Venezuela's Indigenous Peoples Protest Coal Mining

Bare-chested, clad in traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, hundreds of representatives of the Barí, Yukpa and Wayúu indigenous peoples from the westernmost region of Venezuela marched on the capital to demand a halt to coal mining near their lands in the Sierra de Perijá mountain range.

By Humberto Márquez - IPS
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Venezuelan indigenous demonstrators marched in Caracas against coal mining in western Venezuela.
Credit: Aporrea/ANMCLA
CARACAS, Apr 4 (IPS) - Bare-chested, clad in traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, hundreds of representatives of the Barí, Yukpa and Wayúu indigenous peoples from the westernmost region of Venezuela marched on the capital to demand a halt to coal mining near their lands in the Sierra de Perijá mountain range.

Coal mining operations ”bring pollution and disease. They are destroying our farming practices, they are going to destroy our water, and they will end up destroying our lives,” Cesáreo Panapaera, the leader of 32 Yukpa communities in Tokuko, some 600 kilometres from Caracas, told IPS.

Scores of environmentalists and leftist political activists joined the indigenous protestors in their march through downtown Caracas last Thursday. Their destination was the federal government headquarters, but they were stopped 150 metres from its gates by anti-riot police.

”We want to tell compañero President Hugo Chávez that he can't continue granting land concessions in the Sierra and in Guajira (a neighbouring region along the Venezuelan-Colombian border) without consulting us first, as required by the constitution. He speaks very nicely about us, but they haven't demarcated our lands,” said Wayúu community leader Angela González.

The indigenous protestors are staunch supporters of the left-wing Chávez. Most were wearing red headbands with pro-government slogans, which date back to the presidential recall referendum last August, when a majority voted to keep the president in office. Others sported red berets, symbolic of the governing Fifth Republic Movement party.

”Compañero Chávez, support our cause”, read one protest sign, while another declared, ”Vito barí atañoo yiroo oshishibain (We don't want coal mining)”. Yet another was a copy of the ”No” signs used by the pro-government side during the referendum (meaning no to Chávez's removal from the presidency), but altered to read ”No Coal”.

The Sierra de Perijá mountain range, which marks a section of the border between Venezuela and Colombia and has suffered severe deforestation in the latter, along with the neighbouring Guajira peninsula, also straddling both nations, are home to significant coal deposits.

Colombia produces around 40 million tons of coal a year, mainly from two mines in this region, Cerrejón and La Loma.

In 1987, coal operations started up in the Guasare mines of northwestern Venezuela. Last year, production totalled eight million tons. According to estimates, the Sierra-Guajira region contains coal reserves of at least 400 million tons, which means that current production levels could be sustained for another 50 years.

Coal production operations are directed through consortiums formed between the Venezuelan state-owned company Carbozulia and a number of transnational corporations: the British-South African firm Anglo American; Ruhrkohle of Germany; Inter-American Coal of the Netherlands; Chevron-Texaco of the United States; and British-Dutch energy giant Shell.

Last year, Carbozulia and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil established a new consortium, Carbosuramérica, to undertake additional mining operations in the region. According to the president of the Brazilian corporation, Roger Agnelli, the goal is to raise annual output to 10 million tons within a decade from now.

All of the coal is currently transported by truck to the port in the regional capital, Maracaibo. However, there are plans to build both a railway line and a deep sea port off the western coast of the Gulf of Venezuela, in order to facilitate coal exports from both Venezuela and Colombia.

”Venezuela is becoming an exit platform to the Caribbean Sea, through the building of ports, bridges, highways and railways which serve the interests of the countries and transnationals that need to get their products out, but which sacrifice the environment and the rights of the people living in the area,” said environmentalist Lusbi Portillo from the Homo et Natura Society, a non-governmental group.

As a result, ”we are opposed to these mining-ports projects that form part of the IIRSA (Initiative for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration, promoted by the nascent South American Community of Nations), which will serve to take our energy, mining, forestry and biodiversity resources to Europe and the United States,” added Portillo.

Along the route used to transport the coal for export, ”the water is polluted, waterways are obstructed, the air breathed by humans, animals and plants is contaminated, the habitat of the aboriginal peoples is disturbed and peasants and indigenous peoples are forced off the land they have traditionally farmed,” Jorge Hinestroza of the Front for the Defence of Water and Life told IPS.

Jesús Palmar, a Wayúu activist, commented to IPS that 17 years ago, the Carbones del Guasare mining consortium purchased the land occupied by his community, a 36-hectare lot in the Matera Nueva area, for under 2,500 dollars. As additional compensation, the indigenous inhabitants were promised employment, a new road and other services.

”We made a mistake. It was all lies. They just forgot about us and now we are living two kilometres from the company's gates. In January there was a gas-oil leak of around 120,000 litres in the Paso del Diablo stream, which killed fish, iguanas and squirrels. We used to sow, harvest, and live off of the land, but now we are being driven to the brink of death,” said Palmar.

Hinestroza maintained that ”for years the rivers and streams have been polluted with chemical wastes, detergents and coal residue. The communities near the coal operations breathe smoke. Animals are being born with defects,” he added, showing a photograph of deformed goats, ”and human health is at risk.”

The Guasare, Socuy and Cachuirí rivers feed into the Limón River, which is the largest north of the Maracaibo lake watershed and supplies the regional aqueduct system.

Another local environmentalist, Alexander Luzardo, told IPS that the coal mining conflict intersects ”with another debt owed by the Venezuelan government, because according to the 1999 constitution, a law was supposed to be established to demarcate indigenous territory, and this hasn't happened.”

Ezequiel Anare, a Yukpa community leader, reported that ”some company officials have offered us money to keep quiet. But we won't. We are calling on the president to get these companies off of our territory. We want to demarcate our lands, where we live, farm and dream. We are the guardians of the Sierra,” he declared to IPS.

The march in Caracas brought together environmental and human rights activists who have voiced opposition to the Chávez administration and enthusiastic supporters of the president, like the representatives of the community media network. Mixed in with the crowd was Douglas Bravo, perhaps the best-known communist guerrilla leader in Venezuela in the 1960s and 1970s.

”This is a manifestation of an autonomous and independent revival of the popular movement,” said Bravo, who now devotes his efforts to promoting environmental groups. ”At the same time, it is the beginning of a new stage in the independent environmental movement, against globalisation and the multinationals,” he said in an interview with IPS.

Environmental activists maintain that Venezuela is following a mistaken policy in pursuing coal production, which contradicts its commitments as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, the international instrument aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

”We want the government to hear us: we don't want coal,” stressed indigenous leader Panapaera, who added, ”Here are our bows and arrows, and we will use them against the miners if they come to our lands. And if we have to die fighting for our lands, we will die.”