Dispute over Orinoco River Delta just starting

Apr 14, 1997 02:00 AM

Apr. 2, 1997 Indigenous Warao communities in the Orinoco River Delta are demanding an immediate end to oil exploration by transnational companies in three areas of their homelands. The government recently awarded concessions to British Petroleum to reactivate the abandoned Pedernales oil field, located on the Orinoco a short distance before it enters the Atlantic, and to the U.S. Amoco company and a U.S.-Canadian consortium to work two other fields in the region. The Orinoco Delta, 40,000 sq km of waterways and sedimentary islands, is considered the last of the world's great river deltas to enjoy unspoiled status. It is the ancestral home of the Warao, the "people of the canoe." Some 25,000 surviving Warao still live a very natural existence, and consider the Orinoco River as their "father god."
At a conference last week, the Waraos demanded the immediate cessation of oil-related activities and called for an investigation into environmental damage already caused.
Oil company representatives who attended the opening of the conference left after the first day without making any comment, a move which further outraged 200 Warao representatives, many of whom had spent days travelling to the conference site at Tucupita, the capital of Delta Amacuro state, 450 miles from Caracas.
Catalina Herrera, a member of the Directorate for Assistance to Indigenous People in Delta Amacuro, told IPS that the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. had not consulted with the Warao concerning the effects of planned activity on the fragile ecosystem. She said that exploration must cease and oil industry officials must agree to collaborate with environmentalists to determine to what extent petroleum-related activity could damage Warao culture and habitat. The congress also decided to form a Union of Native Warao People in order to speak in their own voice in defense of the Delta and their way of life. Herrera commented: "Only recently have we started learning to defend ourselves."
She condemned a separate moveby government authorities to replace her as Director of the Office of Indigenous Affairs of the Delta Amacuro Governing Council. She said the Warao considered the new appointment illegal and refused to accept it. Herrera said that the questionable appointment, less than a month ago, followed the take-over by the Warao of the Directorate for Assistance to Indigenous People. In Herrera's opinion, "The important thing is that the 'jotaraos' (non-indigenous) still do not control this office."
She quoted an old Warao axiom that "you cannot mix a 'guabina' (a very aggressive fish) with a sardine since the sardine will always die." Herrera believes this is what has happened to native peoples whenever they are thrown together with powerful non-indigenous interests such as oil companies.
A spokesman for Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., meanwhile, declared exploration in the Delta could not be stopped since Venezuela had an obligation to meet the rising demand for crude oil. And Jose Antonio Rodriguez of British Petroleum said it is necessary to exploit oil, or to return to the Stone Age.
The Petroleum Alert Network, a Venezuelan affiliate of Oilwatch, issued a statement last weekend endorsing Warao determination to expel the Delta oil interests. Support for the Waraos also came from Orinoco Oilwatch, which promised to ensure that the Warao position "gets the political, social and legal attention it deserves." Oilwatch also criticised the ease with which the Venezuelan national oil company and other transnational interests could foist their projects on local communities as if they were already "done deals." The Petroleum Alert Network said that it believed several of the accords signed by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. and the transnational enterprises did not comply with environmental requirements. In this regard, there have been unconfirmed reports circulating in political circles that a former Environment Minister lost his job in February for raising objections that delayed ratification of the agreement with British Petroleum.

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