With a homeland based along the Manapiare River basin of Venezuela, the Yabarana find themselves barely surviving as one of the smallest Indian tribes in South America. Because of its small number of just 237 members, the group has been susceptible to physical and mental threats from both other nearby tribes and even the Venezuelan government itself.
Though all native Indian tribes have had to face the reality of growing development by outsiders, few have had to deal with the life and cultural changes that the Yabarana have. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the local government has condoned ranching in Yabarana territories, instead believing that the land would be best used for grazing cattle. The problem caused an uproar among the Indian tribe as the Yabarana use those fields to grow food crops such as corn and yucca for meals. The Yabarana went head to head with the government in court to fight for what they felt was theirs – but lost in a decision that now have them on the brink of extinction. Records show that there are only 20 pure Yabarana Indians left in the world.
With so little of their own population still left standing, the Yabarana that have survived today are largely the product of ethnogenisis that has led to the merging of different cultures and tribes within their own group. For instance, various alliances with the Wökiare, Yawarana, and Orechicana can all be seen among the Yabarana and in terms of marriage, many natives have intermarried with members of nearby tribes (such as the Piaroa). On rare occasions, it is not unheard of for there to be a union of a Yabarana woman and a non-Indian male.
Perhaps due to their dire situation, the Yabarana are known users of a native hallucinogenic drug called Piptadenias. Piptadenias are botanical plants that grow from the West Indies all the way through Argentina. Their power was soon found by the aborigines who would inhale the powder from the seeds of the plant to get a natural high. Soon, these plants were used as a way for Yabarana natives to get drunk and in some cases, reports have shown that that chiefs will take a whiff of the plant’s powder before important meetings as a way to get clarity. It is important to note that these plants have also been used for commercial sale.
Today, the Yabarana continue to fight for continued development of their culture, but many of their complaints seem to fall on deaf ears. Of late, the booming industry of eco-tourism has been the latest hurdle to cross as outsiders have become enchanted with the beautiful plants and wildlife found on Yabarana land. The tribe has gone to the head of Indigenous Affairs for their country for help, but some unwanted citizens have taken large measures to make a business opportunity out of their area. For example, local ranchers have been known to build a luxury camp and then fly in tourists from the capital of Caracas to enjoy the natural landscape – all of this on Yabarana territory and without approval. The failure to protect the rights and values of their culture by the Venezuelan government is a fight the Yabarana continue to battle – even if it means seeing their tribe dwindle in the process.
Photos property of Hands Around the World
Lycaeum > Leda > Native hallucinogenic drugs piptadenias – Use of the drug by Yabarana Indians
Ethnologue, 13th Edition, Barbara F. Grimes, Editor. Copyright © 1996, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.