, , ,

Challenges and opportunities for Indigenous Peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact in Venezuela

, , ,

Article’s featured image

The Jotï, Uwottüja and Yanomami live in the Venezuelan Amazon and have harmonious relationships with their natural environment. They are currently suffering from illegal mining, organized crime and the diseases that migrant workers bring to the region. Although Venezuela has a broad legal framework in favor of Indigenous Peoples, the country still does not have special laws for isolated communities. The protection of these communities depends on a dialogue of knowledge between Indigenous people and scientists that can be translated into public policies.

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is recognized as a multiethnic and multicultural society. The 1999 Constitution devotes an entire chapter to the development of Indigenous Peoples’ rights: their existence as native peoples; their social, political and economic organization; their own justice systems; their cultures, uses and customs; their languages and religions; and the right to the lands and habitats they ancestrally occupy.

The Venezuelan State also ratified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries and has added a set of laws such as the Habitat and Land Demarcation Law (2001), the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2005), the Law on Indigenous Languages (2007) and the Law on the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2009). It is worth mentioning that in Venezuela the existence of 51 Indigenous Peoples is recognized, representing 2.8% of the national population.

Despite this favorable legal framework, there is no regulation on the existence of Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation or Initial Contact (PIACI). However, there are public institutions that are paving the way for the drafting of the necessary regulations. The Ombudsperson’s Office has stated that in Venezuela there are Jotï (or Hoti), Uwottüja (Piaroa) and Yanomami communities that remain in relative isolation or initial contact in the south of the country, in the states of Amazonas and Bolivar. Similarly, before Covid-19, the Ministry of the People’s Power for Health had indicated special protection measures for isolated Indigenous people whose epidemiological vulnerability was of concern.

Indigenous Peoples in isolation or in initial contact in the Venezuelan Amazon: accessibility and threats to their territories. Map: Wataniba

The case of the Uwottüja people

In Venezuela, we know of the existence of Indigenous Peoples in voluntary isolation only in the case of the Uwottüja People. They claim that there is a group of communities located in their places of origin, with people “like us”, who do not want to have any kind of contact, not even with people of their own ethnicity. Myths and oral information from elders and shamans relate two types of beings.

On the one hand, there are human beings who do not want to be contacted and who have made this known in dreams and through different ritual spaces of spiritual connection with the elders. On the other hand, the stories also tell of spiritual beings who “become men when they want to be seen” and need to make contact with the Uwottüja already contacted.

The Uwottüja people are in the Venezuelan Amazon, in the municipalities of Autana, Atures, Atabapo and Manapiare (Amazonas), and Cedeño (Bolívar). Their communities in voluntary isolation are in the Cuao River basin, specifically in the upper part. This is a region of difficult access that is within the limits of the demarcation request made by the Indigenous Organization of the Uwottüja del Sipapo People (OIPUS), with an approximate extension of 1,400,000 hectares. This claim was presented through self-demarcation but has not yet been recognized by the Venezuelan State.

Despite the remoteness of their location, the Uwottüja people are being harassed by illegal mining incursions, the presence of irregular armed groups and the forced recruitment of young people for mineral extraction or organized crime. This situation threatens the mobility of isolated groups in their territory, their physical survival and the well-being of their environment which, in turn, represents their primary source of material and spiritual life. Consequently, on several occasions, OIPUS has requested the support of governmental entities for their urgent protection.

Shaman of the Uwottüja people on the Upper Cuao River. Photo: Wataniba / Jesús Sosa

The Jotï, the last people of Venezuela with whom contact has been made

The Jotï (or Hoti) people are scattered throughout the Maigualida mountain range. They were the last Indigenous people in Venezuela to establish contact with the non-Indigenous population and are considered the least known people in the country. The Jotï are a semi-nomadic people dedicated to hunting, fishing, gathering wild resources and agriculture for self-consumption. They have a vast knowledge of plants and their healing properties.

 The Jotï build their houses according to their tastes, uses and customs: large or small; round or rectangular. They use palms, leaves and sticks, according to the type of durability they desire. Hunting, fishing and food items are made with wood and jungle fibers; and they process their own clothes and sleeping hammocks with wild cotton. Beyond the abundance of resources, the Jotï relate respectfully and harmoniously with their territory. In recent decades, they have suffered from the incursions of armed groups, the presence of illegal mining, the increase of diseases and the absence of health and sanitation services.

In 2012, the Jotï of the Caño Iguana community, located in Amazonas State, obtained a collective land and habitat title. Although only 60% of the area proposed in the self-demarcation dossier was approved, the titling represents one of the few demarcated Indigenous territories in Venezuela. Beyond the community, the title also includes areas where there are groups with whom contact has not necessarily been established. The Jotï of Bolivar State also submitted a request for demarcation but have not yet received a response from the State.

