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Sierra de Perijá, a mountain range in the state of Zulia in northern Venezuela, is the home of the Yukpa. A flora and fauna sanctuary, the sierra is under threat from mining projects, corruption, and violence exerted by cattle ranchers on the indigenous inhabitants.
In this part of the world cattle ranchers are heavily armed. Fugitives from the law are continuously arriving from the state of Guajira and from Colombia. “Picture a place where hired murderers, paramilitaries, guerrillas and fugitives live together”, explains Lusbi Portillo, who for 27 years through his NGO Sociedad Homo et Natura has been helping indigenous people in Sierra de Perijá to fight for land rights and to stop mining exploitation. “In Sierra de Perijá there is a lot of poverty: There are people who will kill for 1000 Venezuelan Bolivars [circa £100].”
“Closer to the border with Colombia”, he continues, “poppy is sown, there are cocaine laboratories and drug trafficking. There is deforestation to sow marihuana and to sell wood. There is illegal hunting of wild animals, such as macaws, monkeys and alligators, to sell on the black market, and no one controls it.”
The Yukpa and Barí People used to live on all the land from the mountain range to the plains near the lake of Maracaibo, but since 1920 cattle ranchers have been invading the plains at the foot of the mountains, building roads and creating towns. This land, which used to be jungle and forest, is now cattle ranches; indigenous people have been gradually forced to move out of the plains up to the mountains.
The Yukpa are living in crowded conditions in the Sierra de Perijá so they have to deforest to find space for their plots. This area isn’t suited for arable farming and after one harvest they should let the land rest for nine years. But, instead, they are sowing again after three years and the land is losing its fertility. As a result of deforestation, there is no tree canopy to deflect the rain, so it falls directly on the ground, and earth mixed with water flows down the rivers, causing sedimentation.
“In this area life is worth nothing and a Yukpa’s life less than others”
The Yukpa are fighting to get their ancestral territory back, but they are divided, illiterate, and suffer from violence and from health problems. As Lusbi explains: “The Yukpa are malnourished, especially the children. They die of sickness, diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, fever and parasites. They sleep on the floor and bathe in the river. They breathe a lot of smoke as they cook with firewood.”
Nonetheless, the Yukpa are warriors. They want their territory back and six of the 167 Yukpa communities are working together in this fight. “This unity gives them some strength,” says Lusbi. “Entire families have occupied ranches and it has become clear to the cattle ranchers that they would have to kill them, a lot people, to get them out.” In the end the government has allowed the Yukpa people to stay and compensated the cattle ranchers for their investments in the land. The Yukpa have recovered 15 ranches in this way.
It has been a dangerous and unequal fight as cattle ranchers are the political bosses of the area; they control the police and they have money to bribe. In contrast, the Yukpa are marginalised and accused of crimes they have not committed. Eight Yukpa leaders have been killed. “In this area life is worth nothing and a Yukpa’s life is worth even less than everyone else’s.”
Such is the case of Yukpa chief Sabino Romero, a well-known activist, who was wrongly accused of killing two men and imprisoned for 17 months. As there was no real evidence to back the allegations against him, he was eventually freed. On 3 March of this year two men on a motorbike killed him while he was travelling in a vehicle with his wife Lucía.
“CICPC [Body of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations] is investigating Sabino’s death but the police and cattle ranchers are disrupting the process. Every time they bring someone in for questioning, the police and cattle ranchers start to protest, closing the roads and burning tyres. So every time someone is questioned there is a rumpus,” explains Lusbi.
Lusbi and Sabino Romero had known each other since 1992 but Lusbi couldn’t go to his friend’s funeral. “I couldn’t go either to the funeral or to the ceremony of Sabino’s son becoming chief because [the town of] Machiques is very dangerous and I think that my life is at risk there.”
Machiques is the main town in the municipality of Machiques de Perijá, one of the three municipalities that form the Sierra de Perijá. “Cattle ranchers founded this town in 1972 and they still control it”, says Lusbi.
Lusbi, who is also a university lecturer, has been marginalised in many ways for helping the Yukpa. “I have been called a counter-revolutionary [an opponent of the Chavez’s revolution] and a CIA spy. They say I’m financed by European multinationals, that I am a paramilitary, a drug trafficker, I have been accused of everything.”
Lusbi is currently being investigated for endangering the life of Yukpa children after a protest was organised in 2012 by the Yukpa and Sociedad Homo et Natura. Many Indians came to the protest with their children. “I didn’t tell them to bring their children, they just bring everyone to these protests: leaders, men, women and children. The irony is that two of Sabino’s sons died of malnutrition but I am the one who is accused of endangering the children.”