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Magazine

15 October 2018
The Struggle for Territoriality: The Kueka Stone

Carlota Surós

The region known as the Great Savannah in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has only one paved road, Troncal 10 motorway, called by the Pemon native community The Black Road or The Black Snake. The road crosses El Dorado and, after a few kilometres, winds perilously up towards Canaima National Park which encompasses a large part of the Great Savannah area. In its remotest section it crosses the last Venezuelan village, Santa Elena de Uairén, located at approximately fifteen kilometres from the border with Brazil, and links up with Boa Vista in the state of Roraima. The territory is geopolitically strategic because of its huge biogenetic resources, and the road – promoted to connect areas of intense productivity and consumption with the Amazon region – exemplifies a past characterised by conflicts and disputes over territorial control, unrestrained exploitation of natural resources and abuse of extractive industries during much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The construction of the Troncal is just a prelude to the history of expropriation, modification and occupation of the indigenous areas of the Great Savannah. Given that the natural resources of the region are vital for the development of the country’s economy, their exportation and commercialisation are carried out by the State[1], often without the consent of their inhabitants. Despite the fact that primitive peoples’ organisations have recognised certain legislative advances in the field of indigenous rights, on numerous occasions the peoples native to the Great Savannah have condemned the indiscriminate changes suffered by their territory, such as prospecting for, exploring, extracting and exploiting natural resources [2] by the State without consulting or counting on the participation of these very communities. Measures such as the Ley Orgánica de Seguridad de la Nación (Organic Law of National Security) that invalidates ‘any participation of or consultation with civil society and penalises any demonstration held in the region’ reveal the specific interests of the State in its territory and the lack of sovereignty and protection of communities. On the other hand, since the construction of the road, this cross-border region has become an area highly vulnerable to secrecy, deforestation, sexual exploitation networks, women and drugs trafficking, and extraction smuggling, particularly of fuel, gold, minerals, coal, rubber, batteries and precious stones, all of which has affected the social and cultural model of the peoples living in the area.

One of the communities that have suffered the most because of these changes is the Pemon people, which since the opening of the road has remained on the front line to defend the land that belongs to it, although no specific results support their ancestral ownership of its territoriality. According to Jenny González Muñoz, their problems transcend the possession of physical space per se and are also found ‘in the transgression of the archaeological areas and objects that shape the indigenous world view’[3]” and the symbolic conception of territory. Such was the case of the Kueka Stone of the Pemons, removed in 1998 from Canaima National Park, near the community of Santa Cruz de Mapaurí, at forty-two kilometres from Santa Elena de Uairén. Taken by German artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld, Kueka is a jasper stone that measures between nine and twelve cubic metres and weighs thirty tons. Up until the year 2018 it formed a part of the Global Stone Project[4], a personal installation by the German artist in Berlin’s public space that contains stones taken from each of the continents which which the artist has associated a different property (in the case of Kueka, love). After its removal, the stone was moved to Germany, where it was polished, cut, sharpened and inscribed with several marks, remaining in the city’s Tiergarten park until it was returned to Venezuela in May 2018.

Sanación de la piedra en Berlín en mayo de 2018. Foto:@CancilleriaVE

For the Pemon people, every stone ­– like every corner of the Great Savannah – was created by Makunaima, the god of their land. Their culture has a cosmogonical structure of nature, which is considered sacred and capable of influencing the destiny of peoples. Stones are divinities, protective beings, guardians and intermediary spirits; they are safe places for the prosperity of people, which is why they are intensely watched over[5]. Kueka, as the owner of what exists on Earth, is considered by the community to be a mother, a grandmother. When it was removed, the Pemons were protesting against the electrical line that was about to be built in the Forest Reserve of Imataca. The electrical line project dates back to 1997 when Rafael Caldera, then president of Venezuela, reached an agreement with the Edelca and Electronorte companies to install a high-voltage cable to bring electricity to the northern region of Brazil, and to hand over more than half the land of the reserve for mining exploitation by multinational companies (Decree 1850). The Pemons, who knew that their habitat and the natural heritage of the region would be seriously affected by these projects, protested pacifically against the government’s actions undertaken without their consent, yet to no effect. Given the lack of response to their demands for self-determination and rights of participation, when the construction work began in their adjacent territory, the members of the community of Santa Cruz de Mapaurí decided to close the road for several days in July 1998. The siege was lifted after the regional government promised them a meeting with the Venezuelan Minister for the Environment and with the Minister for Agriculture.[6]

When the Pemons returned to their village after the protests staged at the end of July, they intercepted the Kueka Stone on the road, loaded on the lorry and ready to be exported. The stone was a few metres away from the path to the village and neither the Pemon people nor the indigenous authorities had been informed of its removal. The Pemons and several support groups stopped its advance along the Troncal in sign of protest. The Kueka was kept under the command of the National Guard until December 1998, when it was eventually taken to Berlin. No amount of pressure exerted to avoid the transportation of the stone – the protests, the complaint made by the Environmental Committee in the Senate and the transfer of the case to the public prosecutor’s office at the Ministry of the Republic – made the slightest difference. According to the declaration of de Rights of the Indian Peoples[7], the advisers on the committee warned Von Schwarzenfeld of the ‘legal, national and international violations’ incurred by the expropriation of the stone, and alerted him of the discord that this brought to the native communities inhabiting the area. Even so, the artist requested permission from the Independent Institute for the Environment, Mining and Ordering of the Territory (IAMOT, for its initials in Spanish), a body within the government of the Bolivarian State, who ‘without having the power to do so, authorised the move of the stone’. According to the document, the permit was presented before the chief of the Area of Surveillance and Control of the Independent Environmental Service of the Guayana Region that finally authorised the moving of the stone from the command of the National Guard to Europe. The permission for removing the stone had at first been granted, unlawfully, by the then president of Inparques (the National Institute of Parks), infringing the 1983 Organic Law of Territorial Organisation that declared that the main objective of the park was to preserve its cultural and natural heritage, and the Organic Law of the National Public Treasury that explicitly forbids any civil servant from granting permits and authorisations regarding assets belonging to the State. The shipping was also authorised by Eric Becker, at the time ambassador in Germany. In any event, no legal action could prevent the institutional irregularity that sanctioned the plundering.

