo Ambiental del Amazonas (SADA-AMAZONAS) La Política Ambiental y Desarrollo Sustentable en el Estado Amazonas. Ambiente 15(47), Pp 19-22.


Gómez, Y. (2002, June 26). Detención del Alcalde De Alto Orinoco se Debe a Irregularidades Administrativas. El Universal [Caracas], p D16 .


Miranda, M., Blanco-Uribe, A., Hernández, L., Ochoa, J. & Yerena E. (1998). All that glitters is not gold: Balancing conservation and development in Venezuela’s frontier forests. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.


República de Venezuela (1996). Comisión Presidencial Coordinadora del Desarrollo Sustentable del Sur: Proyecto Desarrollo Sustentable del Sur. Caracas: PRODESSUR.


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