False Promises: Venezuela appears to have protected the Yanomami, but appearances can be deceiving

False Promises: Venezuela appears to have protected the Yanomami, but. appearances can be deceiving.

On August 1, 1991, the president of Venezuela, Carlos Andrés Pérez, signed a startling decree setting aside over 30,000 square miles as a "biosphere reserve." The ostensible purpose is to protect the environment and the indigenous people of the Upper Orinoco and Casiquiare rivers from the uncontrolled development common in the Brazilian Amazon.

Unfortunately, although Decree No. 1635 definitely advances the struggle for indigenous rights, the initial euphroc reaction to the declaration is premature: it is not yet the long-awaited protection for the Yanomami in Venezuela. This pessimistic appraisal derives from the ten years of political events in Venezuela that preceded Pérez's announcement.

Yet the urgency for creating a reserve for creating poverty of the soils in the complex tropical rainforest ecosystems has been confirmed by ecological studies and failed agricultural projects. Moreover, it is well known that these forests display an unusually high degree of biodiversity - including countless unique species - and fragility that makes temperate models of development totally inappropriate. Nevertheless, indigenous groups, with the detailed knowledge necessary for conservation, have carefully managed this environment for millennia.


At least a decade ago, the growing interest in protecting the environment, combined with the belief that recognizing the basic rights of indigenous peoples is central to this issue, led to two independent proposals to create some kind of reserve in Venezuela for the Upper Orinoco and Amazonas region and its indigenous inhabitants.

In 1980, a team of researchers, under the auspices of the Fundación La Salle (FLASA), Caracas, began studying such a possibility, modeling their final proposal on Venezuela's Yukpa/Barí Indigenous Reserve. Established in 1961 as "an area occupied by indigenous," this reserve has nevertheless failed to protect the people in the Sierra de Perij from massive invasions of colonists and cattle ranchers.

The FLASA Yanomami Reserve (see map 1) allocated about 15,000 square miles in five contiguous sectors. A supervisory program would ensure the enactment of reserve regulations and the implementation of gradual development in some areas. Indigenous participation in development would increase through the dissemination of information in a general context of "autonomously managed eco-development." It was also suggested that collective land titles be awarded at an ethnic level or, if that were not possible, for groups of communities through the National Agrarian Institute. (However, the institute has only recognized lands immediately adjacent to individual communities, thereby fragmenting their territories and eliminating other areas traditionally used for hunting, fishing, and recollection.)

Even though Yanomami territory spans the border with Brazil, a binational agreement seemed out of the question. Informal talks with both governments had shown strong resistance to any semi-autonomous Yanomami territory, let alone one that would weaken state control at the border. However, the FLASA researchers felt that a solely Venezuelan reserve wouldn't erode national security, since Brazil was considering similar proposals. Besides, no threat of an invasion from Brazil was perceived in 1982, while the Yanomami themselves could be incorporated into defense by tapping their internal communication network. Thus, it seemed reasonable to limit the permanent military presence within the reserve.

One obstacle to the FLASA concept was the lack of a suitable legal term to designate the proposed area under venezuelan environmental legislation. The national parks, forest reserves, and "protected areas" under these laws don't contemplate the presence of people and hence severely restrict the inhabitants' activities. In effect, the laws negate indigenous claims to land ownership. And while the Venezueland constitution recognizes the presence of indigenous groups, it suggests that this presence is temporary, enshrining a deeply held belief that assimilation is beneficial and, in any case, inevitable. (For details of the FLASA proposal, see: Comité para la Creación de la Reserva Indígena Yanomami, Los Yanomami Venezolanos, EDICANPA, Caracas, 1983.)

Parallel to the FLASA initiative, specialists at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) began work on a similar project in 1983. Their conclusion coincided with FLASA's: urgent action to defend the Yanomami's health and livelihood would succeed only if indigenous people played a central role in protecting their environment. However, the IVIC proposal (see map 1) used a new legal concept, the "biosphere reserve," that recognizes the traditional activities of "local populations."

In light of the National Indian Foundation's proposal to fragment the Brazilian Yanomami into 19 "islands" divided by corridors of access to minerals and land - which would have effectively legalized the annihilation of the Yanomami in Brazil - the IVIC proposal set forth an undivided central area of maximum protection with no outside interference. Two smaller peripheral buffer zones would contain existing religious missions and medical facilities.