The Jotï in initial contact and in relative isolation have Yabarana, Uwottüja and Ye’kwana as neighbors. In Caño Iguana and Manapiare, they also live with non-Indigenous people such as doctors, teachers and military personnel. In Bolívar State, they share territory with the Panare people (Eñepá and Ye’kwana) and with education and health personnel in San José de Kayama. After the expulsion of the New Tribes Mission in 2006, there is a significant military presence in Jotï territory through the Army and the National Guard.

The Jotï people are considered the least known in Venezuela. Photo: pueblosindigenas.es

The Yanomami, a people in initial contact besieged by illegal mining

Located between Venezuela and Brazil, in the tributaries of the Upper Orinoco, Rio Negro, Alto Ventuari, Erebato and Caura rivers, the Yanomami remained isolated until the middle of the 20th century. It was only in the context of rubber tapping that new and conflictive contact occurred. This is a vast, jungle-like territory with abundant water resources and rich biodiversity. The Venezuelan territory is home to some 300 Yanomami communities that are strongly linked to their environment: they conduct traditional farming activities, gather fruit and hunt in the jungle.

In Venezuela, the Yanomami people inhabit a territory of approximately 4,000,000 hectares, protected by the environmental protection structure of the Parima Tapirapeco National Park. It is not the ideal structure to protect Indigenous people’s territorial rights, but it recognizes the presence and occupation rights of Indigenous people in this territory.

The people have officially requested the Venezuelan State to demarcate their territory, but they have yet to receive a response. The Yanomami in relative isolation or in initial contact are located especially in the upper part of the Siapa River, in the extensive zone between Cerro Delgado Chalbaud and the Sierra de Parima.

For decades, the Yanomami have suffered from the growing presence of illegal miners from Brazil (garimpeiros) and from insufficient and inadequate health care. The communities are plagued by malaria, respiratory diseases and measles outbreaks. This epidemiological situation is aggravated by the presence of miners who bring viruses from the cities to this inhospitable region of the jungle. As if this were not enough, the confrontations with miners who settle in this territory put the Yanomami people’s physical survival at permanent risk.

In its Regional Report on Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Amazon and Gran Chaco, the International Working Group for the Protection of PIACI and the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon (ORPIA) reaffirm the existence of isolated communities in the territory of the Uwottüja people and initial contact communities in the territories of the Yanomami and Jotï peoples. The information gathered by Wataniba comes mainly from the permanent relationship that we maintain in these territories with Indigenous leaders and communities, as well as from the recent literature on the Jotï people by anthropologists Standford and Eglée Zent.

The Yanomami people suffer from the siege of the garimpeiros (gold miners) that cross from Brazil and the diseases that reach the region. Photo: Wataniba

Indigenous people’s knowledge and public policies: a necessary dialogue

The Amazonian peoples have proven to be owners of a cognitive, emotional, spiritual and practical relationship with the environment, which represents a contribution to humanity. In this way, they have taught us a model of life different from that of the West and, undoubtedly, more harmonious with the territory and the emotional well-being of its people. This symbiotic relationship with nature leads them to see the human being as part of the whole and to understand each living being as an equal. Their material and spiritual actions respond to this notion of their own existence and that of their environment.

Meanwhile, decisions based on the scientific method have proven to have their limitations. It is time to listen to the wise and value their teachings with humility, respect and curiosity. The States must stop considering the Indigenous people only as an object of attention and must move towards intercultural policies. Seeing ourselves as equal subjects, despite our enormous, compatible and enriching differences, represents a powerful way forward for the well-being of humanity, of the planet and, especially, of the Amazonian territories and their people.

Consequently, the challenge lies in bringing together Indigenous and scientific knowledge to generate a protection policy for Indigenous Peoples in isolation and in initial contact, whose rights have already been recognized due to their epidemiological, social and cultural vulnerability. From Wataniba, we have proposed to approach equals to understand who we are talking about, to generate solid categories and to think together about protection methods. We are guided by the conviction of the no-contact principle and the necessary protection of initial contact communities. We are convinced that communities in voluntary isolation are the ultimate expression of the right to self-determination.

María Teresa Quispe

María Teresa Quispe is a sociologist and specialist in socio-environmental policies. She is the General Director of Wataniba.

Guillermo Marciales

Guillermo Marciales is a lawyer specializing in Indigenous people's rights. He is the Coordinator of Wataniba's Indigenous people's rights defense area.

Lorena Almarza

Lorena Almarza is a specialist in community work and social project management. She is the Territory and Communities Coordinator of Wataniba.


Wataniba is a civil society organization that promotes sustainable territorial management processes in the Venezuelan Amazon. It seeks to strengthen both the identity of Indigenous Peoples in this region, as well as their technical capacity to defend and exercise their rights.