The Yekuana of Southern Venezuela


Political and Economic Self-Determination

Publicity surrounding the situation of indigenous tribal groups in Amazonia in the face of development and colonization has led to, and centers upon, efforts to help the Amerindians obtain legal title to their lands and the basic right to cultural survival. These goals are certainly admirable and well worth pursuing. However, given the current political and economic difficulties facing the Amazonian countries in a world of shrinking resources, it is unrealistic to believe that the "powers-that-be" will readily relinquish control of areas potentially valuable in an economic and/or strategic sense. Nonetheless, some significant progress has been made by publicizing the plight of the indigenous groups and bringing public and world opinion to bear on the Amazonian nations. But if the past is any measure of the success, these gains may be extremely ephemeral in nature.

A successful, long-term strategy for seeking and maintaining indigenous rights must assure the area's political/economic powers that these same powers will benefit from policy applications favorable to the Amerindians. Justifying land titles and basic rights of self-determination to Amerindians must stress the developmental failures that have plagued Amazonia. Development schemes based upon western models, and employing the best available technology, have consistently failed to yield real economic benefits in Amazonia. Much of this failure is due to a lack of understanding of the environmental characteristics of the region. Moreover, there exists increasing scientific evidence that the indigenous groups who inhabit Amazonia possess detailed systems of knowledge concerning the ecology and natural resources of their territories. They have successfully adapted over millenia to these natural environments. They are, therefore, a source of developmental knowledge and a pool of potential development participants with a vested interest in the area. There is nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain by including Amerindian populations in development planning and implementation. The best way to achieve this participation is by first granting the indigenous groups title to their lands and a degree of self-determination.


Ideally, self-determination refers to the process whereby the indigenous society decides its own destiny. In reality, this is a very difficult goal to achieve. Self-determination must be considered as subject to dependencies created by participation within a larger system. Self-determination is not an indigenous term, but was created by western society to reflect the particular perception of western researchers and policy analysts. Self-determination lies in the opportunity of indigenous groups to exercise some degree of choice in deciding which activities to undertake and the structure of the organization to carry out these activities. However, even the particular form of the organizational structure is limited by the types or activities decided upon. These are in turn limited by the dependency upon extrasocietal demands. Therefore, the defining characteristic of self-determination strategy is the inclusion of the indigenous population in the developmental decision making process.

The Yekuana

A successful example (to date) of the application of a self-determination strategy is the Yekuana community of Asenöña and its developmental organization - the Unión Makiritare del Alto Ventuari (UMAV).

The Yekuana (also commonly referred to as Makiritare) are a Cariban-speaking population who inhabit part of the tropical forest zone of southern Venezuela and a small section of northern Brazil. Their subsistence is based upon shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing and gathering. In general, their lifestyle is similar to that of other indigenous inhabitants of Amazonia. Approximately 2,200 Yekuana occupy about 35 basically autonomous villages throughout their territory. Their political system is typically tribal-Amazonian - egalitarian, a village headman lacking coercive power and decision making by consensus.

The Development of UMAV

The Yekuana have a history of protecting their territorial rights (the territory is territorial of particular importance both ritually and mythically to the Yekuana). In 1775, the Yekuana defeated a Spanish incursion into the heart of their territory. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Yekuana territory was invaded by the numerically superior and expanding Yanomamo population. During this period, many segments of Yekuana society were constantly "on the run" and harassed by the Yanomamo. The Yekuana finally joined together, armed themselves with firearms and soundly defeated the Yanomamo (who were armed with bows and arrows) in a number of battles fought during the early 1930s.

By the 1950s, the Yekuana were relatively isolated in the Orinoco/Ventuari headwaters region of their territory and had only intermittent contact with the outside world. In July 1969, however, the Venezuelan government began a program (CODESUR - the Commission for the Development of the South) to develop and colonize its southern region. In general, the Yekuana had mixed feelings about this new development enterprise. On the one hand, it did offer them increased access to the western goods that they desired but, on the other hand, it also threatened their territorial and cultural integrity.

In mid-1969, the Yekuana's fears concerning encroachment into their territory became reality. A Venezuelan national (of French origin) began construction of an airstrip and permanent structures in the Paru savanna - located approximately in the center of Yekuana territory. This entrepreneur's plans (which he noted were in support of the government's development program) were rather vague but included occupying and "developing" the site.

In response to this encroachment into their territory and, partially, in an effort to gain better access to desired western goods, a group of Yekuana founded the village of Asenöña in 1971. Although Asenöña was located in close proximity to the land invader's headquarters, the site was not chosen specifically for this reason.

The foundation of Asenöña was intricately linked, almost from the beginning, with the idea of forming a self-determination/self-development organization. After considerable explanation and discussion, this organization - the Unión Makiritare del Alto Ventuari (UMAV) - was officially constituted in late 1972, with its headquarters in Asenöña. An important factor in the planning and implementation of the UMAV organization was the assistance lent to the Yekuana by members of the Jesuit religious order and other concerned parties in Venezuela.

The objectives of UMAV provide a succinct statement, phrased in the terminology of self-determination strategy, for justifying the granting of indigenous rights. As officially stated for presentation to governmental and private agencies, the objectives were:

1. To achieve the human and economic development of the Indian communities of the Upper Ventuari region through the creation of a cultural-educational center and the development of an agricultural-ranching project.

2. To demonstrate that the indigenous groups of Venezuela are capable of planning and directing their own cultural and economic development, if offered objective, non-partisan aid.

