Christian missionaries have long been a threat to Indigenous Amazon cultures. But as new threats emerge, and aid organizations fall away, missionary networks may be in the best position to help protect the same cultures they first violated
An ounce of gold is currently worth almost twice as much as an ounce of cocaine. That reality has changed the funding formula for guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Venezuela and Colombia. Where narcotrafficking once brought in the lion’s share of resources for groups like ELN and dissident FARC, two heavily-armed movements that occupy densely forested and rural areas between these countries, illegal mining has surged to fill these organizations’ coffers.
Of the terrain used in both countries for gold mining–a messy, toxic process that blocks and poisons waterways, destroying aquatic ecosystems–well over a third is home to Indigenous peoples. These include the Yukpa, the Pemón, the Yanomamö, and the Ye’kuana: communities of hunters, gatherers, and small-scale cultivators driven by decades of recent exposure to foreign industrialists into uneven and highly unequal relationships with outsider economies.
Many members, including children, are forced into mining labor, or sex-trafficked to supply camp brothels, and fall ill from diseases of exposure once defeated in the region. Many others sicken from the mercury used in mining operations–with devastating consequences for the pregnant and the very young. Members who protest the encroachment of illegal mining outfits, especially those attached to dissident military forces, are often murdered for defending the land.
And who can reach them? Who can help?
Some local associations, like Kapé-Kapé, are fighting directly for Indigenous autonomy, mediating in tribal conflict-resolution, and overseeing crisis-resource distribution among native groups. But outreach in a vast region of highly remote communities affected by a common, systemic problem requires a fuller network of on-the-ground actors, especially those who can leverage their voices in other sociopolitical spheres.
Western secular communities tend to regard Christian missionaries in remote Indigenous regions as a serious problem due to their indoctrination mandate and long history of spreading disease to people with different immunological profiles. But the issue of Indigenous exploitation under current mining pressures cannot be solved without more collaboration among all of those with established links to these affected populations—and “all” includes those missionaries.
What we’re up against
After all, alongside illegal mining practices, which exacerbate slavery, torture, trafficking, and the murder of social leaders (over 1,000 since Colombia’s peace treaty in 2016), there are also many legal variants. On top of small-scale and artisanal mining practices, officially sanctioned gold and coal industries do vast amounts of environmental harm, shaping whole other facets of Indigenous struggle with political organizations.
And then there’s the mining somewhere between the two: according to 2020 reports, Venezuela’s government tacitly endorses illegal mining and its operators. Why? In part, as a form of social control over locals. In equal part, as a way to take the industry back from Colombia’s illegal miners, and destabilize Colombian border security. (The two countries are not on good terms.)
Many secular institutions, in other words, cannot be trusted to operate with Indigenous autonomy, health, and uplift as a top priority. Faced with deep environmental and humanitarian disasters, old lines in the sand need to be reimagined. How do we reach the human beings caught in the middle?
Remote living, and resource scarcity
Marvin Lee is a father of four who lives deep in the Venezuelan Amazon in Coshilowateli, a village is so tiny that you won’t find it on Google Maps, even though it serves as a hub for nearby Indigenous settlements.
Coshilowateli lies along the Padamo River, a twisty, narrow tributary to the major mining river in the Alto Orinoco region. “Cosh” is home to around 1,000, predominantly Yanomamö, a remote Indigenous people grievously afflicted by gold-mining practices in Brazil and Venezuela since the 1970s. The village also serves the Ye’kuana, a people of the river, and canoes. The influx of outsiders with profit-seeking, research-bent, and proselytizing missions over the past decades has deeply affected both Indigenous groups’ ways of life, but some more negatively than others.
When miners came prospecting in Marvin’s region a few years ago, the Yanomamö chased them away, throwing all their equipment into the river. But other mining operations, not so far along the river, still yield all the usual negative consequences: the mercury poisoning, the resurgence of malaria, and the general exposure to outsiders’ diseases and weaponized terror.
Merchants and miners still frequent the Padamo River so often, too, that some nearby communities now engage in retaliatory violence, preying on outsiders who travel the waterway by demanding that they pay a food toll, or suffer their boat to sink. These fed-up Indigenous communities aren’t interested in learning how much an encroaching outsider is actually connected to gold mining. But why would they be? When they try to engage in simpler, less toxic forms of mining of their own, they’re horribly cheated when selling the resulting gold. All they see is further encroachment–sometimes very much state-sanctioned–of mining outfits and cut-throat outsiders on traditional Indigenous lands, out to extract profit for themselves alone.
The missionary component
Coshilowateli is centrally supported by Mission Padamo, one of the last non-profit Christian missions still operating in the Venezuelan Amazon. The community’s self-sustaining church also runs a school in conjunction with Yanomamö teachers. Yanomamö and Ye’kuana who don’t live in the village will stop by to trade produce and wild meat for clothes and medicine, and remaining missionaries travel the river to visit other settlements with the Bible and medicines as well.
But times, and Venezuela’s economic crisis, have sorely limited even this little outpost’s viability. The village once had a diesel generator that could support everyone, but regional mining also exacerbates fuel scarcity for other ventures. In other regions, it has greatly diminished children’s access to schooling. Here, the generator’s function was first cut down to missionary buildings and nearby Yanomamö homes. Now, it’s more or less everyone for themselves, with generators that can only sustain one or maybe two homes when fuel is available at all.
The community desperately needs to leapfrog technologically, to shift to solar to keep the lights on and a path open for medicines, healthcare, and general regional advocacy to offset the damage done by other, profit-driven outsiders.
But from where will that help come?
Colombia’s side of the struggle
The issue of illegal mining is certainly complex along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, where the Venezuelan government’s sanction of related criminality is part of a long game to destabilize their regional rival. But Colombia has other sites of mining strife, too, including in the country’s southern reaches, in the thick of the Amazon shared with Brazil and Peru. There, Brazilian operators govern a more formalized set of illegal mining operations, bribing dissidents and “laundering” the gold (clearing it of all signs of origin) for export along smuggling routes also used for marijuana and cocaine.
In this southern region, Indigenous communities are sometimes forced, sometimes voluntarily working in the trade. But even with fewer explicit displays of violence and abject suffering, the lack of local autonomy remains substantial, and debilitating. Indigenous groups simply have no control over the expansion of criminal enterprises into their native land, and the attendant environmental devastation. If some of these communities are divided as to whether to participate in their own exploitation, to try to make a little money through the venture where they can, it is because putting a stop to this destructive industry isn’t even an idea within reach.
A glimmer of hope?
In 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies produced a brief on Venezuela’s illegal mining situation, which contained fourteen action items. Two stand out:
4. Offer immediate protection and humanitarian aid to indigenous and local communities affected by illegal mining.
8. Collaborate with the local and indigenous communities to reinvest profits from the mineral resources into the underdeveloped southern part of Venezuela.
Both are important but bereft of operators. Who exactly is going into this region, heavy with guerrillas, paramilitary, and cartels? Other items note that the international community already has to rely on mediator countries to negotiate with Maduro’s government. Venezuela has also aggressively regulated NGOs in recent years, making their work even harder amid COVID-19.
Launching new ventures would be far more difficult than leveraging existing operators. And yes, these include any long-term missionaries in remote regions, along with every Indigenous-led activist group calling directly for aid. Anyone, really, who is already connected with isolated communities such as these, and who stands a decent chance of getting food, medical supplies, protection, energy resources, and hope to where it’s needed most.
When our struggle to improve human agency is staged against so many heavily-armed organizations that prioritize profit and political violence, we need to rise above even important areas of concern across secular and religious lines.
For a humanitarian crisis buried this deep, we need every hand digging in.