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The Year of Indigenous Venezuelans

By Andrés Cańizález *

New laws and development projects that take effect this year are target 28 native communities in an attempt to protect their rights and cultures.

CARACAS - The year 2001 is turning out to be the year of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples with the launching of a number of new laws and development projects that vindicate the rights and cultures of 28 native communities, which represent 1.3 percent of the national population of 22.3 million people.

Last December, Congress ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and expedited the Law on Demarcation and Guarantee of Habitat of Indigenous Peoples, while this month debate on the Bilingual Inter-Cultural Education Law began, indigenous congressman Guillermo Guevara told Tierramérica.

All of this legislative action will reach its high point in November, when the bill on the Organic Law of Indigenous Peoples is slated for presentation before the National Assembly (Congress).

In addition, several official entities have announced the implementation of development plans that respect the unique qualities of Venezuela's native communities while confronting the poverty and exclusion of the country's 315,000 indigenous peoples.

Noelí Pocaterra, president of the congressional Commission on Indigenous Peoples, told Tierramérica that the bill has been scheduled for debate in November, leaving time for consultations and hearings involving all indigenous groups – measures intended to ensure that their demands are taken into account.

''We must also keep an eye on other laws, for example those involving land, social security, health, and documentation. All of them affect us, one way or another, as indigenous people and we must be alert so that no text is infiltrated with aspects that threaten our rights,'' said Pocaterra, a leader of the Wayuú peoples.

In 1999, she lead an intense debate that ultimately led to the first-ever inclusion in the Venezuelan Constitution of an entire chapter dedicated to indigenous rights. The preamble of the charter spells out that Venezuela is ''multi-ethnic and pluricultural.''

These new legal instruments reflect the conception of development and the relationship with nature championed by indigenous cultures as they seek to preserve their cultures.

''The Venezuelan government has created protected areas for fauna and flora, but now it has also made an effort to protect the Indians, the people who live in those areas,'' the lawmaker said.

The authorities recognize the negative impact of a number of development projects on the environment and on native communities. With respect to the most publicized of these projects, the electrical powerline system connecting Venezuela to northern Brazil, the Environment Ministry has launched a study of the work's environmental and cultural impacts.

According to Pocaterra, one of the biggest challenges this year will be to carry out sustainable development plans with the participation of the indigenous communities.

''It is our native peoples who live in extreme poverty, who are discriminated against, who are mistreated and exploited,'' stated the lawmaker, adding that she believes the beginning of the Hugo Chávez government in February 1999 marked a turning point as far as official attention to the indigenous question.

Chávez announced several programs in late April, including the creation of 25 farms to be cooperatively run by indigenous communities in the southern state of Amazonas, four telecommunications access centers and a number of scholarships for indigenous youth who want to pursue studies in agriculture. In addition, the recently founded Women's Bank will extend a line of services for native women.

* Andrés Cańizález is an IPS correspondent

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados