Photo: AVN retrieved

In Venezuela, despite our 500 years of history of cultural abuse, there are about 50 indigenous communities according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). The Venezuelan Amazon region, geographically made up of Amazonas, Bolívar and Delta Amacuro states, is inhabited by the largest cultural diversity. In numbers, however, the Wayuu ethnic group in Zulia State is the largest, followed by the Warao, mainly in Delta Amacuro, and the Yanomami, in Amazonas and Bolívar. While some groups have lost most of their traditions, others are essentially isolated. Somehow, the more isolated they are, the better they can keep their independence.

In natural conditions, each group is capable of producing their required food and, according to their knowledge and beliefs, take care of their own health. All of this within a system that’s intimately related to natural events. However, intercultural processes have, in many cases, caused the emergence of needs outside the traditions of these communities, and they’ve often not been truly intercultural processes, but rather the imposition of the predominant culture over the native. Among the many scopes that could be studied, two key elements are health and food, with food being a crucial factor in the development of health in indigenous communities.

It’s difficult to find statistics due to the complex situation of the national health system, especially the indigenous health system, which is usually seen as “secondhand”.

The incorporation of sugar and other dietary items that are alien to their habits (soda, flour, cooking oil, canned food) has caused an increase in metabolic diseases such as type II diabetes, hypertension and lipidemies. It’s difficult to find statistics due to the complex situation of the national health system, especially the indigenous health system, which is usually seen as “secondhand”. However, indigenous leaders, nurses and doctors who work in areas predominantly inhabited by natives confirm this situation.

The supply of food provided by the CLAP program makes things worse, since those are precisely the products it contains. Westerners have been dealing with these dietary items during a long process of evolution and physiological adaptation. But now think of communities that, in many cases, have been in contact with these products for less that 20 or 50 years. Their system gets a shock response and gets ill in a very short span of time. Nevertheless, some researchers in the Amazon region report bottles of cooking oil from the CLAP hanging as “decorative” elements because the indigenous people haven’t identified how to use them. Others, of the Pemon people, tell us that they sell most of the products they receive in CLAP boxes and use the money to buy the supplies they require, while they keep their traditional diet. CLAP is an alien concept for many indigenous people, indeed.

CLAP is an alien concept for many indigenous people, indeed.

CLAP is also making some communities abandon their ancestral agricultural, hunting, fishing and gathering practices, but it’s not the only thing to blame. When asked what’s the greatest threat for the loss of ancestral food culture, Isabel Escalante, of both Pemon and criollo origin, said: “What my brothers have told me is that it’s mining.” Agustín Ojeda, a leader from the Shirian people, said the same: “If you go to the mines, you can’t keep a plot, hunt, fish or gather. Traditions and knowledge aren’t passed down from the elders to the young, who are hard pressed to earn money to cover their various problems and needs.” On the other hand, in the mines you can only consume rice, pasta, soda, fried food and alcohol. What many don’t know is that indigenous people have a reduced capacity to process alcohol due to their Asian descent, so other kinds of diseases appear like vultures waiting for their prey.

The “intercultural” clash has taken a toll on everyone involved, but indigenous people are the ones that lose the most. Their new needs create more demand for money. The loss of their privileges as ancestral inhabitants of their lands forces them to work for more income if they want to move out from their communities, regardless of their reasons to do so. The substitution of their food and cultural traditions makes them dependant on the criollos to be able to eat, tend to their health and receive an education. Their lands and waterways are being degraded and polluted.

The substitution of their food and cultural traditions makes them dependant on the criollos to be able to eat, tend to their health and receive an education.

Once able to sustain themselves, they’re now dependant on government plans or other national or international initiatives. Once bearers of a wisdom that gave them the capacity to live the way independently in their spaces, they’re now assailed by great challenges to survive in a society that doesn’t recognize them as equals and where they face clear disadvantages to get food and healthcare.

There’s no turning back when abandonment reaches general proportions and diseases overtake indigenous miners.

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  1. One has to be very careful here. The contact between the dominant Venezuelan culture and the traditional indigenous culture is inevitable. One cannot be condescending and treat such communities as some endangered species. The transculturization is inevitable, this exchange will have its good aspects and its bad aspects. Of course this process is very delicate and fraught with danger, but one cannot romanticize the indigenous culture, or impose the dominant culture in a colonial manner.

    I remember in Amazonas the exchange of a Jaguar pelt for a Rambo style tactical knife (wasn’t me for the record). Was it fair? I’ll let free will of each party decide.

    But this contact between cultures is more intense than ever around the world. Middle Eastern and African migrants to Europe. Latin Americans into the US. These people, many from less westernized cultures want their claim of the western world. I once read in some article that Taliban warlords love an AK-47 and a Toyota Land Cruiser, but their society is incapable of producing either. Conversely, in the US, the Mexican food is as common a Mc Donalds.

  2. Same thing happened to the United States, when LBJ initiated The Great Society. A whole “dependency class”

    Liberalism. Letting no good deed go unpunished since 1964.

  3. A tragedy for the indigenous people involved, but probably unavoidable. To mitigate the hardships the indigenous peoples should be vested with property rights in their lands and mineral resources, so that they can retain or trade them for their new needs as they arise. But that has rarely happened in the past in other countries, and there is little realistic hope for it in Chavista Venezuela.

  4. Tina please try to keep up. You read all about this process when you studied Marx — steal from one group, peel off a fat vigorish for the elite, then give to another group to make them all dependent. After dependence, the process continues with urbanization, impoverishment, enslavement, depopulation.

  5. This is an interesting subject, and for me, an argument against multi-culturalism. Especially as it relates to “native” people.

    It seems that native cultures…every one on earth…will take the benefits of modern culture. Change their dietary habits, change their survival practices, change their religions, if you want to go that far.

    Why should modern culture feel bad about this? Is it modern culture’s moral responsibility and authority to force them to keep their old ways?

    When they choose a different path?


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