The Uwottüja or Piaroa people are made up of some 20,000 people who live mainly on the eastern bank of the Middle Orinoco River, in Venezuelan territory, in the area known as the four rivers (Sipapo, Cuao, Autana and Guayapo); They also have a small presence on the western bank of the Orinoco, in Colombian territory.
For at least a decade, armed groups of various kinds have entered this area, including Colombian guerrillas, drug traffickers, illegal miners, smugglers, and traffickers of gold and other minerals.
In March 2020, a community assembly was held, chaired by the Uwottüja Council of Elders of the Four Rivers, in which “the indigenous people and their representatives discussed extensively about the presence of external armed groups in their territory and about the different illegal activities that they affect them as original inhabitants of that region. In said Assembly, the Uwottüja communities demanded that the various competent agencies of the Venezuelan State protect and respect their ancestral territory and the immediate, peaceful, and definitive departure of the armed groups that have been operating for several years in the area, generating various problems. within the communities”.
As has happened with other Venezuelan indigenous peoples, the State ignored the demands of the Uwottüja and, consequently, friction between the original residents and the armed invaders increased. The indigenous organization was reinforced with the young people grouped in the so-called Indigenous Guardians of the Ancestral Territory.
In mid-May 2022, illegal groups linked to drug trafficking settled in the jungle area behind the indigenous community of Pendare. Members of the Indigenous Guardians went to the area to verify the situation and protest the presence of this group on community lands. On this occasion, the indigenous Pablo Medina was held by drug traffickers for several hours and released at the end of the afternoon.
The Uwottüja people are known for their peaceful character. Homicide among them is almost non-existent, since they consider that “whoever kills another man will die a terrible death (including outsiders)”. Thus, faced with heavily armed criminal groups, they find themselves in a situation of great vulnerability, especially if the State does not take into account its fair demands for protection for them and their territory.
The presence of armed groups in indigenous territories of the Venezuelan Amazon is not new, but it has increased, especially since February 2016, when the Maduro government decreed the Arco Minero del Orinoco National Strategic Development Zone, which covers some 111,846 Km2, equivalent to 12% of the surface of Venezuela and the entire territory of Liberia.
The lack of presence of State institutions and the attitude of tolerance or complicity of civil and military authorities in a territory already identified for its enormous mineral wealth, are a propitious context for the proliferation of armed groups seeking easy wealth. A massacre of members of the Pemón ethnic group in November 2019 and another killing of members of the Yanomami people in March 2022 are no longer isolated events on warning signs, but evidence of the increased levels of violence in the area, where there is a presence of military and irregular armed groups that dispute access to mining.
An eventual negotiation process for the re-institutionalization of Venezuela cannot leave out these dynamics that have turned the south of the country into a lawless territory, with serious and irreversible consequences for the indigenous peoples and the environmental degradation of their ancestral territories which are also world heritage.
(*) We appreciate the support of an expert human rights defender in the area in the preparation of this analysis whose name is being withheld for security reasons.