Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Mining is Igniting an Indigenous Conflict in the Venezuelan Amazon

Some of them want to work for the miners, others only want to defend their ancestral land, but violence has already begun and the ELN is behind it all

They were going up the Sipapo River when they spotted a barbed wire line, stretched out from shore to shore, blocking navigation. A group of armed men with machetes, sticks, rocks, and gasoline were waiting for them. They made them get off their curiaras (traditional riverboats), tied them up and took them to a house they called “the command center”. There, they hit them and doused them in gasoline. One of them had to be rescued from the forest, where the attackers left him for dead, with his head bleeding.

Even in violent Venezuela, violence between Indigenous communities isn’t common. But in this case, they all were, and from the same ethnic group.

“They were all Uwottüja,” Alirio Sánchez said, from the Uwottüja community (or piaroa as they are called by the rest of the country) of Guarinuma, in the Autana municipality of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas. He was one of the victims that day in Caño Guamo. None of them died; one of them had a head wound from a machete strike, and he got medical care at José Gregorio Hernández Hospital in Puerto Ayacucho, the state’s capital.

When they were attacked, Sánchez and his group were heading to a mine near Cerro Quemado. They were carrying food and gasoline for the miners.

In Amazonas, everyone understands that when you talk about armed groups which are foreign to Indigenous territory, you’re talking about the Colombian guerrilla.

“To get by,” Sánchez admitted to a radio station in Puerto Ayacucho,  “because the situation is very difficult to take food to our children.”

He also admitted that Caño Guamo leads to a mine: “But a small one, not a big one like the ones in the Orinoco.”

As Sánchez told his story, Otilio Santos gave a press conference in Puerto Ayacucho. Santos is the general coordinator of the Organización Indígena de los Pueblos Uwottüja del Sipapo (OIPUS). It was April 9th and, at the time, people from OIPUS had managed to go to Caño Guamo to find out what had happened. They were told that the clash had taken place because the Indigenous guard was trying to stop them from taking more supplies to the mine, where there are about two hundred people, Santos said, “from our own community”. Alirio López, also from OIPUS, explained that that’s the Indigenous guard’s job: defending their ancestral territory, its resources, and their people. Cutting the river routes of supplies for the gold and coltan mines is vital to them.

“But the Indigenous people who are in favor of this exploitation have rejected the work of the Indigenous Guard, of the communities, and our organization. They are being forced to do that work, they have even been threatened. They tell young people who work in illegal mining to stand up to them, to not stop, to fight for their mines, and they have even given them weapons,” López said. 

Who is giving firearms to the Indigenous people so that no one stops them from carrying food and fuel to the mines? OIPUS didn’t want to point out any particular armed group. But they do believe it’s people who come from other places and are forcing the Indigenous people to work for them. Besides, the Uwottüja don’t have the resources to buy the machinery and fuel, or how to open up a mine in the middle of the Venezuelan Amazon jungle.

In Amazonas, everyone understands that when you talk about armed groups which are foreign to Indigenous territory, you’re talking about the Colombian guerrilla.

“It’s a lie,” says Alirio Sánchez. He says the guerrilla isn’t funding them. That they survive through plot farming. That the Indigenous guard attacked them in Caño Guamo and that they took the food and fuel they found on them. He also says he’s received death threats.

Those in OIPUS say that some Indigenous people like Sánchez “have filled themselves with damaging strength and words. This clash between our young people, with blades, we never saw before.”

The Death of the Teacher

When the presence of rebel armed groups is presumed in the Venezuelan Amazon, it’s also presumed that these subjects are the ones in control of the mining exploitation in the state. Both things are linked.

This is what’s being denounced by several NGOs researching the southern region in Venezuela. SOS Orinoco speaks of over two thousand miners operating inside the Parque Nacional Yapacana, in several mines with high environmental impact. “Among those who are directly responsible for such an ecocide,” their report states, “are high-ranking officials of the regime, officers of several ranks of the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana and the Colombian guerrilla, the latter as an alliance between the ELN and FARC.” 

FundaRedes, the same NGO that’s been reporting the conflict between the FANB and FARC dissidents in Apure, said through its spokesperson José Mejías that “in the Atapabo municipality, specifically in the Parque Nacional Yapacana, there are at least 27 mines, over which there are fights, and stuck in the middle of those, are Indigenous communities who have been affected, including the murder of several people.” 

On April 4th, José Dacosta, a teacher in the Escuela San Pedro Alejandrino de Samariapo and a member of the Jivi ethnic community, was murdered. Dacosta worked for Mine 40 to help support his family, and according to FundaRedes “he was killed by rebel armed groups that operate in the area.” The murder of Dacosta was confirmed by the Indigenous people’s rights advocate organization Kapé Kapé.

A source (which will remain anonymous) used to work in moving products and passengers to the mines and knows the story.

