Venezuelan Yanomami in conflict with illegal miners

Venezuelan Yanomami in conflict with illegal miners

In August, news broke of an alleged massacre of Yanomami people in the remote Upper Ocamo river. The news had filtered down to mission stations among the Yanomami in the Parima grasslands further south and was then broadcast by the Yanomami organisation, Horonami, and other indigenous organisations in the Venezuelan State of Amazonas. The problem of illegal incursions by Brazilian miners into the territory of the Venezuelan Yanomami has been going on sporadically since the mid-1960s and has led to repeated epidemics and outbreaks of violence[1]. In 1993, a massacre in the community of Haximu  led to international investigations and the conviction of several miners in the Brazilian courts. There was alarm that something similar had just occurred in the Upper Ocamo.

An initial one-day investigation in early September by the Venezuelan Ministry for Indigenous Affairs while welcomed, was criticised for not actually reaching the site of the alleged incident. The Government was also criticised for overstating that ‘all was well’ in the region, when the presence of illegal miners in the area was widely known among the indigenous peoples.

In late September, the army and Ministry of Public Affairs carried out a further joint five-day visit to the Upper Ocamo with Horonami. Following the investigation, Horonami released its own findings, noting that considerable numbers of miners are operating illegally in the area supplied through clandestine airstrips. In the view of Horonami, the stories of a massacre, while not confirmed, are evidence that there are conflicts between the miners and the local communities in the area. Horonami recognises that serious efforts have been made periodically by both the Brazilian and Venezuelan armed forces to clear the Yanomami's territory of miners, but issued a call for more systematic patrolling of the area, with Yanomami participation, to control illegal access to their territory and so prevent harm to the communities, health problems and the destruction of their forests. In the view of Horonami, a more detailed investigation on the ground in the Upper Ocamo is still urgently needed. 

The whole issue became heated at the national and then international levels as the government interpreted the expressions of concern for the Yanomami as an electoral ploy to discredit the government while it faces a challenging national election. Just how touchy the government is about international scrutiny soon became apparent. When, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a communiqué reporting the allegations of a massacre and calling for an investigation, the Government responded by withdrawing from (‘denouncing’ is the legal term) the American Convention on Human Rights altogether. Regretting this withdrawal the IACHR noted that: 

Such a denunciation shall not have the effect of releasing the State Party concerned from the obligations contained in this Convention with respect to any act that may constitute a violation of those obligations and that has been taken by that state prior to the effective date of denunciation.

[1] The Health and Survival of the Venezuelan Yanoama, IWGIA, Survival International and Anthropology Resource Center, 1985,