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Coltan Mining Affects the Piaroa


Coltan mining, a scourge in the Northeastern D.R.Congo that has affected the Mbuti people, has more recently been dividing and threatening the Piaroa of Venezuela. A lengthy news story published last week by a group called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discussed the recent history of coltan in Venezuela and its effects on the Piaroa and another nearby indigenous society, the Pemon.

The area of Venezuela that may be rich in coltan is referred to as the Orinoco Mining Arc, an area the size of Bulgaria or Virginia located to the south of the Orinoco River, primarily in Bolivar state. The government of Venezuela is eager for the boost that large mining operations would bring to the nation’s economy. The indigenous peoples are divided about the proposal, though many are strongly opposed to industrial developments on lands they consider to be their own.

An operating coltan mine in North Kivu, D.R. Congo

An operating coltan mine in North Kivu province, D.R. Congo (MONUSCO photo on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, knew of the existence of coltan in the western end of the mining arc, near the border with Columbia. He was quoted in 2010 as expressing enthusiasm for mining it. Used in the manufacture of smartphones and other high-tech devices, coltan was valued more highly than gold or diamonds. Five years later, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, revived the enthusiasm of his predecessor and pushed for active coltan mining comparable to the projects in the D.R. Congo.

However, the OCCRP reporters interviewed geological engineer Noel Mariño who expressed some skepticism about the potential for riches, which depend on many factors. But on August 5, 2016, the Faoz Corporation, Ltd., signed up to open a coltan mine. The law in Venezuela specifies that mining can only proceed after environmental impact assessments and studies of socio-cultural impacts have been completed. None have been done so far, despite promises by the government; nonetheless mining operations began on December 9.

Welcome to the Piaroa community of Agua Mena

Welcome to the Piaroa community of Agua Mena (Screenshot from “Coltan, la Piste Sud-Américaine,” a video on Vimeo with English subtitles, Creative Commons license)

When the reporters visited the site of the new mine in the Piaroa community of Agua Mena in April 2017, Faoz still was operating the only legal mining venture in the Mining Arc. It is located near the highway that connects Bolivar City with Puerto Ayacucho. Josué Mendoza, a representative of Piaroa leader Enrique Gordons, accompanied the reporters to the mine. He expressed enthusiasm for the project.

He said that he spoke for 30 Piaroa communities, about 3,000 people, in welcoming the mining development. He explained that the promoters have been consulting the local indigenous people and they are obeying the law. “All the tribes inhabiting the Orinoco Mining Arc accepted the government’s proposal,” Mendoza told them. He went on to describe the many benefits to the local communities that the mining will provide: a better supply of electricity, better roads, health clinics, and schools.

Piaroa kids, such as these in Agua Mena, lack adequate schools that the coltan mining will supposedly provide

Piaroa kids, such as these in Agua Mena, lack adequate schools that the coltan mining will supposedly provide (Screenshot from the video “Coltan, la Piste Sud-Américaine,” on Vimeo, Creative Commons license)

But Franklin Quiñones strongly disagreed. The leader of a different Piaroa community, Fundo Nuevo, Quiñones said that though Venezuela faces an economic crisis and a lot of shortages, many of the tribal people are opposed to the mining. Sr. Quiñones earned a college degree at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela.

He expressed dismay at the support that Enrique Gordons is giving to the mining, saying that he and 16 other Piaroa leaders are campaigning to replace him. “He betrayed our people; the government bought him. Gordons doesn’t care that mining is weakening our struggle for these lands, increasing insecurity in the area, and polluting our water,” Quiñones said.

Don José, a resident of Agua Mena, discusses the problems coltan causes for the Piaroa

Don José, a resident of Agua Mena, discusses the problems coltan causes for the Piaroa (Screenshot from the video “Coltan, la Piste Sud-Américaine,” on Vimeo, Creative Commons license)

He emphasized that large-scale mines developed in the Orinoco Mining Arc will destroy Piaroa culture. “We’re not miners, we’re farmers,” he said. The outsiders with their big machines will destroy the things the Piaroa have cherished for generations—the forest, the rivers, and the springs. They will become polluted. “We drink that water, we bathe there,” he concluded.


