the Amazon Rainforest…
and its people too
by Ewald Scharfenberg
Miguel Rondón, a volunteer with the Venezuelan Red
Cross, never expected to become a community leader, relief
worker, instructor and operator of a water purification system.
He lives in Babilla de Pintao, a town located several kilometres
to the south of Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of the Venezuelan
state of Amazonas. The community is made up of some 200 parientes
or members who, like Miguel, belong to the Piaroa or De'áruwa
tribe, an ethnic group numbering between 10,000 and 15,000
individuals living along the Orinoco River and its tributaries
from southern Venezuela to eastern Colombia.
As far back as anyone can remember, people living in the
Amazon rainforest in South America have been forced by economic
circumstances, armed conflict and cultural imperatives to
move from one place to another. This mobility has done nothing
to improve the lives of such people and has, in fact, contributed
to ignorance about their plight in other predominantly urban
parts of their respective countries. An alarming 85 per cent
of all people living in the vast Amazon basin area, which
covers 7 million square kilometres and has 20 million inhabitants,
live below the poverty line.
Poverty brings with it poor shelter, no clean water or sanitation,
and numerous health problems. In Miguel's community, health
and sanitary conditions went from bad to worse. "My four
children were always ill with diarrhoea and vomiting,"
says Miguel, recalling the situation four years ago. "A
new case of malaria was reported almost every day, and we
didn't know what to do."
©Ramon Lepage / International Federation
Not business as usual
"Up until 1997, our approach to community development
had been largely based on solving problems with handouts,"
admits Virginia Laíno, Amazonico programme regional
coordinator at the International Federation's regional delegation
for South America, "but we realized that in the Amazon
it was necessary to improve living conditions in the medium
term in order to improve the health situation." The new
approach gave rise to the Amazonica programme, an initiative
begun in 1997 in six South American countries through 29 Red
Although only a small part of the Amazon rainforest's 180,000
square kilometres is situated in Venezuela, it was in this
country that some of the most significant results were achieved.
The local particularity was that the programme was carried
out with the Piaroas, who have a long tradition of working
together as a community, which provided favourable conditions
for a programme requiring participation, participation and
"We began our work in 1999 with a very clear objective,"
explains Mirtha Cordero, president of the Amazonas branch
of the Venezuelan Red Cross. "We had to help improve
the living conditions of the people in the community and,
in particular, combat waterborne diseases, not by imposing
changes, but by promoting community organization." However,
initial contacts met with little enthusiasm and sometimes
with blatant hostility. This reticence on the part of the
Piaroas was probably due to the failure of politicians to
keep promises made on previous visits. According to Cordero,
"It was not until 2001, when the Piaroas saw that building
materials were beginning to arrive, that we eventually earned
Today, Miguel and his neighbours know that "the Red
Cross keeps its promises". Proof of this can be seen
in the works completed in Babilla de Pintao and Caño
Tigre over almost three years, with funding from the International
Federation and the Spanish Red Cross, through the Venezuelan
Red Cross. They include running drinking water, construction
of washing stations, showers and latrines, construction materials
and the installation of modern telecommunications equipment.
As a result of these efforts and the intensive series of talks
given on various subjects relating to health and hygiene,
diseases transmitted by waste water or contaminated water
have been practically eradicated in the community, an achievement
that should soon be confirmed by official statistics.
Each of these activities was carried out after the community
itself had identified and prioritized its needs. Miguel underlines
this aspect when he remarks that the revival of community
life was perhaps the most important single legacy of the experience.
"Now we all work together," explains the community
And the joint effort is paying off in other areas as well.
They are putting the finishing touches to a preschool built
with government funds, as well as the purchase of a truck
to transport goods to this isolated area.
for local traditions
A fundamental premise of the
Amazon programme is strict respect for local traditions and
needs. An amusing example of this arose in Venezuela when
work began on the construction of the washing facilities to
Red Cross standards. The local women asked if the walls could
be made lower. The mothers of the community are generally
quite short and they wanted to be sure that they could watch
over their children while they did their chores. The latrines
were also built at a greater distance than usual out of respect
for local customs.
The most moving and eloquent show of mutual respect was probably
the performance of the hüärime rite, a sacred ceremony
reserved for celebrating good harvests and other special occasions,
by the shaman or healer when the sanitation facilities were
completed by the Red Cross and handed over to the community.
"My grandfather always talked about hüärime
and what it meant," says Mari Guevara in awe, "but
none of us here had ever seen it with our own eyes."
The people of Babilla de Pintao and Caño Tigre are
not disheartened by the fact that the programme is now in
its final stages. There is still much to be done and the successful
experience has motivated them to ensure that what has been
started is completed in the near future. Miguel Rondón
assures that, in the meantime, "the Red Cross can always
count on us to help extend this programme to other communities."
Ewald Scharfenberg is a Venezuelan journalist for the organization,
Journalists Without Borders.
"The key factor in the success of the programme was
achieving the involvement of the community and ensuring that
its enthusiasm did not flag."
vice-president of the Amazonas branch
"The work carried out with the women was very important,
know their environment very well."
Mirtha Cordero, president
of the Amazonas branch
"There were many people who thought that the indigenous
population could never learn, but the programme proved that
with just a little help and encouragement they organize themselves
and commit themselves to the work at hand."
head of health brigades
"Perseverance and forward planning earned us the trust
of the Piaroas."
Milagros Quinto, head
"I wonder at the fact that a handful of people participated
without any kind of remuneration, which just goes to show
that what is really important is that people believe in and
are committed to what they are doing."
head of relief unit
"The greatest incentive was to see how we were actually
able to help improve the living conditions of people like
Carlos Alfonzo, local
coordinator of the Amazon programme
at a glance
• Six National Societies participating - Bolivia,
Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
• 25,000 people assisted.
• 200 Red Cross directors and volunteers trained.
• 31 communities took part in defining local development
• More than 60 projects from the local development plans
• Improved management of solid waste.
• Community health centres and health dispensaries supplied
• Basic education on nutrition provided.
• Recovery of river banks as natural barriers.
• Carrying out income generation projects.
• Implementation of youth peer education for peace projects.
• Organization of regional annual meetings of planning
A woman folding her laundry after cleaning
it in one of the 54 washing stations constructed by the Red
© Ramon Lepage / International Federation
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