Venezuela: Indigenous land battle faces violent attack

Issue 

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has intervened in a land dispute in the Sierra de Perija region, near the country's north-western border with Colombia, where the Yukpa indigenous people have occupied 14 large estates to demand legal title to their ancestral lands.

"There should be no doubt: Between the large estate owners and the indians, this government is with the indians", Chavez declared on his weekly talk show, Alo Presidente, on August 24.

"The large landowners have to understand there is a revolution going on here", Chavez added.

The Yukpa were forcibly driven off their lands during the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in the 1940s. Today much of the 1200 hectares under dispute is "owned" by the Vargas family, although they do not have legal title to it.

Land reform

According to the constitution adopted by popular vote in 1999 and the Indigenous Land Law passed in 2005, the government is required to grant indigenous groups legal title over their ancestoral land.

In 2005 the national government officially designated the lands currently under dispute for demarcation and redistribution, however the process stalled and over the past year the Yukpa began occupying estates in efforts to recuperate their land.

The conflict came to a head on August 6 when hundreds of armed mercenaries, hired by large landowners, attacked the indigenous communities occupying the estates.

This was just the latest in a series of attacks aimed at terrorising and intimidating the indigenous community and forcing them off their lands.

In July, land owner Alejandro Vargas and four others, armed with guns and machetes, attempted to assassinate the Yukpa cacique (chief) Sabino Romero, who is leading the occupations, and beat and killed Romero's elderly 109-year-old father Jose Manuel Romero.

Venezuelanalysis.com reported on August 18 that after shooting through the small door of a Yukpa home in July, Vargas told the Yukpa that pleading to the National Guard or local government will do no good because "I pay all of them".

The dispute highlights a growing struggle between on the one hand the grassroots movements and the left wing of the pro-Chavez movement, seeking to deepen the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism as Chavez has called for — and, on the other, the right wing of the Chavista movement, who don't want to go beyond capitalism, the US-backed anti-Chavez opposition and significant parts of the still-existing capitalist state institutions.

After the attack, the military commander in Zulia, General Izquierdo Torres, ordered a security cordon to be erected around the area, preventing independent journalists from entering the zone and restricting free movement of the Yukpa communities occupying the estates.

Torres has been accused of collaborating with the local landowners

Then on August 21-22 a humanitarian mission of 45 people, belonging to social movements, representatives of Venezuelan alternative and state media and students from the Bolivarian University, were intercepted by the National Guard, four of whom were detained.

One of those detained, Tomas Becerra, was badly beaten.

Earlier, in an August 8 press conference, indigenous minister Nicia Maldando downplayed the armed attack, arguing that there were not hundreds of mercenaries, only 50, and called on the indigenous communities occupying the estates to follow the legal path and respect private property.

The minister also told the Yukpa that testimonies and denunciations of the attacks should be brought to the local courthouse to be investigated.

However, the Yukpa remain wary of regional and local authorities, which frequently contradict central government policies in a zone where large landowners retain tremendous power.

More than 200 peasants have been killed by private mercenaries hired by large landowners in the struggle to redistribute idle lands and carry out agrarian reform since Chavez's 2001 land reform decree.

'Ambiguous attitudes'

Chavez slammed what he described as the "ambiguous attitudes" of some government functionaries in dealing with the land demarcation process and ordered an investigation into the violent attacks.

"At times, we are feeble-spirited, we name a commission and a year goes by and they travel, and they travel again, and they have a meeting here and there, and two years go by, but there is never a solution to the problem", Chavez declared.

"These are the old vices of the past, that is called bureaucratisation, and this has to come to an end!"

Chavez also gave instructions to Vice-President Ramon Carrizalez, justice minister Rodriguez Chacin, environment minister Yubiri Ortega, as well as General Torres, to "demarcate the indigenous lands with the participation of the indigenous councils", compensate the landowners, and offer the communities the protection, credits, and equipment needed to launch sustainable agricultural projects.

Yukpa representative Mari Fernandez told state television channel VTV on August 26 that the community continues to receive death threats from the land owners, calling on the national government for protection.

"We want protection for Sabino, because they are trying to kill him", she said.

Daisy Gonzalez Romero, another Yukpa representative, also explained to VTV: "We are the original peoples of the Sierra de Perija. We are not invading the estates, no, they belong to us, what we are doing is recuperating the land of our ancestors."

Venezuelan ombudsman Indico Ramirez confirmed on August 28 that the Yupka have the law on their side, stating that the government will buy the lands, grant collective title to the Yupka and negotiate compensation with the landowners.

Chacin also said that the presence of mercenaries in the zone and the death of Jose Manuel Romero are being investigated, as is the detention of the four members of the humanitarian mission.