They’ve inhabited the Venezuelan Delta for centuries, but now, the encroachment of oil and mining industries means the Warao people’s way of life is under threat. Photographer Adriana Loureiro Fernández pays them a visit.
The river is barely moving, lit by the last beams of the setting sun. People have gathered to take the last motor-propeled boat heading north of Delta Amacuro, Venezuela’s most remote northeastern state.
The Venezuelan Delta is the region where our longest river, the Orinoco, merges with the Atlantic Ocean. There’s little land there, most of it is swamped, as the river mouth penetrates everything above and below.
It’s also the land where one of Venezuela’s indigenous tribes, the Warao, have lived for centuries and their staple architecture is known for its adaptation to the environment. The palafito is a wooden shack designed to float over the water and endure its continued corrosion; and in Venezuelan culture, the Warao, their palafitos and the surrounding waters one and the same.
Warao means ‘people of the canoes’ because, centuries ago, they built curiaras from trees to navigate the Delta. Even today, the rustic curiara is their main source of transportation and remains a central part of Latin American indigenous heritage.
Any journey into the Venezuelan Delta begins with your feet leaving dry land—from there on out, it’s just water.
As we glide through the streams, the water mirrors the red sky. The trees, framing the width of the river, soon engulf us. Our boat passes abandoned palafitos, floating like wooden ghosts: Since 2014, this ethnic population has been migrating slowly southwards.
In the ‘60s, a flood control program dammed the Delta. Its waters became too saline for river fish and also affected the flora of the swamp forest. Warao tribes were impacted, as was the rest of the ecosystem: The fish that fed them began to disappear and the land they farmed no longer yielded a substantial harvest.
The ethnic group has one of the highest malnutrition rates in Venezuela, mostly because they are no longer self-sustaining … The indigenous population is at risk of disappearing, along with its cultural heritage.
Venturing into the streams, the virgin lands and its fauna reveals itself. It’s a two-hour boat ride if the waters are working with you; up to six when they are not. Some Warao have motor-powered boats, but most make do with curiaras. When they need to get to a city, whether for emergency visits to Western doctors or markets, Warao families have been known to row for over 10 hours to find land.
Oil extraction, illegal mining downriver, and the change in river flow have all increasingly contaminated the water. Now the water that surrounds them—the natural element that’s embedded in their cultural identity—is their primary cause of disease. What once gave them life now brings them death.
The ethnic group has one of the highest malnutrition rates in Venezuela, mostly because they are no longer self-sustaining. Their main food source is mono, a small but nutrient-dense fruit that they prepare as juice. They soak it overnight to loosen the flesh before separating it from the seed using a mortar and a pestle. The preparation of mono is laborious, but it’s all they can collect in large quantities.
The indigenous population is at risk of disappearing, along with its cultural heritage. The scale of the loss is only truly understood through the experience of this place and its people—the connection between both is tangible, and deeply spiritual.
The Delta was declared an indigenous-protected area precisely because the Warao protected the land as a way of protecting themselves, physically and culturally. But they have not been able to defend it from the oil and mining industries and, as the biodiversity dies, the Warao die with it.
Even in their plight, some Warao have chosen to stay. The Yabinoko community, have built a hut above waters with a water-purification system, designed for eco-tourism.
At the cruel hands of zika, dengue, chikungunya, malaria, measles and water poisoning, the Warao are slowly disappearing. They are trading the waters from their streams for the cement of the streets. They are flowing across Brazil’s northern border to find respite from the diseases and hunger that rules their land.
According to Venezuelan authorities, over 3,000 Warao are currently living as refugees in Boa Vista (the capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima), and the numbers are only expected to increase, with no relief in sight for them. It is the first time in their history that the Warao have left the Delta.
But even in their plight, some Warao have chosen to stay. In the Yabinoko community, the Warao built a hut above waters with a water-purification system. The construction is inspired by the palafito architecture and designed for eco-tourism. There, tourists sleep in hammocks, just as the Warao do, and they experience everyday life among indigenous tribes.
After the sun sets, a bonfire illuminates the river while canoes pass up and downstream. Silence takes over and constellations start to form in the night sky. The Delta experience is like no other: Exotic, spiritual and grounding. It’s a deep connection of humanity and environment, channeled through one of the most ancient tribes in northern Latin America.
The Venezuelan Delta is a place where time vanishes with the flow of the waters, where you can row a curiara past ancient indigenous structures, and see indigenous women steaming fish or preparing mono juice.
While sustainable tourism can’t fix the problems the Warao face, it does at least offer a small source of hope. There aren’t many experiences like this left in the world—and who’s to say how long it will be until the Warao are forced to leave the Delta for good.
Companies such as Orinoco Travel help travelers visit the Venezuelan Delta and the Warao people.
Adriana is a multimedia journalist currently based in Caracas, Venezuela. Focusing on social conflict and youth culture, her work has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Intercept, among others.