PanAm Podcast with David Biller: Venezuelan Collapse Drives Indigenous Warao to Brazilian Amazon


As Venezuela descends into political chaos and economic collapse as strongman Nicolas Maduro’s regime subverts democratic institutions, and exercises an increasingly authoritarian hold on the country, indigenous groups in Venezuela’s remote Northeast have been hard hit. The tiny Warao tribe numbers just 20,000 in the Orinoco Delta region, straddling the border between Venezuela and Guyana. The deprivation and scarcity that urban Venezuelans face is even more serious for the Warao.

David Biller of Bloomberg News recently wrote an article about the Warao’s 1,000 mile migration south to the onetime rubber capital of the world: the Brazilian Amazonian metropolis of Manaus. In this podcast he discusses the precarious situation the Warao face, and the Brazilian government’s humanitarian response to the migration.

Biller notes, “these are people who hunt and gather and fish, and so it seems kind of counter-intuitive to think that an indigenous group that can live off of the land would be affected by the implosion of the Venezuelan economy and the reason is because in the past fifty years…the Warao people have become used to being able to travel outside of the Delta just to nearby cities or periphery cities to get consumer goods that they might have wanted, to get medical care, clothing, the creature comforts of day to day life, the necessities, and a lot of that is because it’s very hostile living in the Delta, it’s very exposed, you’re living on the river bank in stilted huts…if you get sick there it is serious business.”

As time went on, “they became used to traveling to these periphery cities, and then when Venezuela started imploding, they went a little bit further into Brazil, into the border towns, Pacaraima and Boa Vista specifically, but they’re very small…the opportunities are scarce there, and so as they became saturated, not just with Warao people, but also other Venezuelans, they had to go even farther, and they made their way to down to Manaus, a thousand miles south of their homeland.”

The Warao are between a rock and a hard place, only further compounded by linguistic barriers. Biller estimates just half are conversational in Spanish, and only a quarter fluent…and even significantly fewer speak and understand Brazil’s official language of Portuguese. This often leads to the need for two translators when the Warao need to attend to official business in Brazil.

“As far as the work permits, it’s complicated…it’s not just these Warao who are asking for status there, it’s also the thousands of non-indigenous Venezuelans who have come across the border, so the federal police is really facing a significant backlog in trying to go through this list of applicants.”

While some Warao seem determined to learn Portuguese, and look for work and establish residency in Manaus, others yearn to return to the Orinoco Delta, and still others are making roundtrips between the two, periodically returning to their river villages after loading up on food, medicine, and supplies.

What is certain: Venezuela‘s economic collapse has greatly complicated life for these indigenous people, clinging onto a precarious existence.

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