Over the course of the following years, the Pemons would take matters into their own hands, visiting Inparques, the Ombudsman and the German Embassy to demand the necessary paperwork for the return of the Kueka Stone to Canaima National Park. Following the repeated protests, both the new president of Inparques and the new German ambassador in Venezuela, Edmund Duckwitz, promised to come up with a solution, a promise that would never be fulfilled. The multiple verbal complaints didn’t yield any results until the Public Prosecutor’s Office started to take action in 2012, which is when the mobilisation began to produce an international impact and the scale of the struggle began to grow. At last, the affair has been solved this very year (2018). The slowness and carelessness of governments that have been dodging their responsibilities concerning the return of the Kueka Stone for decades, claiming that it was a gift and therefore its removal was not considered an instance of plundering, in spite of the bureaucratic irregularities, have underlined the inability to assume responsibilities[8], the long-drawn-out paperwork, and the lack of effective international conventions for the protection of historical and cultural heritage. On the other hand, the vagueness of the process has hindered the enforcement of international measures such as the 1970 UNESCO International Convention[9], drawn up to forbid and sanction the unlawful extraction of cultural assets in order to avoid their illicit trafficking. The convention establishes a form of complaint that charges the cost of the return to the claimant, and uses the political discourse of good faith: if whoever has acquired the cultural asset obtained it in good faith, they are exonerated of responsibility. These subjective terms complicate the complaints and the success of the demands for the return of the stone.

According to Raúl Grioni, president of Venezuela’s Institute of Cultural Heritage, the return of the Kueka Stone, in the form of re-donation, is a way of ‘preventing the appearance of an endless string of complaints’[10] and of legally supporting the return of the stone without having to acknowledge the unlawfulness of its removal. On the other hand, in the past few years the Global Stone Project, that preaches peaceful connections between peoples starting from the dialogue between stones, was already too inconsistent at both an institutional and a semantic level. The echo of the conflict with the native communities brought to the forefront the problem of plundering in Germany, one of the European countries with a greater number of cultural assets taken from former colonies. And yet the return of the Kueka Stone opened up a possibility of redemption and an image of justice for the governments involved, whose administrations had exemplified to perfection the extent to which bureaucratic limbos are also related to the legality that serves a specific power or network of powers. The decision was clear.

This article began with the history of the opening of the road because, in the case of Venezuela, as in many other places, it is through such decisions that power relations are revealed. The struggle to recover the Kueka Stone by the Pemons is comparable to their fight against the building of the road, the electrical line and the mining arch today. Their relationship is fundamental and indisputable — the fight to regain territoriality. The removal of the Kueka Stone, just as the mere existence of the Global Stone Project, reveal the actions carried out by and for the elite from the sphere of privilege, the cultural supremacy of the West and the paternalistic disdain towards the indigenous communities that have not only inhabited the territory from age-old times but have also been denied the use and enjoyment of the place that belongs to them, over which they have no legal power, and hence deprived of life. In cultural terms, plundering supports a movement reflected daily at all other levels — politically, legally, socially and geographically. We have a lot of work to do, and a great responsibility yet to be met.

 

[1] The Laboratorios de Paz association published an executive report on the situation of extraction in Venezuela.

[2]  Such as gold, coal, diamonds or coltan, for instance.

[3] González Muñoz, Jenny. “La territorialidad de los pueblos originarios: una historia de despojos y violaciones en el Abya Yala”. Cuadernos do LEPAARQ – Textos de Antropologia, Arqueologia e Patrimônio. V-VII.13/14 (2010).

[4] The project has its own website:  http://www.globalstone.de/

[5] González Muñoz, Jenny. “Mitos sagrados de pueblos ancestrales. Exploración a los espacios de la memoria warao y pemón de Venezuela” Parallelus, Recive, .4.8 (2013): 153-161.

[6] ln view of the subsequent non-fulfilment of the agreements, the conflict lasted several years, went through different phases and mandates, including the government of Hugo Chávez (elected in 1999). The substantial themes of the conflict remained unsolved. For detailed information on the development of the electrical cable project, see, among other sources, this article; the Venezuela CRA-AIT report; and the article by Mery Pérez.

[7] Accessible here.

[8] To quote ambassador Georg-Clemens Dick who in 2012, on occasion of the visit made by representatives of the Pemon people, said: ‘This was never done with the intention of taking something away from them: we always considered the Kueka Stone as a gift from Venezuela in order to create a global work of art for peace. However, I beg you to understand the difficulty involved in an act of this nature. … This requires that all those involved give their consent for this return, as the original donation of the Kueka Stone was a gift from the legal point of view.’ The whole quote can be read here.

[9] Consultable here.

[10] In conversation with William Castillo on TV Foro television programme in December 2012. In low quality, it can be viewed here.

Carlota is a Berlin based transdisciplinary researcher with a soft spot for contemporary art, urban sociology, feminism, electronic music and critical theory. While juggling to combine all of them in her daily work, she writes about the things that don't let her sleep properly. She is a double MA graduate (in Museum Studies and Critical Theory and in Literary and Cultural Studies) and she currently combines her post-graduate study with her assistant work at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. As long as she's told that she is always looking for the cracks in the pavement, she knows she is doing things the right way.

Articles

15 October 2018

The Struggle for Territoriality: The Kueka Stone

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