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VENEZUELA: Indigenous People Killed, Injured in Land Dispute

CARACAS, Oct 16 (IPS) - Two members of the Yukpa indigenous community in Venezuela were killed and others were injured in a firefight between supporters and detractors of a government initiative to distribute land to the ethnic group at the northwest tip of Venezuela, where the Yukpa are caught up in a long-running conflict over land with ranchers and mining companies.

The incident involved members of the communities of Chaktapa and Guamo Pamocha, located near the city of Machiques, 650 km west of Caracas, in the early hours of Wednesday morning – just 24 hours after the government of Hugo Chávez handed over communal land titles to 41,600 hectares to three of the more than 100 Yukpa communities.

The victims were Eber García, from Chaktapa – the son-in-law of Sabino Romero, the leader of the group opposed to the government initiative – and Mireya Romero, the 16-year-old pregnant sister of Olegario Romero, a Guamo Pamocha chief.

Three people were shot and injured: Sabino Romero, who was hit in the shoulders and arms, and his 11-year-old daughter and a young nephew. A boy named Leonel is missing, and other people involved in the conflict were apparently beaten up.

Sabino Romero was taken Wednesday to a hospital in Maracaibo, the biggest city in western Venezuela. But in the early hours of Thursday morning, dozens of police officers and army troops stormed into the building and took him to a military hospital in the city, reporters with community stations who were present at the time told IPS.

"This incident and its sad outcome is the result of multiple factors, especially instigation by landowners, farmers and sectors in the government who want the Yukpa territory to be fragmented, in order to occupy it and pave the way for coal mining in the future," Lusbí Portillo, with Homo et Natura, an environmental group that advocates for indigenous rights and has been involved in the Yukpa cause for 25 years, told IPS.

President Chávez lamented the incident, announced "an exhaustive investigation" by the attorney general's office and the police, and said "the necessary measures" would be taken to resolve the situation.

The Yukpa, who were gradually driven up into the mountains over the past century by cattle ranchers and oil industry interests, lay claim to an ancestral territory of 285,000 hectares of flatlands to the east of the Sierra de Perijá mountains.

Some of the ethnic group's 10,000 members have come down from the mountains in recent years and occupied parts of cattle ranches that they claim as their traditional territory. In the resulting land conflict with the ranchers, who accuse them of stealing livestock, both sides have accused local authorities and the military of siding with their adversaries. There are also complaints that paid gunmen are used to "solve" disputes.

The Yukpa are worried as well that the land will be destroyed if coal mining ventures are allowed to go ahead.

A more recent problem emerged when part of the ethnic group accepted the government's "Plan Yukpa" to start distributing land, credit and vehicles to some of the communities. The plan is also bringing in health programmes.

Twenty human rights groups from western Venezuela and Caracas issued a statement accusing the "Plan Yukpa" of generating divisions and clashes within the ethnic group, part of which continues to demand legal recognition of a larger, continuous Yukpa territory, instead of areas granted to separate communities.

Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami said Thursday that he would not have any information on the causes of the incident until the police investigation was concluded. But he added that "it certainly stands out that irrational sectors, blinded by hatred, say it was the result of the Plan Yukpa, thus trying to discredit it."

The minister said "this was an isolated incident, which occurred outside of the area where the land titles were handed over Monday to the Aroy, Tinacoa and Shirapta communities. Hence, it clearly has nothing to do with the Plan Yukpa."

He also warned ranchers to stop taking their own measures against the Yukpa, saying Chávez's Bolivarian "revolution is on the side of the indigenous people."

Manuel Heredia, president of Venezuela's ranchers federation, said "they are falsely trying to blame what happened on the rural producers from Machiques, when the real problem is that false expectations have been created among the indigenous people, who were led to believe that 220,000 hectares of land were going to be handed over to them."

Like the Yukpa, the Wayúu, Barí and Japreira indigenous groups are fighting for their rights to their land and against cattle ranching and coal mining in their territories, in the same region in northwest Venezuela, on the border with Colombia.

Homo et Natura is demanding that the Yukpa be granted "territories demarcated according to their traditions and purchased from cattle ranching and mining operations."

In March, delegates of some of the indigenous communities and representatives of the ranchers reached an agreement under which the latter would give up their land if the government also compensated them for improvements they have made to the property over the past decades, such as houses, barns, sheds, fences, artificial lakes, dikes, electric wiring, rural roads and fixed machinery.

But in its agrarian reform efforts, the government argues that landowners must be able to show an unbroken chain of land titles that can be traced back at least 160 years, and refuses to pay for improvements to expropriated rural property if the owners cannot do so.

Unclarified incident

Sabino Romero and several people who were with him at the time said the incident began when his son-in-law García was set upon by inebriated relatives of Guamo Pamocha chief Olegario Romero, who accused García of belonging to a group that allegedly stole more than 100 head of cattle from three local ranches a few days earlier.

After García was beaten up, he went back to Chaktapa and told his family what happened to him. Sabino and his relatives then headed to Guamo Pamocha to complain about the violent attack and about the rumours that they were cattle thieves.

According to Sabino and his fellow Chaktapa villagers, Olegario reportedly pulled out a shotgun and fired at them, and they fled.

García's widow, Guillermina Romero, said that after her husband was shot, he got his hands on a shotgun and opened fire in the direction of the people from Guamo Pamocha, killing the young pregnant girl.

The rest of the injured are from Chaktapa, one of the communities demanding a continuous, unfragmented Yukpa territory of at least 285,000 hectares for the entire group.

"The state has a responsibility to settle the longstanding debt to the indigenous people, and it must provide them with protection and abstain from carrying out or allowing actions that undermine their right to life and other rights," Marino Alvarado, with the human rights group Provea, told IPS.

Provea and the other 19 human rights groups that signed the statement blaming the government plan for creating divisions among the Yukpa are asking the Chávez administration to stop treating Sabino Romero as a criminal, to modify the Plan Yukpa, to reform the committee for the demarcation of indigenous territories, and to pay the ranchers for the improvements to their land, so the indigenous group can recover its ancestral territory.

They also recommend that "ancestral and traditional authorities from the Yukpa people be included in decision-making on issues that most directly affect them, that the most important documents in the demarcation process be translated into the Yukpa language, and that each community be consulted with, in compliance with the principle of previous consultation, carried out in good faith."

The Wayúu representative on the land demarcation committee, Aimée Larreal, called for the work to be temporarily halted and revised, in light of this week's violence.

The 1999 constitution, adopted after Chávez took office, requires the demarcation of indigenous territories.

The constitution, which was rewritten by an elected constituent assembly that included delegates of indigenous organisations, also stipulated for the first time that Congress must include representatives of native groups.

Besides granting communal land titles to indigenous groups like the Yukpa, the government has issued identity cards through a programme named Mission Identity to nearly 300,000 of the country's roughly 500,000 indigenous people, who belong to 32 different ethnic groups, in this country of 27 million.

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