Stories articles Indigenous Rights

Forest Coverage in the Upper Cuyuni Region close to the Guyana-Venezuela Border. Credit: Amerindian People Association (APA)

Forest Coverage in the Upper Cuyuni Region close to the Guyana-Venezuela Border. Credit: Amerindian People Association (APA)

February 29, 2024

Essequibo: How the Tensions between Venezuela and Guyana are Affecting Indigenous Peoples

Though tensions have lessened since last December, the threat of a dispute between both countries could intensify conflicts Indigenous Peoples are already facing in Guyana.

Essequibo is a densely forested region in Guyana that is roughly the size of Florida and home to more than 125,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 citizens. Indigenous Peoples make up the majority of the region's population, sustaining and guarding its rich biodiversity.

At the beginning of December 2023, Venezuela held a referendum in which its population rejected the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice over the country's long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana. Criticized as being politically motivated, the Venezuelan vote would essentially support the annexation of two-thirds of the Guyanese territory for the creation of a new state in the Essequibo region. Guyana’s government has called the move an “existential” threat.

As tensions escalated between Guyana and Venezuela, Indigenous communities reported on a lack of information from official sources and a rise in the circulation of fake news and misinformation regarding the potential conflict. There were also concerns about some Indigenous Peoples already leaving their villages, stocking food and essential goods.

Essequibo map
Essequibo comprises nearly two-thirds of Guyana’s territory, a 159,500-square-kilometre (62,000sq mile) area.

On December 14, 2023, the Presidents of Venezuela and Guyana agreed not to resort to force to settle the territorial dispute over the Essequibo region. However, in early February 2024, satellite images showed that Venezuela had expanded its military presence near the border with Guyana.

There is still great anxiety and concern about the negative effects that this conflict would have on Indigenous Peoples in the region – especially compounded by the ongoing threat they already face from extractive industries.

“The history of our communities is one where we are generally in conflict with the extractive sector regarding our rights and the protection of our lands,” says Jean La Rose (Lokono Nation) from the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA). “We were recently dealing with the tension of the possibility of military invasion from another country, but once that tension diminishes, we still have the situation of the need for the demarcation of our lands and the guarantee and respect for our traditional rights.”

Indigenous Peoples in the Essequibo region also worry that a conflict or an annexation by Venezuela may weaken their rights to their ancestral territories and ways of life.

“We want to maintain and strengthen ownership of our lands and respect for our traditional rights. With so many things happening, all of this can be eroded,” continues La Rose, who is also a 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for her work coordinating the first Indigenous land rights lawsuit in Guyana to protect streams, rainforests, and endangered Indigenous communities harmed by mining.

Offshore oil field exploitation raises new concerns for Indigenous Peoples in Guyana.

The discovery of vast offshore oil fields on the coast of the Essequibo region in 2015 has ignited an economic boom in Guyana, sparking infrastructure development projects that are cutting through the country's interior and forests.

After commercial drilling started in 2019, the Guyanese economy tripled in size, and it is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Some Indigenous communities have expressed their concerns about the environmental damages that this extraction and its effects may cause, as they have already seen with mining. La Rose points to the fact that environmental protection is not happening at the same pace as the impacts: “My community lives close to the coast. We depend on the sea for fish and crab as a part of our diet. We don’t know the effects that an oil spill would have, but we have seen it happen in other places.”