(Reuters) - Mining, ranchers, religious conversion and socialist politics in some of the world’s deepest forests are changing Venezuela’s Indian tribes at the same time they push for the implementation of laws protecting their land.
Here are some facts about the original inhabitants of the South American nation now better known for oil, beauty queens and President Hugo Chavez:
* Unlike nearby nations that straddle the high Andes and have very large indigenous populations, Venezuela’s Indian groups are demographically tiny, making up barely 2 percent of the country’s 29 million people.
* Under Chavez, the number of indigenous ethnic groups recognized by the government has risen to 44. The largest groups are the Wayuu, Warao and Pemon which have thousands of members. The smallest groups number in the dozens.
* The Wayuu are goat and sheep herders who live on the desert-like Guajira peninsula that Venezuela shares with Colombia and is bordered by the Caribbean sea. About 300,000 are Venezuelan with a smaller number living across the border. La Guajira contains huge coal deposits, which has put the Wayuu in conflict with mining companies.
* The Warao live on the wetlands and tributaries of the Orinoco delta. Some say Spanish invaders named Venezuela, meaning “Little Venice, after seeing Warao houses, which like other indigenous homes in the west of the country, are built on stilts above the water. It is not unusual for Warao children to learn to swim before they walk.
* In the deep jungles of southern Venezuela the Yanomami, Ye’kuana, Sanema, Piaroa, Enepa and several other groups hunt, gather, farm and trade via a network of rivers and footpaths. Record world gold prices bring illegal gold miners who bribe soldiers to blast the forest floor with high power hoses. The prospectors bring with them alcohol, prostitution and higher risks of malaria.
* Laws drawn up by Chavez’s government allow indigenous groups to claim for themselves territories they have inhabited for generations. Delays in implementing this have caused anger and led to significant protests, including a hunger strike over the arrest of a Yukpa chief, Sabino Romero.
* Conflict over land in the Perija mountain range that straddles the border with Colombia and fertile farmland beneath it has led to violence between the Yukpa, Bari, Wayuu and non-Indian ranchers. The Perija mountains have also long been frequented by drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas from across the border.
* The rivers of Venezuela’s central plains were traditionally Pume territory, but during the 20th century these fishing people have been pushed off most of their land by cattle ranchers. Now many live fenced into small areas close to river banks. The government has promised to help them recover their losses.
* Chavez has used Venezuela’s Indian past and present to give identity to his home-spun socialist revolution, making frequent reference to heroic leaders who resisted the Spanish conquest, such as Cacique Guaicaipuro. He also refers to the indigenous concept of Buen Vivir, of life in harmony between the world and its inhabitants.
* The Ye’kuana are best known outside Venezuela for their laid-back child-rearing techniques, which were made famous by U.S. author Jean Liedloff, whose book the Continuum Concept recommended Western parents copy Ye’kuana techniques. Practices such as constant physical contact with the mother or primary caregiver, breast-feeding on demand, and not making children the center of attention influenced liberal thinking in the West.
Reporting by Frank Jack Danielin Caracas, Editing by Kieran Murray