One social entrepreneur and activist’s mission to defend the environment and indigenous communities in Venezuela

By Bryce Kelly

2017 YLAI Fellow Victor Rujano Bautista is the co-founder of Culturas Indígenas y Medio Ambiente Sustentable (CIMAS), an organization committed to promoting and defending the human rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment in the Venezuelan state of Zulia.

Victor grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Maracaibo, dedicating himself to schoolwork in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer. He found his calling in environmental and human rights law and works to protect indigenous communities in his region.

The YLAI Network team asked Victor a few questions about his strong commitment to justice and his dedication to never letting anyone or anything stop him from doing what is right.

What is the mission of CIMAS and how is it being enacted? 

Our fundamental objective is to promote, disseminate and defend the rights and cultures of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and the Americas before internal and international bodies, as well as to defend the environment and natural resources in order to strengthen sustainable development in the region and the right of every citizen to enjoy a healthy, safe and ecologically balanced environment.

Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in the midst of restructuring and adapting to the restrictions on our work in the country; the intention is to use virtual platforms to carry out our purpose and we have been doing so through online conferences and collaborative remote work.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

I think what I am most passionate about is having the opportunity to connect my interests, my career and experience with the change I want to achieve in my community. I know that the road is long, and there is still a long way to go, but with small and constant steps we have been able to move forward by carrying out our purpose and I hope now as the current director of CIMAS to be able to put into practice all that I have learned in these last years, in the service of my community.

It is of my particular interest that the environmental issues and those related to the indigenous communities issues continue to be debated, and I raise awareness of their importance at the local and regional level.

What is something unexpected you discovered along the way while creating CIMAS?

I think what has amazed me most is meeting so many people who have gone through the same path as me and learning from their mistakes and achievements. As entrepreneurs, it is natural to feel fear or uncertainty about what will happen to our projects, and I think that is a common denominator for many of us. However, we have to recognize that many have walked our path long before us, and from there we can capture enormous learning. Entrepreneurship is not a road that can be traveled alone. Hence the importance of networking, of taking advantage of connections and strategic alliances to the maximum in order to go beyond our own expectations.

How has YLAI helped you achieve your mission? 

Those who know me know that my work or the way I do things is somewhat reserved or low profile. I have never considered myself to be an adept speaker, nor the most charismatic, yet in recent years I have had to face this fear and deal with audiences in the best possible way.

Recently, thanks to the connections I made through my participation in the YLAI program, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in a virtual meeting organized by the Biennial of the Americas, which had an audience of +1,300 viewers from all over the world, where I presented from various perspectives how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected sustainability initiatives in our respective countries. I think that’s a clear example of my growth.

The YLAI program undoubtedly provided me with incredible tools, and even years after I participated, the connections and experiences I gained from it have paid off and have definitely marked a before and after in my professional life.

With the desire to give back to the community the lessons learned from the YLAI program and all the training opportunities in entrepreneurship that I have had access to in the last few years, I decided to partner with local entrepreneurs to start a new initiative that we have called Gente Que Emprende, where we pledged to develop free content to train and support local entrepreneurs to successfully carry out their initiatives and projects. We have already had our first virtual event benefiting dozens of entrepreneurs in the city of Maracaibo, and we hope that in the coming months the initiative will continue to grow organically to benefit the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

If you were to give a piece of advice to a YLAI Network member looking to make a difference in their community, what would you say? 

If I could give one piece of advice, it would be not to underestimate the potential we have to create change. On many occasions in my life I have fallen into self-sabotage, perhaps thinking that I might fail or that I am not up to the challenges I have taken on. However, experience has taught me that I cannot stop in the face of these fears which, it is worth noting, are always present. When we are confident in our talents and abilities, and especially when we prepare for success, there is no fear that can defeat us.

Thanks, Victor, for all of your hard work in the face of adversity!

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.