CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – A 35-ton Venezuelan stone that makes up part of a global peace project in Germany is evoking more rage than harmony.
The sandstone boulder on display in a Berlin park drew protests in Venezuela Thursday as a group of Pemon Indians demanded the rock, which they view as sacred, be returned to their homeland.
More than 100 indigenous Pemon, many of them wearing loincloths, marched to the German Embassy in Caracas, raising ornamental spears and chanting: “Return the stone!”
Melchor Flores, a 37-year-old representative of the Pemon who led the march, said, “It’s not just a stone. It’s part of our culture and they must return it.”
He said the boulder, known to the Pemon as the “Kueka Stone,” belongs in his community among the grasslands and table-top mountains of the Gran Sabana region. He and others traveled overnight by bus from the region to reach Caracas.
In Berlin, artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld said the protest is the latest controversy over the stone in what has been a 15-year saga. Von Schwarzenfeld removed the boulder from Venezuela’s Canaima National Park in 1997. He said that despite having permission from Venezuelan officials and documentation that the rock was a gift to “the German people,” the initial operation was slowed by local officials who thought it had been stolen.
It was then delayed further after the red sandstone was mistaken for semi-precious jasper, which is also found in the area.
Von Schwarzenfeld said that Pemon Indians helped him choose it and there was never any question of it being of religious or cultural value to the indigenous community.
He suggested that President Hugo Chavez’s government may have contrived the current controversy in order to help secure political support from the Pemon ahead of an Oct. 7 presidential election. He said two YouTube videos have helped spread the idea that the stone is a sacred relic.
“It is not a jasper, it is not stolen, it is not a holy stone _ it’s a pity it needed so many lies to make this conflict and that is why it is very important to get back to the truth,” he said Thursday from Berlin’s central Tiergarten park, where the stone is one of five that make up his “Global Stone” display.
Pemon leaders say the stone is sacred because it represents a tribal legend handed down over many generations detailing how a young Pemon man named Kueka fell in love with a girl from another tribe and married her. Kueka’s actions, they say, angered the Pemon deity Makunaima, who opposed inter-tribal marriage. Makunaima punished Kueka and his wife by turning them into stone, thereby immortalizing them as the Pemon’s grandfather and grandmother.
Flores and other Pemon Indians at Thursday’s protest referred to the stone in Germany as the tribe’s `grandmother.” Taking the stone away threw off Venezuela’s natural balance, they contend, sparking the deadly floods and mudslides that killed tens of thousands of people in 1999, after the stone was taken.
Germany’s ambassador to Caracas, Georg-Clemens Dick, met with the protesters outside the embassy in Caracas and told them he would discuss their demands with government officials in Berlin.
Reading a written statement, Dick said he has already spoken with officials from Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry, and emphasized that bringing back the boulder would be no simple task.
“I ask that you understand the difficulty that an act of this nature entails,” he said.
Von Schwarzenfeld said the upside of the current controversy is that it has focused attention on the native people in Venezuela and their rights.
“The simplest way of solving the problem is … talking with the indigenous people, saying this was an error and apologize, ask for forgiveness, and also ask for them to please donate the stone to the people of the world,” he said. The stone display, he added, is a “worldwide peace project.”
Associated Press writer David Rising reported from Berlin.
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