Yanomami indigenous populations at risk in Venezuela

Cenoya Silva, an indigenous Yanomami woman from the remote community of Parima B in Venezuela’s Amazonas state, has been waiting three months for her 16-year-old son, Borges Sifontes, and her 19-year-old son-in-law, Gabriel Silva, who are confined to a military hospital in Caracas, 500 miles from their community.

Sifontes and Silva witness a March 20 “shock” between the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) and the indigenous population. According to media and human rights organizations, four indigenous people were killed after a disagreement broke out over internet access. The Attorney General announced an investigation in the conduct of the FANB during the clash, but lawyers representing the family say it has stalled and no arrests have been made.

Sifontes was shot and seriously injured in the incident. He underwent three surgeries there before authorities transferred him to Caracas. He was due to undergo a fourth surgery, but no information is available on whether this took place.

Sifontes and Silva have not been allowed family visits or visits from human rights organizations since April, according to Olnar Ortiz, a lawyer with the non-governmental organization Foro Penal.

Ortiz received threats for representing the family.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last report on Venezuela called for an “independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigation” into the event, but Venezuela lacks judicial independence and impunity for human rights violations is common.

The High Commissioner also urged the authorities to address the “underlying causes” of the March 20 incident.

Venezuela has repeatedly failed to protect the Yanomami from violence, forced labor and sexual exploitation by illegal miners. Human Rights Watch has documented horrific abuses – amputations, shootings, murders – committed by groups controlling illegal gold mines in the region.

In southern Venezuela, in the jungles of the Orinoco and the Amazon, illegal mining has led to deforestation and polluted watersand moved Indigenous communities.

SOS Orinoco, an environmental group, reports large colonies of illegal miners in the dense jungle of the Parima Mountains. The group also reports that garimpeiros (illegal miners from Brazil) and Venezuelan security forces often work together in illicit trafficking.

During the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, which takes place in Geneva this month, the states concerned should call on Venezuela to release Sifontes and Silva immediately. Countries should also adopt safeguards to prevent Venezuelan gold linked to environmental damage and abuse against indigenous peoples from being imported into their jurisdiction. Likewise, companies must ensure they do not contribute to abuses in their gold supply chains.

Martin E. Berry