Venezuela: Jesuit priest on hunger strike over indigenous land rights

Rainforest, Canaima National Park

Rainforest, Canaima National Park

A Spanish Jesuit priest, in Venezuela, Fr José María Korta Lasarte, 81, has been on hunger strike for seven days to demand the protection of a forest reserve measuring some 295,280 hectares in the northwestern state of Zulia, near the Colombian border, which is the ancestral home of several indigenous communities.

Fr Jose told reporters: “Today, indigenous peoples are mistreated…and if human beings are excluded, I am ready to give my life for them”.

Fr Jose is staying in the Esquina Pajaritos in Caracas, on the ground floor which hosts the National Assembly, together with several Native representatives from the states of Apure, Zulia and Amazonas.

The priest has also demanded the release of a tribal chief, Sabino Romero,  who has been accused of having responsibility for the murder of two leaders from the Yukpa native community. Fr Jose says the charges have been fabricated by the government, cattle farmers and landowners who have occupied the disputed ancestral lands.

The 1999 Constitution, promoted by president Hugo Chávez, recognizes the existence of native peoples, their social, political and economic organization, the culture and the languages. It is estimated that in the country that there are about 300,000 indigenous people, divided into 35 tribes many of whom have lived in the Amazon Jungle for centuries.

The Constitution gives them parliamentary representation, ensuring the rights to collective property, establishing that before the start of large scale agricultural or other building projects on the land on which they live, they must first be consulted, and have the freedom to refuse or allow such plans to go ahead.

Father Jose, who founded the Indigenous University of Venezuela, said however, that  “the theory does not correspond to the practice,” and today, the indigenous people are worse off than they were ten years ago”.

According to official data, three out of four natives do not have land ownership papers and over half lack schools, healthcare assistance and other basic services.

‘Ultimas Noticias’ reported, that Fr Jose has agreed to break his hunger strike  today, in order to meet the president.

Fr Jose said: “The indigenous peoples of Venezuela, as probably those of the whole world, are confronting the growing threats of the advance of western culture in their territories."

Writing on the inauguration of the  Indigenous University of Venezuela in 2001,  Fr Jose  said that the Pumé, in the state of Apure, on the border with Colombia,  are being treated as undesirable guests of enormous companies that have invaded  their fishing, hunting, gathering and ritual areas. The university "is the germ of Indo-American conscience" he said.

Source: MISNA

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