Semai Foods Help Keep the Peace


The fact that the Semai cherish the foods they prepare from the forest was the topic of a Malaysian TV program and, last week, a brief newspaper article. According to the newspaper report in The Star, chef and TV host Nurilkarim Razha, in his documentary series “The Local Kitchen,” showed viewers an obscure forest fruit called the buah kulim, which has a hard shell but an amazing smell and taste. “It smells like truffles and tastes [like] an explosion of garlic and mushrooms! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before,” Nuril said enthusiastically about the delicacy known and used primarily by the Semai.

The Semai and Malaysian dish asam pedas

The Semai and Malaysian dish asam pedas (Photo by boo lee on Flickr Creative Commons license)

In the latest episode of his program, Nuril showed viewers the way he creates a forest dish called asam pedas, consisting of yams, buah kulim, and a warm salad of forest herbs. It also features another ingredient, the ginger-flavored kemomok leaf.

The Semai, he observed are aware of the wonderful flavors of these foods, though they may not all be aware of the possible medicinal values of ingredients such as the buah kulim fruits. They are being examined as possible cures for high blood pressure and diabetes. Nuril’s show apparently featured his own creativity as well as the traditional recipes he was following and adapting.

Cooking with bamboo

Cooking with bamboo (Photo by Tatoli Ba Kulltura in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

He cooked the dish in the Semai fashion—in bamboo—a tradition of the people. Tijah Yok Chopil, a well-known exponent of Semai culture and defender of their land rights, told the newspaper reporter that cooking by immersing the foods in pieces of bamboo, which is placed near a fire, is a technique that originated from the Orang Asli societies, not the Malays.

“Hopefully, The Local Kitchen will help raise awareness of our culture,” Yok Chopil said, “and people won’t be able to claim our ingredients and methods as their own.” She has been the subject of numerous news reports about her activism for Orang Asli land rights, her struggles for legal guarantees to protect them, and, not surprisingly, an award recognizing her outstanding contributions to Malaysian society.

Tijah Yok Chopil

Tijah Yok Chopil (Screenshot from the video “Orang Asli Struggle for Land Rights, by Malaysiakini TV, Creative Commons license)

An article in 2013 about the struggle by the Semai to secure their rights to foods and other products from forests that they consider to be their traditional inheritance quoted Tijah Yok Chopil as urging the national parliament to not pass a bill that would give up their lands to outsiders. Securing Semai land rights has been a major theme of the news stories in this website about that society. Furthermore, foods from the forest, whether hunted game or gathered vegetables, have been a bedrock concern of theirs, as reflected by the major ethnographic works about them.

A few examples should convey that importance, and hence the value of the foods program that Nuril aired recently. Robarchek (1977b) wrote that sharing foods was an essential aspect of Semai culture. Semai women quickly shared the manioc that they harvested when they returned to the village from their fields. Likewise, Semai men shared the fruits of their hunting, fishing, or gathering upon their return home. These patterns were all quite logical since they used to have no way to preserve foods. The single exception to that pattern was that rice was harvested and stored for long periods in the individual houses, but a woman would share some quantities of it with her neighbors as soon as she pounded the husks off.

Semai kids in the Semai village in which Tijah Yok Chopil lives

Semai kids in the Semai village in which Tijah Yok Chopil lives (Screenshot from the video “Orang Asli Struggle for Land Rights, by Malaysiakini TV, Creative Commons license)

In a more recent article, Robarchek (1986) linked the Semai beliefs in food sharing with their peacefulness. In fact, the major moral values for the Semai, he wrote, are avoiding violence and sharing food. Food sharing often had little practical value, as one person would share a portion of a harvest or gathering expedition, only to have the recipients share in return portions of the same foods shortly thereafter. But these sharing experiences were, and perhaps still are, extremely important as symbolic, public statements of mutual dependence, nurturance, and the close social ties within the band.

The anthropologist made the same point even more emphatically three years later. Robarchek (1989) wrote that the most important moral imperatives to the Semai were food sharing and avoiding violence. Almost all gatherings opened and closed with statements about the unity of the band, the importance of their interdependence, and the fact that they always help one another.

They were also constantly aware of the dangers that surrounded them from human, natural, and supernatural forces. Thus, mutual interdependence and danger were the two major themes of the Semai world:  the individual’s source of security was, and probably still is, the band. The TV show and the newspaper article about it kept the discussion to a basic level—about neat foods. But they covered a topic that resonates with Ms. Yok Chopil and presumably with the rest of the Semai as well.



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