‘We want our people and culture to be respected’

This final instalment in a three-part series on Warao migrants in Brazil looks at why many families leave public shelters and try to make it on their own, difficult as it may be.

Translated by Ítalo Piva

Like all other indigenous nations, Venezuela’s Warao have guaranteed rights established through a series of legal norms that affirm they should be consulted about their own destinies. But this does not happen, which is why, in the state of Pará in Brazil, many of the Warao migrants choose to live outside the shelter offered by the municipality, even if it means being unemployed and living in a precarious situation.

Benícia Torrez Pérez lives in the Tapanã neighbourhood, a poor area on the outskirts of Belém, the capital of Pará. The home has four wooden rooms and is raised on stilts. The community has no sanitation infrastructure, and when it rains the area floods and water with sewage and trash spills into the dwellings.

Her one-year-old daughter Denise has clear signs of malnutrition. The girl is one of many Brazilian Warao. Pérez says she has been in Pará for two years, one of them living in her current house. The location has a high crime rate and they have been robbed four times since moving there.

Part One:

In the Outeiro district of Belém, other Warao families live as renters, facing many difficulties where they live. Jobless, they barely have enough money to buy food to eat, but they also say that life in the shelter is “very difficult”.

On the other side of town, in the Ananindeua industrial district, Jorge Zapata and another 17 people live in tiny houses with no windows and electric bills as high as R$150 (about R470) a month. Nevertheless, he says that he wouldn’t like to leave since his son has mental problems and cannot get along well with others. “It is complicated,” he said, while admitting that he would like to receive more support from the government.

Drawn to rivers

Besides Pérez and Zapata, the Brasil de Fato news team visited about 60 Warao families living in the Jardim Cidadania shanty town – also in the Belém metropolitan region – who are happy where they are and don’t intend returning to the shelter.

One of the reasons for this, apart from the enhanced autonomy, is that the area resembles their homes in Venezuela. “Our ancestors always lived in harmony with nature, and that’s why our history has always been profoundly intertwined with rivers, where we traditionally build homes on stilts in the lower Orinoco River delta,” said one Warao tribe member.

Though possessing some similarities with their homeland because they are on the banks of the Maguari river, there is no sanitation, the electricity grid is improvised and only two housing lots in the community actually belong to the Warao. These were donated by one of the area’s residents and initially housed only six families, but more kept coming.

Part two:

“I hope they legalise all the lots here for everybody. The Warao don’t want to harm anyone – we just want the right to keep on living,” said Carlos Zapata, while proudly showing us the community he helped build.

He says, however, that he fears the land they are on will remain unregulated because he has no faith in the municipality and knows he may not be able to remain there. That being said, he feels good where he is. “The mayor’s office keeps telling us they’re going to make a deal, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen. We like living like this, we don’t like living in the city. This is our Warao culture.”

Brasil de Fato contacted the local municipality to clarify exactly what sort of assistance the indigenous refugees are being offered. There was no response until the publishing of this piece.

Legal landmarks

“The government can’t consult only at the last minute when it has already made a decision that will affect our people.” This quote is featured in the Warao Information, Awareness and Consultation Protocol, which was created by the Federal Public Ministry and released on 13 July.

The document was written by the indigenous community members themselves and is a way of preventing human rights abuses. “We don’t want to be exploited, nor marginalised. We don’t want to be treated badly, we want our people and culture to be respected,” the Warao say in one passage.

The autonomous social and political decision-making process of native populations is enshrined in Brazil’s Constitution, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in Brazilian migration and refugee laws, and lastly, in emergency assistance measures established to assist those who find themselves in vulnerable situations owing to migration caused by humanitarian crises.

August 2020: The moment when all Warao individuals who took part in the drafting of the protocol approved the document. Jesús Nuñez is in a striped shirt. (Photograph by Ascom/ MPF)

Edited by Rodrigo Chagas and Rodrigo Durão Coelho
This article was first published in Brasil de Fato.

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