3. To demonstrate that the Yekuana are capable of achieving this development and of linking themselves with the National Venezuelan System without losing their own culture. In this way, the Yekuana can contribute to Venezuelan society the values they maintain and can serve as a model for the development of other indigenous communities, as well as contribute to the growth of national economic production (UMAV, Informe, 1976).

One of UMAV's first objectives, although not explicitly stated, was to gain title to the area surrounding the community of Asenöña. In 1975, the community received collective title to approximately 100,000 hectares of this land; and on 3 May 1977, after a protracted legal battle, the invading entrepreneur and his Canadian administrator were officially and finally expelled from the area by the Venezuelan government.

UMAV's self-determination strategy thus worked to obtain, and more importantly, to effectively maintain Yekuana rights to their territory and their cultural survival. Three principle factors explain the initial success of UMAV. The first of these might be termed the "public relations" factor. The land invasion scheme in Yekuana territory was well-publicized, often in a manner favorable to the Yekuana. Newspapers, magazines and radio stations carried reports of the confrontation, comments by Yekuana representatives and the debate between Yekuana supporters and detractors. This publicity served to mobilize public opinion in favor of the Yekuana. In addition, UMAV prepared a well-thought-out explanation of its organizational objectives and related development plans in the form of a proposal that was widely distributed to governmental, public and private agencies. This proposal was designed to gain moral and financial support for the UMAV project.

A second factor was the participation of non-Yekuana who knew how to manipulate and work within the Venezuelan national system. These persons, most notably the Jesuits and a number of government employees, assisted and helped to direct the Yekuana campaign for self-determination. It must be noted that these outside supporters did not control UMAV. The prime moving force behind the project was a semi-acculturated Yekuana who was widely respected and had considerable influence among his people.

The third factor involved the creation of a political climate in Venezuela favorable to self-determination policy implementation. The new administration that came to power in 1975 brought a halt to government-sponsored development in the southern region and attempted to project a more liberal, humanitarian policy as it assumed the role of a rising power in world affairs. It was during this administration's tenure that UMAV gained title to its lands and won its legal battle against the land invader. This favorable political climate benefited all the indigenous groups in Venezuela. For example, in 1975-76, 39 indigenous communities in the Federal Territory of Amazonas were granted land titles and encouraged to undertake self-determination/self-development projects.

In order to justify the maintenance of Yekuana rights over the long term, UMAV strategy involved the implementation of development projects that would yield profits and, therefore, be considered beneficial to regional and national development. To integrate themselves into the larger system, the Yekuana of Asenöña adopted development strategies familiar to, and recognizable by, western society. Starting in 1974, they obtained bank loans to support development projects and successfully solicited additional donations of money and equipment. Ironically, UMAV concentrated upon a developmental scheme that is currently widely condemned throughout Amazonia - that is, cattle ranching. In the case of UMAV, however, cattle ranching has not proven to be environmentally destructive as it has in other areas of the region - notably, Brazil. Asenöña is in close proximity to over 30,000 hectares of natural savanna, more than enough to support the present cattle herd and any potentially manageable increase in herd size for years to come. Tropical forest is not cleared to create pasture.

Cattle were butchered and sold on the national market in 1978 and 1982, yielding profits that were reinvested in UMAV. Experiments in agricultural development have been proceeding and will, hopefully, yield successful results in the near future. UMAV has succeeded in developing its territory and in intregrating itself into the national system in a manner that makes the organization difficult to ignore.

Through its self-determination strategy, UMAV has undertaken economic developments that provide the basis for political power and influence within the national system. This political power, in turn, provides the Yekuana of UMAV with a greater degree of freedom in decision making and self-determination. (This increased freedom is, however, constrained by previous strategy choices.)


Finally, a number of problems related to UMAV's adoption of a self-determination strategy under current political/economic conditions must be mentioned.

Briefly, some of the principle problems that have arisen in the process of UMAV strategy development and implementation, and that may be applicable to other cases, are that:

1. A shift from a system of decision making based upon consensus and lacking a centralized coercive power to one requiring superordinate-subordinate relationships and a process for applying meaningful sanctions is difficult. In order to undertake many new developmental projects, work must be scheduled and responsibilities assigned. To be successful, the projects must be carried out and yield results. Tribal societies in Amazonia are notorious for lacking this kind of organization. Change, therefore, is required and will create tensions within the society. UMAV has not yet fully achieved the appropriate type of organizational structure; as external pressures are reduced, individuals are less likely to cooperate in new projects. In this respect, projects should initially be directed towards activities with which the participants are familiar that fit into traditional patterns of labor organization.

2. Self-determination strategies designed to integrate (and thereby justify the strategy to the appropriate powers) indigenous development projects into the larger system will create greater dependencies. The indigenous groups will likely maintain less control over their own destinies than they had previously (especially in the case of relatively isolated populations). However, most alternatives present an even bleaker scenario. As a degree of political influence evolves from successful economic development, more control can be attained within the limits of the developmental framework.

3. The cyclical nature of external pressures can lead to a reduction in the dedication of individual participants during periods when these external pressures subside. This can result in a situation where the population, once again, becomes more vulnerable to attacks on their rights.

Changes are inevitable, and anthropologists and other concerned scientists should work to encourage indigenous populations to adopt strategies that provide them with the best possible chance of survival and with the greatest degree of latitude of choice in determining their own destinies within a rapidly changing world system.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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