PACARAIMA, Brazil, (Reuters) – An indigenous tribe that journeyed hundreds of kilometers to flee the economic crisis in Venezuela has been trapped in limbo near the border in Brazil, after it was moved off the streets of the Amazon city of Manaus.
Driven by hunger and illness from their traditional homeland on the Orinoco River delta in northeastern Venezuela, more than 1,200 members of the Warao tribe migrated to northern Brazil to live and beg on the streets.
Brazilian authorities, nongovernmental organizations and churches have helped provide temporary shelter on the border, but the Warao’s future remains uncertain. The tribe insists it will not return to Venezuela, where a deep recession has led to shortages of basic goods under President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.
“The children were dying in Venezuela from illness. There was no medicine, no food, no help,” said Rita Nieves, a cacique, or chief, of the matrilineal Warao.
Members of the tribe are still making the arduous journey. Nieves was wearing her best clothes to cross back into Venezuela to bury a 3-month-old Warao baby that had just died in its mother’s arms on the 1,000-km (620-mile) bus ride to Brazil.
“We are staying here because things have not changed in Venezuela,” she said, sitting in a warehouse turned into a living space for 220 Warao in the small border town of Pacaraima.
Children played among dozens of hammocks hanging from metal structures erected by U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. Outside, women cooked broth on wood fires and men sat listening to their shaman talk about the virtues of the moriche palm used to weave baskets and hammocks, as he puffed on a straw cigar.
The Warao have lived for centuries on the Orinoco delta, but some began to leave when fish supplies were depleted by the diversion of the waters to deepen shipping lanes for Venezuelan iron ore and bauxite exports.
Many went to Venezuelan cities to sell craftwork and beg on the streets. However, when the economy tipped into crisis, they began moving to Brazil last year, often just walking across the border without documents.
“They were already begging in Venezuela, but those who gave them money are themselves asking for help today,” said Sister Clara, a missionary from Brazil-based humanitarian organization Fraternidade that runs two shelters for the Warao.
“Who in today’s crisis in Venezuela is going to buy Warao arts and crafts?” she said.
Around 500 Warao arrived on the streets of Manaus last year, where they begged from drivers and sold craftwork at traffic lights.
Many slept under a highway overpass until city authorities stopped the begging and moved them into shelters they did not like.
Some then traveled down the Amazon to Santarem and Belem, while others returned to frontier towns, from which they can go back and forth to their delta homeland when they raise enough money.
“They started staying here, sleeping in the streets, and caused a humanitarian emergency,” said Pacaraima social services secretary Isabel Davila.
The town provided an abandoned warehouse with toilets, showers and a kitchen, built with funding from the Mormon church.
Like a similar shelter in the nearby city of Boa Vista that houses 500 Warao, these are temporary landing places, where the Warao can live while they get documents to legalize their status so they can find work, Davila said.
But Chief Rita has no plans to move. Pacaraima’s mayor promised land to grow crops and materials to make Warao craft work, she said, and she wants the Warao children to learn Portuguese.
Half of the land in Roraima state is reserved for indigenous peoples, but an attempt to ask local communities to cede territory to the Warao met with a firm rebuttal.
“We think they might be here for a decade,” said Danusa Sabala, a spokeswoman for Brazil’s Indian affairs office FUNAI, which sees no short-term solution for the Warao.
Ramon Gomez, a Warao chief in the Boa Vista shelter, said their ancestral homeland in the delta was “finished” and the situation in Venezuela was deteriorating rapidly.
“When … this President Maduro took over, everything ended, food, medicine,” Gómez said. “We will be here until Venezuela changes. It will get worse before it gets better.”