The National Catholic Review

The Yukpa people of Venezuela call him Brother Ajishama, meaning the one who knows the way to the Promised Land. The 81-year-old Spanish Jesuit has spent 45 of his 81 years serving them; now he is ready to give his life for them.

"There is no greater demonstration of friendship," Fr Jose Maria Korta told journalists from the bed where he is lying on the ground floor of the National Assembly in Caracas, "than to give your life for your friend. It's a gift."

The Basque-born founder of Venezuela's Indigenous University and veteran advocate of the rights of native peoples is protesting at the imprisonment of three Yupka leaders, or caciques, over land disputes in the state of Zulia which have led to violent clashes between natives and settlers. 

The Yupkas live in the Sierra de Perija, an area sought after by mining companies because of its coal and uranium deposits. They have been offered only small plots of land in compensation for being dislodged.

Fr Korta's protest is at the failure to implement the country's 1999 Constitution, which on paper recognizes ancestral borders. But not in practice. The Yupkas have been waiting for 9 years for the Government to act.

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is backing Fr Korta. In a statement, they said the priest "seeks nothing for himself" but "demands recognition of the rights of the people for which he has fought for over 40 years in Venezuela", adding that the Society supports the principles which have motivated Fr Korta "in defense of the rights to the demarcation of ancestral territories" as well as the right of leaders to "a just trial by the Yukpa community's own courts". 

The Society has called for swift action to enable Fr Korta to abandon his hunger strike, which it says poses a grave risk to his health (he is 81).

Fr Korta's doctor says he is taking only water and saline solution. "He is weak but in good health. He is used to eating very little, like the native people."