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Fernandez: Community participation benefits Yanomami health care

As Venezuela's vice minister for the Popular Power of the Indigenous People of Urban Areas, I had the privilege in March to present the innovative achievements of our Yanomami health project, which targets a particularly segregated indigenous community in Venezuela, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. As one of the few indigenous representatives in the Venezuelan government, I try to bridge the gap of understanding between our indigenous communities and the larger Venezuelan society, which marginalized us for so long.

For decades, the Yanomami, among the most isolated of our indigenous people in the Venezuelan/Brazilian Amazon rainforest, were subject to persistent incursions to their territory, particularly by illegal gold miners. The intruders brought not only new diseases such as malaria, but social illness as well - something that many Indian peoples throughout the world know all too well.

In December 1996, a number of human rights organizations acting on behalf of the Yanomami community of Haximu petitioned the IACHR in connection with the 1993 massacre of 16 Yanomami people by Brazilian miners known as Garimpeiros. The petition alleged that the Venezuelan government failed in its obligation to protect the Yanomami. It wasn't until 1999 that the Venezuelan government, led by President Hugo Chavez, agreed to work with the nongovernmental organizations under IACHR mediation to provide security and carry out health care projects in the Yanomami community.

The Yanomami health project was established then in an effort to target the indigenous community in the areas of health, education, the environment and general awareness. The endeavor aims to protect the ethnic group which, according to the 2001 Census, numbered approximately 12,000 people. In the past, only 30 percent of Yanomami received health care assistance.

The Yanomami health project was finally up and running in 2005 and it served the entire community. The first part of the three-phase plan included the creation of an infrastructure to rescue and expand the current health care network that had been neglected. The second stage involved the improvement of the quality of care and the establishment of a database to record every disease in their community; moreover, it created the District Unit of Health in Alto Orinoco, where the Yanomami reside. The final stage consisted of the training of Yanomami and non-Yanomami personnel with a socio-political-multicultural perspective in order to incorporate into their health care system both Western and traditional healers.

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The Yanomami health project increased the number of doctors in the area, brought needed medicines, electricity, communications, equipment, and even an ambulance and 16 aircrafts to transport people, food and medicines to areas of difficult access in the extensive jungle. These recent achievements were possible due to the cooperation of national, regional and - most importantly - the direct participation of the Yanomami community.

Today, not only are the Yanomami people receiving the care to which they are entitled based on the Venezuelan Constitution, but they are also being trained to deliver that care. To date, 25 Yanomami members have gone through an intensive bilingual (Spanish and Yanomami) training program to become health care providers in their communities. These new providers are supervised by doctors, who are being trained in the Yanomami medical methods provided by Mother Earth.

Cultural and intercultural diversity are indeed challenges that must be evaluated in order to understand how we, as a part of the larger world, should adopt positive attitudes to learn from different concepts of health and life to benefit every member of our society.

Having the space and the will to understand those we serve in Venezuela made the Yanomami health project a success and a model for other communities. And now we, the indigenous people and communities of Venezuela, are determining our own destiny with generous resources from the state. For the first time in our history, we are developing our communities as we see fit.

Noly Fernandez is a native Venezuelan from Pueblo Wayuu of the clan of Epiayuu. She is the vice minister for the Popular Power of the Indigenous People of Urban Areas of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Her e-mail is