A Venezuelan indigenous community belonging to the Yukpa ethnic group, which is demanding legal title to its ancestral lands, was attacked last week by hundreds of armed aggressors. According to the Yukpa, the aggressors were hired by elite landowners to evict the indigenous population from the vast, largely idle pastures in the region known as the Sierra de Perijá near Venezuela’s northwestern border with Colombia.
The attacks were the latest and largest in a string of attempts to intimidate and terrorize a Yukpa community since they intensified their land recuperation efforts efforts over the past year by occupying 14 privately owned estates known as Haciendas.
Last month, prominent estate owner Alejandro Vargas and four others, armed with handguns and machetes, attempted to assassinate the Yukpa cacique (chief) who is leading the occupations, Sabino Romero, and in the process killed Romero’s elderly father.
“They arrived quietly and hit me over the neck with their guns and hit me in the back. They grabbed me by the hair and dragged me and asked for Sabino, yelling dirty words and saying they are going to kill me,” testified Guillermina Romero, Sabino’s daughter, to alternative media groups who were the only journalists who visited the scene.
According to the Venezuelan constitution, ratified by popular vote in 1999, and an Indigenous Peoples Law passed in 2005, the government has the obligation to grant indigenous communities legal title to their ancestral lands.
However, government figures show that out of 67 cases that have been opened by the federal Land Demarcation Commission, 59 remain stalled. Yukpa leaders say the government quietly placed the controversial land demarcation initiative on the political back burner last year, presumably in order to minimize conflict in the runup to this November’s regional and local elections.
In addition, land demarcation officials demand geographical and agricultural information that can only be obtained with the cooperation of the powerful and violent hacienda owners. Thus, Yukpa leaders say they have no choice but to trespass on the lands that were stolen from their grandparents over the course of the 20th Century.
As tension mounts, the government led by President Hugo Chávez faces the decision of whether to expel the Yukpa in defense of private property in this semi-fuedal zone or comply with its own land titling initiative by giving collective land titles to the Yukpa, compensating the current owners, and protecting the Yukpa from mercenary attacks.
The National Guard, which did not respond to any of the recent mercenary attacks, has now mounted batallions within a kilometer of the occupying Yukpa community and awaits orders from the state. National Intelligence officials also arrived last Monday, according to alternative media sources at the scene.
According to Guillermina Romero, after Alejandro Vargas shot through the small door of a Yukpa home where he thought Cacique Sabino was hiding in July, he told the Yukpa that pleading to the National Guard or local government will do no good because “I pay all of them.”
Anonymous National Guard officials told independent journalists Monday that the troops expected to receive orders to clear the indigenous communities from the haciendas Tuesday.
The same day, María de Los Angeles Peña, a director of the federal student loan program Fundayacucho and long-time ally of the indigenous struggle, gave a rousing speech in the National Assembly in support of the Yukpa. A simultaneous blitz of well-coordinated alternative media reports throughout the week brought national attention to the issue, and the Yukpa have not been evicted.
The Chavez government has yet to indicate a clear stance on this particular struggle. Last Monday, Chávez declared to an Indo-American Youth Conference in Caracas that “in this historic moment the indigenous should continue being part of the vanguard.”
“There will be no socialism in these lands of America if we do not incorporate the most profound tradition, cultures, lifestyles, and communitarian modes of production of the aborigines,” proclaimed Chávez.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Nicia Maldonado, denied that there were hundreds of mercenaries who attacked the Yukpa, and said it was really a group of 50 mercenaries. Maldonado reiterated the government’s “intention” to “return the lands which historically correspond to indigenous peoples,” and pledged to visit the lands in dispute to “clarify” the situation.
The minister was accompanied by five Yukpa caciques who oppose the land occupations led by Cacique Romero. They denounced Romero for deviating from “the legal path,” and said Romero’s ecologist allies from the city, who have participated in the occupations, are “the most responsible for the events that have occurred.”
“We live in peace and harmony It is not our custom to invade,” said Cacique María Teresa Yasphe. “We want to resolve this in peace respecting the White Man’s law, sitting down with caciques, functionaries, estate owners, and the minister to dialogue.”
Several such meetings have already taken place in Yukpa lands since 2005. In October of that year, an hacienda owner was filmed making what many Yukpa see as another broken promise to “define the indigenous territories so we are all in agreement.”
The caciques allied with Minister Maldonado praised the national government for bringing popular social programs known as “Missions” to the Yukpa, promoting literacy, and bringing modern health care to their communities. Romero, however, envisions a more autonomous path of development protagonized by the Yukpa themselves, and does not agree that the Yukpa have invaded or broken the law.
“The landowners have taken control of lands which by law pertain to us,” said Romero. While the landowners continue deforesting the region to make pastures for their cattle, “we are rescuing crops, cacao, corn, sugar cane, avocado and coffee,” he asserted.
The National Cattle Ranchers Federation (FEDENAGA) defended the elite hacienda owners last week by calling the conflict with the Yukpa a “national emergency.”
Aiming for a weak spot of the Chávez administration, which has struggled to combat food shortages and price inflation over the past year, FEDENAGA officials reported that milk production has been reduced by 5,000 liters per day as a result of the occupations.
Regional and local authorities from both opposition and pro-government camps who support the expansion of coal mining in the delicate watershed region have consistently opposed the empowerment of Yukpa, Barí, and Wayúu indigenous communities in the area.
The Yukpa, precariously trespassing on their own lands, have expressed fear that if they are evicted, they will never be allowed to return. As they rely on Venezuelan alternative media for support, it is now the government’s turn to act.