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Save 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 Cross branches.

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 more participation.

"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 their trust."

Community empowerment

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 leader.

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.



Respect 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

Ewald Scharfenberg is a Venezuelan journalist for the organization, Journalists Without Borders.


Lessons learned in Venezuela

"The key factor in the success of the programme was achieving the involvement of the community and ensuring that its enthusiasm did not flag."

Miguel Yamín, vice-president of the Amazonas branch

"The work carried out with the women was very important, because they
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."

Raulith Rodríguez, head of health brigades

"Perseverance and forward planning earned us the trust of the Piaroas."

Milagros Quinto, head of volunteers

"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."

Yovanny González, head of relief unit

"The greatest incentive was to see how we were actually able to help improve the living conditions of people like ourselves."

Carlos Alfonzo, local coordinator of the Amazon programme


Amazonico 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 plans.
• More than 60 projects from the local development plans implemented.
• Improved management of solid waste.
• Community health centres and health dispensaries supplied with medicines.
• 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 and monitoring.

A woman folding her laundry after cleaning it in one of the 54 washing stations constructed by the Red Cross.
© Ramon Lepage / International Federation

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