The Kueka Stone & the Dispossession of the Pemón

Germany is returning a sacred stone to an indigenous nation from La Gran Sabana. Maduro’s regime presents it as a victory, but this could be a cover-up on the destruction caused by the gold rush.

Photo: Amazonia Films retrieved

In 1998, the Kueka Stone was removed from Canaima National Park to become part of the Global Stone project, by artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld, in the Tiergarten park in Berlin. Ever since, the Venezuelan indigeous Pemon people requested its return, while Kraker von Schwarzenfeld insisted it was a gift from the Venezuelan state. In 2003, President Hugo Chávez formally requested its return. However, the process didn’t materialize until January 20th, 2020, although Germany’s federal government, after a Parliament discussion, had approved the move in 2012.

It took 22 years for the “gift return (…) without any type of concessions from Venezuela,” according to Germany’s Foreign Relations Minister, as part of a “friendly agreement,” said Maduro’s Foreign Relations Minister Jorge Arreaza. But with a transportation fee of 35,000 euros and a scheduled arrival by the end of February, the oceanic crossing of the Kueka Stone has generated a new round of controversy, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Irruption of the Pemón Religion

The official version, depicted in the short film Etapontok ro etomo, la lucha continua by Funda-Cine, shows the myth of Kueka, a Pemon woman who broke her clan’s rules by falling in love with a man from another community. As punishment, the deity “abuelo sabio” (“wise grandfather”) turned Kueka and her husband into two rocks that hug each other near the Jaspe Creek. Thus, the Global Stone project separated the most important of Pemon lovers.

But some are sceptical about this story. For Bruno Illius, a German anthropologist specialized in the Pemon from the Latin American Institute at Freie Universität Berlin, the Kueka myth is a political fabrication to use the stone as an instrument for chavista propaganda. According to Illius, on a document in the Global Stone project website, Etapontok ro etomo, la lucha continua tells a very different fable in Pemon language, with no mention of the Kueka Stone. The forbidden love epic in the subtitles doesn’t translate to what’s being spoken. The anthropologist also claims that this myth doesn’t exist in anthropological literature—in Venezuela nor in Germany—about Pemon mythology.

And yet, Venezuelan sociologist Ioñike Rodriguez, who also specializes in Pemon from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, affirms that, whatever the role or myth surrounding the stone, the Pemon cosmology was disturbed. We’ll never know if the Kueka myth is authentic or not, she states, and there’s no reason for it to be shared by all Pemon communities. Since the landscape is mythological, from the indigenous point of view, “it’s very likely that the Kueka had been part of a myth by the Mapaurí people” in Bolívar State, Rodríguez says. Besides, the landscape’s sacralization comes from “ancestral territories”: areas of past settlements where ancestors were buried, expanding this community’s territory. That’s why there’s a “close link between mythology and the historically occupied spaces by the communities” that have been moved.

In this sense, the removal of the Kueka means a break from their historic and cultural past, even if the stone isn’t actually part of mythology; any hostile activity against their territory is an attack to their identity. “The indigenous people play a role in a political agency that knows how to build speeches to get what they want,” Rodríguez says. In her opinion, both the discussion about the authenticity of the myth, as well as its use for propaganda purposes, “minimizes the indigenous people” and tries to lock them “in a historic box of cultural purity that doesn’t exist in the modern world.” 

Breaking into National Parks

The extraction of the stone also meant violating several national laws. Kraker von Schwarzenfeld alleges he was the victim of a series of misunderstandings in Venezuelan bureaucracy.

Provea’s report of indigenous people’s rights tells a different story. In 1998, Rafael Caldera’s government (along with state-run companies Edelca and Electronorte) proceeded to lay down an electric network on Pemon territory in order to provide the north of Brazil with electricity. According to Rodríguez, the network “symbolized a type of large-scale development that would open the doors to southern mining.” In 1997, the government approved the construction of the Turisur Hotel in the Sierra de Lema, a highly environmentally sensitive area. This was eventually revoked thanks to Pemon protests. “It was a period of time when breaking the rules of national parks was common practice such as we see today, or even worse,” Rodríguez says.

