Promoting Sustainable Development in the Orinoco River Delta, Venezuela

Fundación Tierra Viva’s Sustainable Development Programme in the Orinoco River Delta, Venezuela 1998 – 2013


Core Activity
The development of a multi-stakeholder forum and co-management committee, to address sustainable development issues in the Orinoco delta. This programme comprised capacity-building and information-sharing sessions before working with multiple actors on a range of issues including health, education, income-generation and the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.

The Orinoco river delta, comprising over 40,000 square kilometres of tropical forests, mangroves, creeks and wetlands and is one of Venezuela’s most important regions for biodiversity. Offshore oil and gas exploration and production has been taking place near the mouth of the delta over the past 20 years. The delta is also home to the Warao, the second largest indigenous group in Venezuela.

The population of the delta is approximately 145,000, of which approximately 30,000 are Warao. Sparsely populated, it is also the poorest region in Venezuela in terms of health, education, economic development and public infrastructure indicators. The Warao are the region’s poorest and most marginalised group, living in small communities in raised huts built on the banks of the numerous waterways and small creeks throughout the delta. Their traditional livelihoods are fishing, hunting, gathering and weaving (baskets, hammocks). Relations between ‘criollo’ (mixed race, or mestizo) and Warao communities have been poor. Teachers and health workers face numerous difficulties in reaching remote communities, many of which can only be reached by water on journeys that often take over five hours.

In 1998 Living Earth Foundation (LEF) and our Venezuelan partner Fundación Tierra Viva (FTV) initiated an education project with Warao communities, local teachers and regional authorities in the Orinoco delta with the support of the Venezuelan national oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA). The broad aim was to improve the quality of life of Warao communities.

The project expanded, initially with the support of the UK Lottery Charities Fund (now the ‘Community Fund’). With the support of the oil companies Conoco Phillips and Chevron it evolved into a programme with several projects. FTV set out from the beginning to develop constructive relationships with relevant actors including: local authorities, regional education and health authorities, Warao community leaders and associations, local teachers and health workers, indigenous peoples’ national organisations, regional and national government agencies, teachers, health workers and civil society organisations.

Intended Outcomes
1.- Improvement in the quality of life of Warao communities in the project area.
2.- Increased capacity among Warao communities to understand their rights and to better address their own health, education and economic issues in conjunction with relevant agencies.
3.- Greater understanding of Warao culture, needs and expectations among non-Warao (‘criollo’) community leaders, teachers and local authorities.
4.- Greater mutual trust and increased cooperation on health, education, conservation and economic issues, between Warao and criollo communities and authorities, as a result of the above.

Established Practice
Before this programme started, public authorities had insufficient knowledge and understanding of Warao culture, needs or expectations. Relations between Warao and criollo communities were tense, characterised by mutual mistrust – unsurprising when Warao culture, history and expectations were invisible in the teaching at local and regional schools. The Warao themselves had few economic options beyond their traditional subsistence activities and little support to undertake new activities.

Project Benefits
The programme has produced the following outputs and outcomes:
* Numerous information and education workshops and materials (posters, radio programmes, videos, booklets) in Spanish and Warao from the indigenous and criollo perspectives, on key health, environmental, economic and cultural issues
* Increased access to attractive markets for the handicrafts of Warao women artisans, enabling increased income that benefits Warao families and communities
* Increased participation of Warao leaders and organisations in regional multi-stakeholder sessions and decision-making processes on issues that affect them
* The active engagement of oil companies in support of projects. Speaking to LEF in Caracas in June 2013, a senior CHEVRON manager emphasised the importance that the company gives to building alliances with all levels of government, civil society organisations and communities.

Most significant changes
* A permanent multi-stakeholder forum was established in the first few years of activities, with the participation of local and regional authorities and other key stakeholders. This evolved into a co-management committee that discusses and analyses issues and agrees and implements shared action plans.
* The high quality bilingual and bi-cultural (Warao/Spanish) education materials have been used in training programmes for teachers and health workers of the delta, as well as by civil society organisations and students, and have contributed to improved understanding of the culture and rights of Warao communities and improved relations between communities.
* Improved mutual understanding, trust and cooperation between Warao and criollo communities and local authorities.
* With guidance and support from FTV and Chevron, over 70 Warao women artisans have organised to sell their beautiful woven handicraft (assorted baskets, hammocks) in Caracas and other cities, through a network set up by FTV. This income-generating activity carried out by Warao women continues to have a positive impact on the seven Warao communities where the women artisans live.

Conclusions and recommendations
* Developing constructive, trust-based relations amongst diverse stakeholders is a challenging task that takes time, patience and commitment. A critical success factor has been FTV’s tireless work with many stakeholders with diverse views, expectations and interests
* The participation of major oil and gas companies operating in the region (PDVSA, Conoco Phillips, Chevron) has been another critical success factor. FTV was able to establish a constructive on-going dialogue with these oil companies, which fostered mutual trust, enabled shared learning and led to working alliances on specific projects
* The process of stakeholder dialogue (encompassing all of the above) is unique to each specific context and must be developed progressively with the active participation of the actors involved
* Facilitating the process requires openness, transparency, humility, capacity to listen, patience and flexibility – following pre-determined ‘recipes’ does not work

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