In late February, when crowds led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó attempted to bring humanitarian aid through the borders of Colombia and Brazil, the Pemón indigenous people made the international headlines after some of its members clashed with Venezuelan security forces.
On February 22 and 23, soldiers clashed with protesters in the border towns of Pacaraima (Brazil) and Santa Elena de Uairén (Venezuela) and used lethal force against indigenous Pemón in the Venezuelan village of Kumarakapay, located 70km from the border, killing one and injuring 16. Six others died in regional hospitals in the following days.
Some Pemon responded by capturing an unclear number of officers of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard, who were released shortly after. In the following weeks, police arrested at least 58 people in the surrounding area, 16 of them of Pemón ethnicity. Some have reported enduring torture and cruel treatment while in detention.
Speaking with Sic magazine, a publication by Centro Gumilla, a Jesuit research center, Pemón activist Lisa Henrito condemned the repression in Gran Sabana, the broader Venezuelan municipality that includes Kumarakapay and Santa Elena de Uairén:
…hasta esta fecha y hora, martes, 26 de febrero 2019 a las 5:55 pm sigue la guerra psicológica, hostigamiento y persecución militar. La intimidación donde a cada rato pasan los tanques, los convoy full de efectivos militares, vehículos oficiales con supuestos efectivos de la policía allanando casas y en hora de la noche hay toque de queda, una situación que ya vienen afectando a nuestros ancianos y ancianas, a nuestros niños y niñas…
To this date and time, Tuesday, February 26, 2019, 5:55 pm, the psychological warfare, harassment and persecution by the military continues. Military tanks pass by all day long, as well as convoys with agents from the army, official vehicles with alleged policemen searching homes. There's a curfew at night. This situation is affecting our elderly, our children.
But tensions between the Pemón and the government of Nicolás Maduro long predates the current Venezuelan political standstill.
Residing primarily in Venezuela's Bolívar State, which borders both Brazil and Guyana, the Pemón are Venezuela's fourth-largest indigenous group. In recent years, the Bolivarian president authorized mineral extraction projects in their territory without their agreement and has regularly deployed military forces to their lands.
Some of those projects are part of the Arch of the Orinoco River National Development Strategic Zone, a grand initiative by the Maduro government in 2016 that intends to increase legal mining activity in the resource-rich — and long-dominated by illegal mining gangs — Orinoco river basin.
The Arco Minero, as it's commonly known, allocates an area corresponding to 12 percent of Venezuela's national territory for exploitation. So far more than 150 companies from 35 countries have shown interest in competing for concessions.
But the initiative has drawn criticism for lacking studies on its potential associated environmental and human impact. Several indigenous groups live in the designated area — including the Pemón, who say they have not been consulted about the project. The area also overlaps with protected reserves, such as national parks and sacred sites.
In August 2018, the Venezuelan branch of Amnesty International warned that high-ranking army officials regularly target Pemon activists who protest against Arco Minero‘s projects. Army officers routinely accuse them of being “separatists.”
Speaking with Global Voices, Juan Carlos La Rosa, a member of the educational group Intercultural Indigenous Organization Wainjirawa, says the Pemon have achieved such a high level of autonomous rule that the government now perceives them as a threat:
[La unidad y la organización de los pemón] no le gusta a un gobierno que tiene un plan minero como el Arco Minero del Orinoco. [Tampoco] le gusta a las bandas criminales, consentidas de manera ya muy clara por el ente encargado de la administración de seguridad de la región y del negocio del oro y el coltán.
[The unity and organization of the Pemon people] doesn't please a government that has a plan such as the Arco Minero del Orinoco. [It also displeases] criminal gangs, clearly tolerated by the officials in charge of the security of the region, and the gold and coltan lords.
La Rosa adds that these indigenous communities are in dangerous circumstances, surrounded by illegal gangs and the military, and as such have created alternatives to defend their territories and rights:
El pueblo pemón creó el Consejo de Caciques Generales del Pueblo Pemón, los liderazgos comunitarios y la Guardia Territorial Indígena Pemón, que no le pertenece a nadie sino a las comunidades. Se subordina a la autoridad ancestral electa por todos los pemón y no es un grupo paramilitar como lo están señalando las matrices producidas desde el gobierno nacional.
The Pemon people has created the General Council of Pemon Chiefs, the community leaders, and the Pemon Indigenous Territorial Guard, and none of them belong to anybody else other than the communities. They are subordinate to an ancestral authority, elected by all the Pemón people. They are not a paramilitary group, as it has been said by representatives of the national government.
Following the conflict over humanitarian aid, La Rosa urges the world to watch the Pemon situation closely:
Estamos hablando de la posibilidad de una masacre y es importante que la opinión pública mundial vuelque su mirada hacia los territorios indígenas […] Hoy el gobierno que levanta las banderas de defensa de la soberanía frente a una eventual invasión militar extranjera, es un gobierno que le entrega a esas mismas potencias y a otras potencias, las concesiones mineras del 12 % del territorio nacional.
We're talking about the possibility of a massacre. It's important that the world's public opinion turns its attention to the indigenous territories […] As the government defends the banner of sovereignity facing a potential military intervention, it also gives away to those and other world powers the mining concessions of 12 percent of the national territory.