Anticipated objections over defense were addressed by allowing the armed forces to patrol the reserve along the border, avoiding the need to establish a permanent military presence. And by editing out possibly contentious words - such as suggesting the Yanomami might have "territorial" or "sovereign" rights - the proposal hoped to avoid accusations it would create a state within a state. (For the full proposal, see: Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez, ed., La Reserva de Biósfera Yanomami: Una Auténtica Estrategia para el Ecodesarrollo Nacional, IVIC, Caracas, 1984.)

Official silence greeted both proposals. Well-informed sources confirmed suspicions that an exclusive Yanomami area was anathema to the military, economic, and missionary powers. The armed forces interpreted any implication that they would be excluded from the reserve as subversive and an assault on Venezuelan sovereignty. It is commonly believed that Venezuela's frontiers are unprotected and sparsely populated by backward subsistence Indians with no sense of national identity.

In addition, businessmen had been secretly evaluating the mineral wealth of the Amazonas for some time, in part under the cover the "scientific expeditions" and perhaps obtaining some information through the fundamentalist New Tribes Missions. Since mining is illegal in the Amazon Federal Territory, the working of these economic interests are not public, but their behind-the-scenes maneuvering can be deduced from indirect evidence. For example, a 1984 expedition to Cero La Noblina organized under the auspices of the Venezuelan Foundation for the Advancement of the Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences is known to have explored for alluvial gold.

In 1982, Venezuela even granted concessions covering 173 square miles along the Upper Orinoco River and at Shimmadawoichü in the Upper Cuntinamo. Supposedly to exploit tin ore, the concessions were revoked, but only after strong public pressure stimulated by concern for the Yanomami.

Both the FLASA and the IVIC projects also aroused opposition because they appeared to undermine the strongly backed New Tribes and Salesian Catholic missions, which have carved the Yanomami area up between themselves. Neither religious group appears willing to relinquish its control over the Yanomami under its legal tutelage. (The 1915 "Ley de Misiones" still delegates the neo-colonial task of "reducing and attracting" the Indians to the missions.)

The forces opposing the reserve proposals showed their hand in 1984 when public attention was drawn to the region after a number of Piaroa Indians were subjected to physical abuse by local peons on a cattle ranch illegally occupying their lands. In the ensuing vociferous and slanderous public "debate," a secret government report was revealed that contained the official response to both Yanomami reserve proposals, which it considered identical. The proponents of a reserve were accused of instigating the dismemberment of Venezuela of the internationalization of the Amazonas Federal Territory. Furthermore, the report argued, laying aside such a vast territory for so few people was unreasonable, especially since the nation as a whole wouldn't benefit from the natural resources.

The public debate aligned progressive, patriotic colonists developing a frontier against left-wing subversives - missionaries, anthropologists, communists/terrorists - who were manipulating ignorant, child-like Indians. In this scenario, obscure international interests lay behind the subversives, groups like Cultural Survival, Survival International, and so on.

This debate entertained the press for over three months in 1984; at least 200 articles were published. It buried both proposals for a Yanomami reserve without any need for a reasoned alternative.


Despite international pressure to protect the Yanomami, the government made no public initiatives until 1989 when local newspapers revealed the invasion of thousands of Brazilian gold miners at the headwaters of the Orinoco. This appeared to confirm suspicions that events in Brazil threatened Venezuelan territory. Public and official reactions drew two conclusions: the urgency of establishing a permanent military presence to defend the country's sovereignty and the need to protect the environment while exploiting the great wealth.

Early in 1991, a draft circulate in official circles for a Yanomami National Park to be created by presidential decree (see map 2). Circumscribing the Upper Siapa River and a small area of the Upper Orinoco, this plan was presented at a meeting called "A Future for the Orinoquia-Amazonas" by a group of naturalists and explorers who paraded themselves before the international media as the ones who would solve the Yanomami problem. A section of the Environmental Ministry presented a similar official alternative at the meeting, but the 1991 presidential decree accepted neither plan, despite the backing behind them.