“He was killed by accident,” says the source, “the profe borrowed a boat from some elenos (as the members of the ELN are called), after asking the person who was looking after it, a man who was drinking. When the elenos came by asking for the boat, the guy didn’t remember that he had lent it to Dacosta and said that it had been stolen. This made the elenos furious and when the profe came back with his companion (Luis Charlot Gariban, 17 years old) they didn’t give a chance to speak and killed him.”

In the Parque Nacional Yapacana there are at least 27 mines, over which there are fights, and stuck in the middle of those are Indigenous communities who have been affected, including the murder of several people.

Those close to the teacher reported him missing and demanded answers from the elenos.

“The Indigenous committee called for a meeting with the Venezuelan military and the guerrillas and they managed to get the teacher’s body back. The boy survived and he was taken to Inírida (in the Colombian Guainía department),” said the source. 

Those who work in the mines know that this is how the ELN runs the territory. They know that anyone who steals from them or is out to deal drugs is punished by amputation or death. They say that they take the dead to mass graves in the mines. José Dacosta’s wife said just that to local media, that they found her husband’s body in the mass grave and there were many other bodies too. After the meeting with the Indigenous community, the military, and guerrillas, Dacosta’s body was taken to San Fernando de Atabapo, where he was buried.

Defending Ancestral Land On Their Own

As a result of the disputes between Indigenous communities, OIPUS requested (and obtained) precautionary measures from the Public Prosecutor’s Office as well as the Amazonas Ombudsman’s Office, to protect the environment and the integrity of the ancestral territory. They want the FANB to evict the illegal miners immediately from the Alto Guayapo, protect the leaders from their communities, the young Indigenous guards, and OIPUS’ board of directors since they all have been getting threats these past few months.

“These miners and their sponsors threatened to burn down the entire community of Caño Guamo soon if they’re not allowed to continue their mining activity. Not only is it the responsibility of the Uwottüja people, but of all Amazonas and the Venezuelan State, to take action,” Alirio López said during a press conference in Puerto Ayacucho. 

OIPUS has been denouncing the presence of armed groups and illegal miners in their ancestral land since 2013, but everything worsened when the first machines for gold extraction in the region of Alto Guayopo arrived. López insisted they informed the military officers of the Zona Operativa de Defensa Integral, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ombudsman’s Office. 

From Puerto Carreño to Puerto Ayacucho

During decades of armed conflict in the neighboring country, Colombian guerrillas crossed over many times the river border. In the past few years, when FARC and ELN were losing territory in Colombia but at the same time gaining political support in Venezuela, crossing the border from time to time turned into a permanent deal. There’s no official confirmation on the death of a.k.a. Jesús Santrich, who was the commander of a dissident branch of the FARC, but it’s a known fact that it happened on Venezuelan soil in May.

In Puerto Ayacucho, barely separated from Colombia by the Orinoco, common citizens merely whisper the presence of members of the guerrilla in their town. Most of them believe they’re deeper inside the jungle; others reckon they could be in other places.

In the past few years, when FARC and ELN were losing territory in Colombia but at the same time gaining political support in Venezuela, crossing the border from time to time turned into a permanent deal.

Research led by Crisis Group had access to photographs, videos, and audio clips confirming the activities of FARC dissidents and the ELN in Amazonas. In Puerto Carreño, on the Colombian side, they also have to deal with the crime group Los Puntilleros de Vichada, as well as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, a successor group of the paramilitaries, according to the investigation. The mining explosion in Venezuela came as a great economic opportunity for the guerrilla groups that didn’t want to abide by the Colombian peace agreements of 2016. Crisis Group researchers interviewed Venezuelan migrants who had reached the Colombian Amazon and they spoke of how the guerrillas had settled in temporary campsites and plots of land where they raised cattle and grew their food in Venezuela. 

FundaRedes also leaked a video of an alleged meeting between the FARC and an Uwottüja community commission, on November 16th, 2020, where the Indigenous people rejected guerrilla presence near Puerto Ayacucho. In the meeting, someone identified as Commander Yulianny, a.k.a. Gata, is seen demanding the FARC be recognized by the Indigenous community as a “belligerent force”, a term used to describe a party in an armed conflict and not a criminal organization. A member of the community said that “the late Chávez made an agreement, but the late Chávez didn’t come to us, he didn’t tell us anything.” 

The tragic irony is that, as it also happens with drugs and human trafficking in Sucre and Delta Amacuro, or with the presence of irregular groups in Apure and Táchira, all this auric economy which has tied Venezuelan authorities with Colombian armed groups has taken place in one of the poorest states of Venezuela. And of course, it’s against the law: Presidential Decree 269 on the Gaceta Oficial Extraordinaria No. 4,106 of 1989 forbidding mining exploitation in the Venezuelan Amazon, is still in force.

Manoa Fernandes

Manoa Fernandes is a pseudonym chosen by a local reporter who keeps his-her identity hidden for safety reasons.