Life or death for the Warao: indigenous group flees Venezuela to Trinidad

Warao teacher and fisherman Palacio Quinones, 34, sits next to Yakerin Mende Mendoza, and her one-year-old son Noe at a house in south Trinidad.    - Photos by Lincoln Holder
Warao teacher and fisherman Palacio Quinones, 34, sits next to Yakerin Mende Mendoza, and her one-year-old son Noe at a house in south Trinidad. - Photos by Lincoln Holder

In 2019, when a boatload of indigenous Venezuelans – Warao people – left for Trinidad, the trip became a matter of life or death.

They would have preferred to stay in their forested home community of Mariusa, away from the hustle and bustle of "civilisation." But the ongoing crisis in Venezuela has reached indigenous communities in the jungles, threatening their existence and forcing them to leave.

A Warao group spoke to Sunday Newsday, saying their people are on the brink of extinction.

The Warao were one of Venezuela's largest indigenous groups. They are found mainly in Delta Amacuro state, one of the closest points to Trinidad.

The group shared perspectives on their traditional way of life and their struggles to adapt to life in Trinidad.

The Warao, also referred to as boat or canoe people, have been chiefly self-sustaining, with little or no help from the authorities.

Father of two Palacio Quinones, 34, worked as a fisherman and a Spanish/Warao teacher in Mariusa in Delta Amacuro.

Quinones, who cannot speak English, said many people in the community have never been to other parts of the country. He, however, has visited different areas, including Bolivar State.

Speaking in Spanish, he explained that his wife was seven months pregnant in April 2019 when members of the Guardia Nacional began shooting at a boat, killing her and her seven-year-old sister.

"There were about 20 people of different ages fishing in the river where they opened fire without warning," Quinones said.

"Maybe they thought it was bandits. The (Orinoco) river has become dangerous.

Nala Mende Mendoza, three, covers her face using the hands of her one-year-old brother Noe at a house in south Trinidad. -

"But for hundreds of years, it has always been normal to fish and to see groups of people fishing."

He spoke on behalf of the Warao.

Quinones, his two daughters Genesis and Beatriz, and other Warao made the clandestine trip in September 2019. Many people in the community had already fled to Brazil and other neighbouring countries.

The only person they knew here was a fisherman.

"There are about 45 indigenous tribes in Venezuela. They speak their own languages," he said.

August 9 was International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, as declared by the UN General Assembly in December 1994.

In 2002, then-president Hugo Chavez declared October 12 is Indigenous Resistance Day in Venezuela. This national holiday honours the contributions made by the indigenous people, highlighting their struggles. It replaced Race Day, which celebrated Christopher Columbus.

But even in their country, indigenous people, as a minority group, still face discrimination, Quinones said. Many non-indigenous countrymen still refer to them as Indians.

"We are not Indians!" Quinones and another Warao, said in unison.

Their houses, which do not have electricity, are calledpalafitos (overwater bungalows). They mainly have open-plan homes.

Yakerin Mende Mendoza, holds her one-year-old son Noe at a house in south Trinidad. -

It is common for babies to learn to swim before they can walk, he said.

The only school in this community closed three years ago.

"The river ate the school. The building was very old. It was rotten," Quinones said.

As boat people, they use canoes to travel, and sleep in handwoven hammocks, and not beds.

Quinones said: "We depend 100 per cent on rain to get drinking water. Sometimes it is difficult to get fresh water. We cannot go out as we used to because we could get killed in the river."

To survive in Trinidad, he and other Warao beg people on the streets for money and food. They also do odd jobs. Living inland and away from the river was new to the group. They slept on mattresses for the first time. They live in cramped conditions, unable to find regular work.

"It pains me to beg. We want to work. Our living conditions are horrible here. It is cramped, and we have no money. We need help. As Warao, we live in harmony with nature. We want maybe a parcel of land to live and work freely," he said on behalf of the group.

Just when they thought things could not get any worse, they did, in 2020, owing to the restrictions imposed because of the covid pandemic.

Quinones reminisced that in the jungle. the moriche palm trees (
Mauritia flexuosa) are trees of life.

These trees provide food, shelter, medicine and have aesthetic value.

The trunk is used as the stilts of their homes and to make canoes. The fruit is eaten and used to make juices, he said. People extract soft tissues at the tree's centre to make many dishes, including the popular yuruma.

Another significant benefit of the tree is "delicious edible insects" (worms). The worms are a welcome presence inside the trees. People eat them raw or cook, roast over direct fire.

"It has a lot of protein. The insects get all the nutrients from the tree. It is used as a medicine too."

The group is registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency. The UNHCR said about 200 "Warao persons of concern" are registered with the organisation in Trinidad and Tobago.

Palacio Quinones at a house in south Trinidad. -

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has identified Venezuela as being second to Syria as the world's second-largest external displacement crisis. A press release from IRC on June 16 said over 5.6 million Venezuelans had left the country.

Indigenous people traditionally depend on organic materials for medicines, preventing and curing many illnesses naturally.

Several reports say indigenous languages are becoming extinct, and when natives die, they take knowledge of medicinal plants with them.

On June 8, a report from the UK Guardian referred to a study that warned that knowledge of medicinal plants is at risk, saying the loss of linguistic diversity may lead to the disappearance of age-old remedies unknown to science.

Sunday Newsday also spoke to Kape-Kape, an organisation in Venezuela dedicated to protecting the rights of their indigenous peoples.

A representative said the original Waraos of the Orinoco Delta continue to move towards neighbouring countries like Guyana, Trinidad, and Brazil.

In the Pedernales municipality and Tucupita, entire communities have also emigrated, leaving their former homes lonely.

On the migration to TT, the representative said before the pandemic restrictions, trips were usually made two or three times per week.

The official, who asked not to be named, spoke on behalf of Kape-Kape. The pandemic and tightened restrictions have reduced migration, he said.

"Clandestine travel continues today, but less frequently. A woman who asked not to be identified explained that she had to pay US$200 to travel.

"Unfortunately, she and others were arrested and imprisoned by the Trinidadian authorities, then deported after three months."

Kape-Kape also promotes the leadership and democracy of the states of Bolívar, Delta Amacuro and Amazonas.

The official quoted a Venezuelan journalist, Adaira González, who has lived in Trinidad for more than two years. She estimated the number of indigenous migrants at more than 1,000.

Contacted by phone, an official from the Venezuelan Embassy in Port of Spain asked the reporter to schedule an appointment with ambassador Carlos Amador Perez Silva for an interview.


"Life or death for the Warao: indigenous group flees Venezuela to Trinidad"

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