- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

CARACAS, Venezuela Alquino Rivero's six children are growing up barefoot in a dirty city park. His wife begs and sells jewelry. Fellow Warao Indians live among foul mattresses, broken toys and food scraps.

Yet Mr. Rivero says life is better here than in his ancestral homeland of eastern Venezuela's Orinoco Delta, where activists say hunger, disease, logging and oil projects have driven thousands to head for the cities.

Warao Indians began leaving Delta Amacuro State, where most of the estimated 30,000 Warao live, decades ago. But the trickle has become a flood.

"What we're seeing, unfortunately, is a microcosm of what's happening around the world, where the majority of the last large remaining oil reserves are in low-income or indigenous communities," said Michael Brun, an environmentalist with the Los Angeles-based Rainforest Action Network.

Others are reluctant to blame only big oil.

"We can't say that oil exploration is what is making the Warao migrate," said Rosa Trujillo, a congressional aide on Indian affairs. "Industry brings a new model of thought [to indigenous peoples], which is based on a society of consumption."

Indian leaders agree, saying Warao often head to cities when fellow Indians come home with fistfuls of cash. Activists estimate 2,000 to 7,000 Warao are in constant migration to and from the cities, mostly to beg.

"Warao" means "canoe people" in the Warao language, and "Amacuro" means "quilt of water." Mr. Rivero, 41, grew up in a typical Warao village in the heart of the delta, dotted with thatch homes built on stilts.

Warao fish in a labyrinth of small rivers and tributaries that form the Switzerland-size delta. From moriche palms, they extract flour and wine and weave baskets and hammocks.

But it's been years since Mr. Rivero cast a fishing net into the dark, fast-flowing Orinoco. His life consists of traveling back and forth between Caracas and his village, 400 miles away. He stays in the capital until he saves up about 200,000 bolivars, or about $270, which is enough money to feed his family for a few months.

"We don't have work to pay for clothes, food, soap. If we had jobs we wouldn't live like this," Mr. Rivero said as he sat on a cot with one of his skinny sons on his lap. "The government says it will help, but I don't know when."

The remote delta of the Orinoco River has long suffered industrial exploitation and government neglect. Logging has shrunk its forests, and demand for palm hearts is depleting the moriche palms.

More than 90 percent of Warao communities are hundreds of miles from a hospital. More than 70 percent lack schools, telephones or roads. At least 50 percent of Warao children suffer from tuberculosis or diarrhea caused in part by river pollution. Most of the state lacks potable water.

Environmentalists say the surge in Warao migration began after the government's decision in 1996 to open Venezuela's oil industry to foreign investment. Exploratory drilling began; forest plots were cleared; some fish-bearing river flows were interrupted.

But Indian rights activists say oil exploration has been too small to explain the migration. They note that BP Amoco abandoned its three delta exploration projects last year, although environmentalists accuse the company of leaving behind buried toxic waste.

BP Amoco denied it engaged in any environmentally harmful activity. It said it created programs to provide social services and develop agriculture in Warao villages.

Perenco, a French company, is exploring in BP Amoco's old Pedernales field, where only a small fraction of Warao live. Jean Jacoulot, director of Perenco's Venezuelan operations, declined to comment specifically on the project, but he said his company is "committed to operating in an environmentally safe manner."

The state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, which took over BP's two other projects, did not return calls seeking comment.

Rep. Noheli Pocaterra, a Wayuu Indian, and other Indian lawmakers are drawing up a plan to develop agriculture and fishing in the delta, bring doctors in, install a sewage system and encourage Warao to become involved in politics.

For the first time, a Warao is the mayor of the Antonio Diaz district of Delta Amacuro, where 70 percent of Warao live. But Mr. Pocaterra acknowledges it could take years to reverse the migration trend.

"I've received reports that things are the same: hunger, disease," President Hugo Chavez said in a recent speech. "There is a group of aborigines that come here … I've asked Noheli to help us convince them to return, but we have to accompany that by projects, programs to allow them to develop their own land."

While downtown Caracas has its share of unlicensed street vendors and homeless, the sight of Warao families living on the streets has been unnerving for many "Caraquenos."

Indians had been rare in urban areas of Venezuela, unlike some South American countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia where Indians make up almost half the population. Indians represent only 3 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people and largely live in the delta, the southern Amazon and the northern desert frontier with Colombia.

In Paseo Vargas Park, Indian women give birth on soiled mattresses, cook over open fires and hang beaded necklaces from tree branches in hopes of attracting sales from passers-by. Children play, sleep and defecate among the trees. Most residents hurry past, shaking their heads.

Culture shock, hardship and heartbreak aren't enough to get Mr. Rivero to abandon the capital's smoggy streets and return home.

"People die there," he says. "I don't want to go back."

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