Who Are the Pemon of Kumarakapay?

On Friday, February 22nd, when the Venezuelan Armed Forces sent a convoy toward the Brazilian border to block the entry of humanitarian aid, indigenous people in the village of Kumarakapay tried to stop them. In response, the Armed Forces opened fire, killing seven. Caracas Chronicles spoke to a UK-based Venezuelan sociologist who has worked in the community for decades.

Photos by Iokiñe Rodríguez

On Friday, February 22nd, Alberto Delgado posted a video from his hospital bed in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena de Uairén, ten miles north of the border with Brazil. “I hope that all Venezuelans see this,” he tells viewers. Earlier that day, when Guardia Nacional and Army soldiers shot at Delgado and his neighbors in the nearby village of Kumarakapay, Delgado was hit in both legs—injuries he risked on behalf of his bedridden grandfather, he tells the camera, and on behalf of other family members who have struggled to get medical treatment.

Iokiñe Rodríguez, a Venezuelan sociologist, has known Delgado for more than 20 years. In October of 1998, Rodríguez moved from the English town of Brighton to Kumarakapay. Rodríguez was a doctoral student at the University of Sussex, and she wanted to study how the Pemon indigenous people managed conflicts with the government.

“With so many development plans imposed on us, we the Pemon don’t know who we are anymore,” he told her. 

But the village chief, Juvencio Gómez, had another idea. When Rodríguez met with him on the morning after her arrival, he told her plainly that her academic studies would do little for the community. If she wanted to stay, Gómez said, Rodríguez should do something useful for them: help the village document its history and reimagine its future. “With so many development plans imposed on us, we the Pemon don’t know who we are anymore,” he told her. “Please, help us develop a plan de vida.”

The request surprised Rodríguez. She had conceived the conflict in Kumarakapay as a struggle between the Pemon and the outside world. It had not occurred to her that looking inward—reconstructing the Pemon identity—would be part of the solution.

That year, alongside her academic research, Rodríguez and Gómez recruited a team of 30 community members to orchestrate this process of reflection. They convened workshops about the past, present, and future of the village. Rodríguez listened to cassette tapes recorded before her arrival, when the community had begun to collect testimony from elders. The team also collected photographs, some of which were left by missionaries and visitors as early as 1911. When the elders requested that the material be published in a book, Rodríguez agreed to coordinate the publication—though the community would be named as author.

Few indigenous communities in Venezuela have produced a book about their own history, like Kumarakapay.

One of the most dedicated participants was Alberto Delgado, a 17-year-old who aspired to be a school teacher in the community. Rodríguez admired Delgado’s bond with his father, with whom he worked side by side for hours creating a map of ancestral settlements. Rodríguez and Delgado became friends. In August 1999, during the tenth month of Rodríguez’s stay in Kumarakapay, they traveled together to Caracas to pressure the Constitutional Assembly to write indigenous people into the new Constitution. They drove for 18 hours, with Rodríguez at the wheel and Delgado beside her, talking and talking to help her stay awake.

When Rodríguez returned to Brighton at the end of 1999, the oral history project stalled. Rodríguez defended her doctoral dissertation and moved on to other projects. In Kumarakapay, a new village chief replaced Juvencio Gómez, and the new leader had less interest in the project.

Seven years later, Rodríguez returned to Kumarkapay as part of her full-time research position at IVIC (the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, Venezuela’s main scientific institution). She proposed that the community finish the book. But many were skeptical. Some wondered whether Rodríguez planned to profit. Others doubted whether completing the book was a good use of time. The village chief was not enthusiastic. And, of course, the factions for and against the book had also fought over larger issues: national politics, mining and development, and the use of local resources.

Alberto Delgado helped fight the resistance. By that time, he had become a teacher in the local school. He worked with Rodríguez to convene a new series of workshops. During that visit, Rodríguez and Delgado discovered that they both had twin boys, born the same year.

In Kumarakapay, a new village chief replaced Juvencio Gómez, and the new leader had less interest in the project.

Three years later, in 2010, the book was published: La Historia de los Pemon de Kumarakapay, written by the people of Roraima. It is the only published history of any indigenous community in the Gran Sabana.

Later that year, Rodríguez returned to Kumarakapay for the book launch. Ricardo Delgado, Alberto’s uncle, delivered brief remarks. “Our grandfather, [the mythical] Makunaima, did not teach us to write or edit books,” he said. “But we do have a ritual for protecting newborn objects from dangers and evil spirits: chiuka.”

Chiuka, he said, would allow the book to achieve the purpose for which it was written. Juvencio Gómez, the former village chief, held the book aloft; his wife, Yraida Fernandez, together with an elder named Rafael González, poured water from an earthen jar onto hot coals, producing a plume of steam that curled around the book. The community chorus sang a traditional Pemon song. A photo shows Alberto Delgado sitting quietly beneath the Venezuelan flag. His father, two seats away, was beaming.

When National Guardsmen killed Zoraida Rodríguez on Friday, February 22nd, Rodríguez’s phone lit up. She was conducting fieldwork in Bolivia when her husband—at home in Norwich, England, where Rodríguez teaches at the University of East Anglia—sent her a WhatsApp message after hearing the news on the BBC.

With horror, Rodríguez read first the news and then the torrent of messages on WhatsApp and Facebook. She quickly learned that Alberto Delgado had been shot and that many of her other friends—including Juvencio Gómez, the former village chief, and Ricardo Delgado, Alberto’s uncle—were in hiding after learning of warrants for their arrest. She learned that the indigenous mayor of Santa Elena de Uairén, Emilio González, had fled to Brazil. And she watched video after video of state violence in Kumarakapay and Santa Elena de Uairén. The following days only brought more bad news: a convoy of 17 buses full of armed men arrived in the area; locals presume that they intend to control the indigenous communities and the mines. Seven of the 15 people shot that weekend have died, as human rights organization Foro Penal has confirmed, and the rest are severely injured.

Speaking over the phone last Thursday, Rodríguez explained that gold lies at the heart of the violence. The government, Rodríguez said, is desperate to control the gold mines in Bolivar State—control contested by crime syndicates and Colombian guerilla groups. Some Pemon also seek to profit from the gold, while others oppose all mining.

Nominally, conflict over the entry of humanitarian aid sparked the massacre of Kumarakapay on February 22nd. But the underlying cause, Rodríguez says, is more enduring, a perpetual grim reaper, the angel of death in Latin America for centuries: conflict over resource extraction.

Perhaps for this reason, Rodríguez feels frightened. When her husband pointed out one tiny note of encouraging news—that the press referred to the community as Kumarakapay, its indigenous name, rather than the official San Francisco de Yuraní—Rodríguez was not cheered. “The hardest part,” she said, “is my feeling that the situation will not improve.”