Welch Statement on the Plight of the Yanomami of Venezuela

Mar 11, 2024

Statement of Senator Peter Welch
Submitted to the Congressional Record
March 11, 2024

Mr. President, Indigenous people in Latin America and around the world are facing unprecedented threats to their communities and cultural survival.  Faced with increasing intrusions of settlers, illegal miners, loggers, ranchers, wildlife traffickers, narcotics traffickers, and explorers for oil and gas, coupled with woefully inadequate police protection, they are among the world’s most vulnerable people.

This crisis is illustrated by the alarming situation facing the Yanomami people in the Upper Orinoco region of Venezuela, an area that is being destroyed by illegal gold miners.  It is reminiscent of the decimation of Native American tribes in past centuries in our own country, when millions were forced off their land, murdered, or infected with smallpox, measles, and other fatal diseases brought by white settlers.

The Venezuelan government has an obligation to guarantee the right to health, as part of the right to life, enshrined in the country’s Constitution.  In the case of Indigenous people like the Yanomami, this includes the adaptation of health services and programs to their unique circumstances and needs. 

After the “Haximú Massacre of the Yanomami” in 1993, when 16 Yanomami were killed by a group of illegal miners, was brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Venezuelan government signed a settlement agreement that established commitments regarding surveillance and control of illegal mining and health care for the Yanomami people. Although the Yanomami Health Plan yielded positive results between 2005 and 2010, it began to decline due to lack of resources, and is now almost completely defunct.  Currently, there is no health care available in the Yanomami territory in the Upper Orinoco region.

This crisis has resulted in a sharp increase in the prevalence of, and death from, preventable and curable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, among others.  Malnutrition is also a pervasive problem, especially among children.  Patients who require emergency treatment must be flown to Puerto Ayacucho, the state capital.  The Yanomami in the border zone of Sierra Parima must go to Brazil to obtain health care.

The Government of Venezuela has repeatedly failed to protect the Yanomami people from violence, child labor and forced labor, and sexual exploitation from illegal miners. The increased flow of Brazilian wildcat miners, coming into Venezuela in partnership with the Venezuelan military and corrupt civilian authorities to mine for gold Venezuelan government and cassiterite, is contributing to the transmission of infectious diseases for these vulnerable communities due to their lack of immunity.  Malaria, sexually transmitted infections, and mercury poisoning are closely linked to illegal mining. 

According to the Yanomami’s own records, between 2022 and mid-2023, 35 people died from malaria and tuberculosis in different sectors of Sierra Parima, which comprises only a portion of the Upper Orinoco region.  The Yanomami reported 350 deaths due mainly to malaria between November 2023 and February 2024. The serious epidemic and negligent inaction of the Venezuelan government have forced the Yanomami to abandon their villages and flee into the forest to escape the malaria epidemic.

Since 2021, the Venezuelan government has received support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Venezuelan Ministry of Health, through the UN Development Program, receives the supplies that are part of the malaria elimination strategy – mosquito nets, rapid diagnostic kits, medical treatments, and other equipment.  But sorely lacking are the transportation logistics, infrastructure, and personnel to carry out malaria control and prevention activities in remote Indigenous communities.

Anyone who has seen photographs of the devastation caused by illegal mining in the Upper Orinoco region cannot help but be appalled by the capacity of human greed to destroy the natural environment and the people and wildlife that depend on it.  The Yanomami are responsible stewards of the forest who are being threatened, attacked, and infected by deadly diseases contracted from those who are illegally extracting resources from their territories. 

While the Venezuelan government has contributed to their plight by allowing and even profiting from the illegal mining in that sensitive region, the United States has a positive role to play.  The Barbados Accords, signed by the Maduro regime and the opposition Unitary Platform, were the result of negotiations between the Biden Administration and Mr. Maduro.  They required the Venezuelan government to create conditions for a free and fair election in 2024, and in return the U.S. would grant licenses to relax sanctions on oil, bond, and gold transactions. 

Like many, I had hoped the Barbados Accords were the beginning of a path for Venezuela to move beyond the years of internal division, repression, corruption, and misery that have caused millions to flee the country.  But Maduro reneged on his commitments and blocked Maria Corina Machado, the leading opposition candidate, from competing in the upcoming presidential election.  On January 29th the Administration announced that the sanctions on gold will be snapped back in April. 

Perhaps Maduro will reverse course again and do what he agreed to do under the Barbados Accords.  But whether he does or not, absent strong action by the international community to make it more difficult for illegal miners and their profiteers to launder the proceeds, the suffering of the Yanomami people is likely to continue unabated.