Venezuela promises refuge for Stone Age Indians

September 30, 1990|By New York Times News Service

CARACAS, Venezuela -- In a breakthrough for the survival of the Yanomami Indians, Venezuela's president has promised to create a reserve in the Amazon for the threatened Stone Age tribe by next spring.

"We will do it," Carlos Andres Perez promised in a recent interview at the Presidential Palace here. "We are going to give them special treatment because they are very important, one of the last ethnic reserves of humanity."

On Sept. 16, a survey commission returned from the area, reporting the discovery of 10 Yanomami villages they say had never before been visited by anyone except other tribal members.

The Yanomami are believed to number about 14,000 in Venezuela and about 9,000 in Brazil, and most of their other villages had previously been visited by outsiders.

After meeting on Sept. 19 with the survey commission, Mr. Perez requested that the leader, Charles Brewer-Carias, meet with government ministers to start drawing up the boundaries and legal status for the reserve.

"He is very much in favor of the reserve," Mr. Brewer-Carias, a Venezuelan naturalist, said after briefing the president. "The dimensions and the legal status have yet to be decided."

A reserve would be an important step for the tribe, considered by anthropologists to be the last major tribe largely untouched by modern civilization in the Americas.

"I am elated, very pleased," Napoleon A. Chagnon, a U.S. anthropologist, said on hearing of Mr. Perez's promise to create the Amazon's first Yanomami tribal reserve. "Because of the maltreatment of the Yanomami on the Brazilian side, there will be a collective sigh of relief around the world."

In Brazil, anthropologists and government officials have debated the size of a Yanomami reserve for a decade. While the debate went on inconclusively, tens of thousands of gold miners invaded Indian lands, bringing malaria, scaring away game and poisoning rivers with mercury.

"The Yanomami live worse in Brazil," Antonio Guzman, a tribal leader, said in an interview at Ocamo, a Roman Catholic mission on the Orinoco River in the Amazonas territory of Venezuela.

For centuries, Venezuela's attitude toward the tribe in the remote southern corner of the nation was one of benign neglect, said Jesus Ignacio Cardozo, president of the Venezuelan Foundation for Anthropological Research.

While some Venezuelans fear that they are about to witness a replay of the cultural and physical disintegration of the Yanomami that started in Brazil in the late 1980s, the government hassought to limit the miners' activities.

In a typical case in June, when Venezuela's defense minister flew to a Yanomami area to inaugurate a new army base, his helicopter pilot spotted 12 Brazilian miners in Venezuela. The miners were arrested and expelled to Roraima territory in Brazil.

To keep Brazilian miners out of the area, Mr. Perez and the president of Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello, met on July 20 at a Venezuela border town facing Roraima. Out of the meeting came an agreement on joint cooperation on raids against miners and sharing of satellite photographinformation about the sites of illegal jungle airstrips.

In Brazil, the miners have caused a malaria epidemic by moving constantly through the rain forest and by using water-blasting mining techniques that create stagnant pools where mosquitoes breed. Now, malaria is spreading fast in Venezuela's Amazon.

"Malaria has worsened in the last two years among the Yanomami," Dr. Monica Perret, a Venezuelan, said here. Recovering from a bout of malaria she picked up while attending the Indians, Dr. Perret said a study by a state health program, Parima-Culebra, found that in Ocamo, as many as 50 percent of the Indians fell ill with malaria this year.

On a wall at the Amazon Ethnological Museum in Puerto Ayacucho, a display lists the 37 Indian tribes that lived in Venezuela in 1492. Today only seven survive as distinct communities with more than 5,000 people.

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