In August, the government made its dramatic volte-face mandating an Upper Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve that would be six times the size of the plans presented earlier in the year (see map 3). The reserve is to include a segment of Ye'kuana territory to the north along the Cunucunuma River (where some Ye'kuana do have provisional land titles) and the Padamo River (with a mixed population of Ye'kuana and Yanomami). It also contains a large zone to the west, encompassing the Casiquiare River and the Cerro La Neblina National Park. This plan was developed by SADA Amazonas, a government research and planning center created in 1989 to protect and preserve the environment while coordinating "eco-development." Although its original mandate did not explicitly mention indigenous people, the center likely adopted pro-indigenous language as window dressing to obtain international funding.

Pérez's decree guarantees "the right of the indigenous populations to use the land, woods, and waters in the territories where they traditionally live," offering some potential legal shelter for the inhabitants. Legally, they can't be relocated, nor can the area be fragmented. It explicitly forbids colonization, and any "environmentally harmful" activity must receive ministerial approval. What activities will be allowed is yet to be decided.

However, the decree implies no legal title to the lands for its inhabitants. In Venezuelan law, lands such as those within the reserve are considered baldía - lands of the state - leaving inhabitants the right to use the land but not own it. In any case, the 1978 Law of Security and Defense contemplates a 31-mile-wide border security zone that precludes private or collective land titles.

Moreover, the government's right to exploit virtually all subsoil minerals is enshrined in the Constitution and mining law. In this context, the biosphere reserve could provide a cover for continuing prospecting in a "mineral reserve," while pacifying the new-found ecological concerns of Venezuela's international creditors. Indeed, the location of national parks, forest reserves, and other so-called areas under special administration" closely matches the presence of reserves of gold and other strategic minerals. Miners are already working gold on a small scale in the Cunucunuma, Upper Orinoco, and Upper Ventuari rivers.

The Yanomami are rightly worried about how much say have will have in the use of their land. In handing the question to the Ministry of the Environment and so ignoring the official Indigenous Affairs Bureau, the government acted as though indigenous rights were not an issue. And not only were the Yanomami and other indigenous people not consulted for the decree, they have been virtually left out of the reserve's administration. Exactly how the biosphere reserve will affect the indigenous peoples should be clarified in the zoning and regulation plan. The Ministry of the Environment and an "advisory commission" have two years to prepare the plan and three more to demarcate the reserve. This commission will have a few representatives of the Yanomami and Ye'kuana, but they will be up against 12 government representatives and one each from an unspecified civilian organization and the Catholic Church. It is not clear how many indigenous representatives there will be nor who will select them.

Given this history and these short-comings, it seems unreasonable to rejoice over Pérez's declaration. Even if it does demonstrate a genuine concern for the region and its people, how will Venezuela enforce his decree? Bear in mind that the Imataca Sur forest reserve is being exploited for gold with official approval, that the Yukpa-Barí Park is still being devastated, and that only two park guards, with no means of transportation, attend the 12,000-square-mile National Park of Canaima, home to 15,000 Pemón Amerindians.

Indeed, the Upper Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve could well be a show put on for Venezuela's international critics and creditors. In February 1992, the nation will host the Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas, organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. With the world's eyes on Venezuela, President Carlos Andrés Pérez will want to look green and sustainable.


Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez, Indigenismo y el Debate sobre Desarrollo Amazónico: Reflexiones a Partir de la Experiencia Venezolana, 1991, Serie Antropologia 106, Universidad de Brasilia, Instituto de Ciencias Humanas, Departmento de Antropologia, Brasilia; Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez, "The Political Struggle of the Guyana Region's Indigenous Peoples," Journal of International Affairs, spring/summer 1982; New York Times, September 18, 25, 26, 1990; "Ley Org nica para la Ordenación del Territoria, Gaceta Oficial No. 3238, August 11, 1983; Roberto Lizarralde and Stephen Beckerman, "Historia Contemporanea de los Barí," Antropológia, 1982; Alcida Ramos and Kenneth Taylor, The Yanomma in Brazil, 1979, International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, Documents No. 37; Resumen, September 16, 1984; "Tin Mines Threaten Yanomami," Survival International Urgent Action Bulletin, March 1984; Survival International News, No. 4, 1984; Zeta, August 22, 1984.

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