In the discussion of the tragic mass exodus of Venezuelan emigrants, the fate of indigenous people has often been pushed to the background. Yet, the sad case of indigenous Venezuelans constitutes a tragedy within a tragedy. As Venezuela slides further into economic collapse and authoritarian government, the indigenous peoples remain the most vulnerable.
On the border with Colombia, for example, there have been cases of mothers who give their children away because they can not feed them, and in the cities the Wayú are among those who comb through garbage in search of food.
Even those who live relatively secluded lives in cities are affected.
8,000 years ago the Warao inhabited the jungles in what is now Venezuela, on the banks of the Orinoco River. But under Venezuela’s socialist regime, more and more have been forced towards Brazil where many now live as refugees.
This has wreaked havoc in the communities on the border, in particular with other indigenous tribes that proclaim that land as theirs and see the Venezuelans as invaders.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Brazilian indigenous groups have persistently presented claims before the Brazilian government for the official recognition of their land, which they must now share with recently arrived Venezuelan indigenous people, who are supplied by organizations both inside and outside the Brazilian government.
Although they clarify that they have nothing personally against the Warao, indigenous leaders like Jesus Level de Almeida, argue that “we are prepared to fight to have the right to our land. If you insist on the idea of being prepared, you will see what a brave Indian is.”
The recent influx of Venezuelans has required that the lands of Brazilian indigenous peoples be used without their consent.
Local authorities ask for border closure
On August 18, there was a wave of attacks against the migrants. Inhabitants of the border zone set fire to both the tents that house the Venezuelans, and their belongings.
After the incident, it is estimated that 1,200 Venezuelans returned to their country from Brazil.
Local Brazilians were angered over a brutal attack on a local shopkeeper, allegedly at the hands of Venezuelans, and this anger was directed towards the refugees.
Although the president denied the request, the current tense situation tension prompted authorities in the state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela, to ask the president to temporarily close the border.
Lack of hygiene in Venezuela causes return of long eradicated diseases
Venezuelan migration has also posed a grave risk to public health, due to the abysmal state of its healthcare system.
Although in 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Latin America free of measles, Venezuela has suffered several outbreaks and the virus was recently seen in Ecuador (which had not registered a case since 1996, according to the minister of health, Verónica Espinosa) with the arrival of a 5 year old Venezuelan boy on March 27, 2018.
This phenomenon was even worse in Brazil, given that migration mainly affects indigenous populations, which have a low degree of vaccination.
In March of this year the first case of measles appeared among the Yanomami, a indigenous group that lives on both sides of the border. The vaccination rate is low among the group. Since they live in voluntary isolation, they do not seek out contact with the external world. But the recent migratory waves from Venezuela led to 67 confirmed cases in four months, according to findings from the Special Indigenous Health District for the Yanomami and Iekuana.
“We have no control over the disease among the Venezuelan Indians; vaccination among them is very low. They are getting sick and they come to Brazil in search of help in the wake of the breakdown of the Venezuelan health system,” said Rousicler de Jesús Oliveira, local health coordinator in an interview with EFE.
According to the data provided by the Brazilian government, between January and July of 2018, 756 cases of measles were reported only in the state of Amazonas.
The state capital, Manaus, has been particularly hit hard.
The state of Roraima, on the border with Venezuela, has seen 412 cases of measles reported: some have proved to be false alarms, others have been confirmed, and dozens of cases remain under investigation.
Now, driven not only by the political and economic situation but by the healthcare system as well, even Venezuelans who have lived on the fringes of cities for centuries must flee their traditional lands to survive.