Venezuela: indigenous peoples face deteriorating human rights situation due to mining, violence and COVID-19 pandemic

Venezuela is suffering from an unprecedented human rights and humanitarian crisis that has deepened due to the dereliction by the authoritarian government and the breakdown of the rule of law in the country.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that some 5.2 million Venezuelans have left the country, most arriving as refugees and migrants in neighbouring countries.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2018 had categorized this situation of human rights, as “a downward spiral with no end in sight”.

The situation of the right to health in Venezuela and its public health system showed structural problems before the pandemic and was described as a “dramatic health crisis (…) consequence of the collapse of the Venezuelan health care system” by the High Commissioner.

Recently, the OHCHR submitted a report to the Human Rights Council, in which it addressed, among other things the attacks on  indigenous peoples’ rights in the Arco Minero del Orinoco (Orinoco’s Mining Arc or AMO).

 Indigenous peoples’ rights and the AMO mining projects before the covid-19 pandemic

Indigenous peoples have been traditionally forgotten by government authorities in Venezuela and condemned to live in poverty. During the humanitarian crisis, they have suffered further abuses due to the mining activity and the violence occurring in their territories.

In 2016, the Venezuelan government created the Orinoco’s Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone through presidential Decree No. 2248, as a mega-mining project focused mainly in gold extraction in an area of 111.843,70 square kilometres.

It is located at the south of the Orinoco river in the Amazonian territories of Venezuela and covers three states: Amazonas, Bolívar and Delta Amacuro.

It is the habitat for several indigenous ethnic groups[1] who were not properly consulted before the implementation of the project.

The right to land of indigenous peoples is recognized in the Venezuelan Constitution. Yet, as reported by local NGO Programa Venezolano de Educación- Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), the authorities have shown no progress in the demarcation and protection of indigenous territories since 2016.

Several indigenous organizations and other social movements have expressed concern and rejected the AMO project.

The implementation of this project has negatively impacted indigenous peoples’ rights to life, health and a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. Human Rights Watch, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, local NGO’s, social movements and the OHCHR, have documented the destruction of the land and the contamination of rivers due to the deforestation and mining activity, which is also contributing to the growth of Malaria and other diseases.

Indigenous women and children are among the most affected. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has reported that “the indigenous populations living in border areas of Venezuela are highly vulnerable to epidemic-prone diseases”, and it raised a special concern about the Warao people (Venezuela and Guyana border) and Yanomami people (Venezuela and Brazil border).

Women and children also face higher risks of sexual and labour exploitation and of gender-based violence in the context of mining activities.

The High Commissioner’s recent report mentions that there is “a sharp increase since 2016 in prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking in mining areas, including of adolescent girls.

In addition, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have identified a trend among adolescents of dropping out of school particularly between the ages of 13 and 17. Indigenous individuals are acutely affected, as many children leave to become workers at the mines.

Violence and crime have also increased in the AMO. Criminal organizations and guerrilla and paramilitary groups are present in the zone, and the Venezuelan government has expanded its military presence. Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders have been targets of attacks and threats; and there is a persistence of allegations of cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial and arbitrary killings.

Current situation under COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of adequate response to it has aggravated this situation.

The government declared a state of emergency (estado de alarma) on 13 March and established a mandatory lockdown and social distancing measures. Yet mining activities have continued without adequate sanitary protocols to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

The State of Bolívar -the largest state of the country which is located in the Orinoco Mining Arc- has among the highest numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 which have included indigenous peoples.

The Venezuelan authorities’ response to the pandemic in these territories has not considered culturally appropriate measures for them. In addition, although authorities established a group of hospitals and medical facilities called “sentinel centres” to attend persons with COVID-19 symptoms, they are located in cities while indigenous communities live far from cities.

Furthermore, the lack of petrol in the country aggravates the obstacles to easy transportation to these centres.

Civil society organizations and indigenous leaders complain about the lack of COVID-19 tests and the data manipulation of the real situation of the pandemic. Also, the OHCHR reported the arbitrary arrest of at least three health professionals for denouncing the lack of basic equipment and for providing information about the situation of COVID-19, and stressed that there are “restrictions to civic and democratic space, including under the “state of alarm” decreed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[1] At least Kari’ña, Warao, Arawak, Pemón, Ye’kwana, Sanemá o Hotï, Eñe’pa, Panare, Wánai, Mapoyo, Piaroa and Hiwi.


Venezuela-COVID19 indigenous-News Feature articles-2020-ENG (full article with additional information, in PDF)

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