Along with other indigenous communities, the Pemon held peaceful protests and, in July 1998, they barricaded the Troncal 10 road. It was at this point that, while a large portion of the inhabitants of Mapaurí were on the road block, the Kueka Stone was retrieved by Kraker von Schwarzenfeld with the initial leave from the president of the National Parks Institute, Inparques. When they came back from the Troncal 10, the Pemon intercepted the transport and held the Kueka Stone. Kraker von Schwarzenfeld claims that those holding on to it were environmental activists that didn’t believe that a thirty tonne stone was allowed to be removed, and therefore assumed that it was being stolen.

The government violated Decree 276, that stipulates that it’s illegal to remove any element from a national park; the Plan de Ordenamiento y Reglamento de Uso para el Sector Oriental del Parque Nacional Canaima from 1991 that forbade the extraction of any material of that size and type in recreational areas for tourist use; and the Ley Orgánica de Hacienda Pública Nacional, which explicitly forbids any public employee from approving permits concerning state assets.

The case was taken to the national Prosecutor’s Office and the Senate, where they warned Kraken von Schwarzenfeld that taking the stone was illegal. The German artist requested a permit from the Autonomous Institute for the Environment, Minery and Territory Organization (IAMOT) under the governor of Bolívar who, without the authority to do so, allowed moving the Kueka, which then left for Europe in December of that year.

During the protests against the electric network from the Caldera government, the Pemon agreed that they would only negotiate if laws were changed to grant them the property rights on the land in Canaima and other surrounding areas. Following the pattern of land distribution from the National Agrarian Institute, Caldera’s government tried to hand out the property rights to the Pemon, but they opposed, demanding land ownership and not community properties that would mean dividing the territory, its cultural and ancestral meaning, and their fishing and hunting grounds.

In 1999, the new Constitution recognized for the first time the rights of the indigenous people, in spite of the opposition of several chavista constituents that saw them as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. In 2001, the Ley de Demarcación y Garantía del Hábitat y Tierras de los Pueblos Indígenas laid out plans to define the limits of these territories. This way, the Pemon signed an agreement that would allow the culmination of the electric network. However, land ownership papers were never delivered.

Instead, the Orinoco Mining Arc came about in February 2016. Today, according to a report by NGO SOS Orinoco, there are at least fifteen mining sites inside Canaima and eighteen more in an 11KM perimeter surrounding the park.

Many Pemon have had to go and work in the mines, where they have been linked to illegal armed groups. According to the indigenous leader Lisa Henrito, many indigenous lands have been taken over by illegal miners under the watching eye of the army, resulting in all types of confrontations that include the self-defense group Guardia Territorial Pemón; clashes between the National Guard and the Pemon in February of 2019; the arrest of DGCIM agents and Corpoelec employees by Pemon captains that accuse them of the murder of a Pemon in December of 2018, and the arrest, without access to food or medicine, of a Pemon group that allegedly cooperated with army weapons smugglers from the Luepa fort, in December of 2019.

Maduro’s regime has “manipulated the Pemon mind to accept mining” in their lands, Rodríguez says, and thus “co-opt the indigenous” to their plans as a “cleverer” strategy than that from previous administrations. This social and economic transformation has created an “extremely fragile social situation; there’s an extreme polarization between groups that believe in mining, and others that don’t; some want a certain type of mining, and others don’t want to work with the government,” which is achieving “an enormous advancement in mining” and worsening their quality of life. A report in November talked about a Pemon patient, the first case of yellow fever in Venezuela in fourteen years.

In this context, Rodríguez adds, the arrival of the Kueka Stone “could be used for political gain as an acknowledgement to their land and ancestry, steering away the attention from the social crisis in the area.” This way, they’d try to “appease and cool down all that’s happening there,” including an “environmental destruction that’s far worse than that of previous governments.”

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.