For Hugo Chavez, large, industrial mega projects could turn into a political mine field. The contradiction between Chavez’s rhetoric stressing social equality, on the one hand, and environmental abuses on the other, was driven home to me over this past summer when I attended the first ever environmental conference of Lake Maracaibo. The event was held in the city of Maracaibo itself, the capital of Zulia state, and organized by the government’s Institute for the Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (known by the Spanish acronym ICLAM).
Somewhat oddly, outside of the dining hall where conference participants ate lunch mining companies had set up promotional booths. Walking through an adjacent hallway, scantily clad women working for mining and oil companies plied me with glossy pamphlets and even candy. Later during the conference itself, one panelist, a representative from the local development agency Corpozulia, gave a rosy presentation about new port and infrastructure projects planned for the state of Zulia.
Later, I went back to the luxurious Hotel Kristoff where the government had put me up for the duration of my stay. One morning, sitting at a table overlooking the hotel pool, I was joined by Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.
Sierra of Perija: Area of Conflict
Hinestroza spoke to me of destructive coal mining in the Sierra of Perija, a mountain range which marks a section of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The area, which is home to large coal deposits, has suffered severe deforestation.
Industrial coal production, Hinestroza explained, had damaged Indian lands. He complained that America Port, a new project proposed by Corpozulia, would prove “catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area.” The project, he continued, was linked to coal exploitation. What’s more, Corpozulia itself owned the mining concessions.
According to reports, the Añú community, comprised of 3,000 people living around the Lake Sinamaica region in Zulia, is concerned about the devastation that would result from the construction of a deep-water port in the area, for exporting coal.
If Chavez does not attend to rising calls for greater environmental controls, he will lose support amongst one of his most loyal constituencies, the indigenous population. Already, industrial mega projects have led to angry protest and undermined public confidence in the regime. For Chavez, it is surely one of the thorniest problems that his government must confront.
Launching Raids into Indian Country
Though Indians inhabiting the Sierra of Perija have had to confront extensive coal mining in the Chavez era, it’s not as if indigenous peoples living in the area are strangers to conflict. In the first half of the twentieth century, Motilon Indians [also known as the Bari], which included several indigenous groups inhabiting the area of Perijá, confronted British and American oil prospectors.
In 2001, I was living in Maracaibo doing research for my dissertation dealing with the environmental history of oil development in Lake Maracaibo. Working in the historical archive, I was struck by historical accounts of oil prospectors headed to Indian country.
In 1914, for example, one oil expedition marched into the jungle accompanied by a large company of 50 peons. In seeking to penetrate Motilon Indian country, oil prospectors were aided by the Venezuelan government. As one oil pioneer put it, “we had for arms 12 Mauser military rifles from the government. Every man had either a revolver or a rifle.”
Oil prospectors on one expedition discovered a Motilon house, but were forced to make a harrowing escape in canoes along river rapids when Indians appeared. The oil men shot back, hitting at least twelve men.
One oilman commented: “I do not like the idea of destroying a whole community of men, women and children. But this would be the only thing to do unless peace is made … If oil is found up the Lora [River], peaceful relations with the Indians would be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the company.”
“It Would Be Convenient to Suppress Them with Gas or Grenades”
Eventually, oil infrastructure in Indian country proceeded. Indians had to contend not only with armed prospectors but also growing contamination from open earth oil sumps and dwindling hunting grounds.
For the growing American community in Maracaibo, the Motilones were a nuisance. One English language paper, the Tropical Sun, remarked, “It would be convenient to suppress the Motilon Indians by attacking them with asphyxiating gas or explosive grenades.”
There are no documented cases of large scale artillery attacks on the Motilon Indians. However, Father Cesareo de Armellada, a Capuchin priest who later played a pivotal role in contacting groups of Motilones, claimed that
“It was said by some sotto voce and others even admitted publicly that in the Colombian region [of Perija] thenational army organized raids under the slogan of: there is no other way. And it is also saidthat in the same region the Motilones were bombed by airplanes. The same thing has been repeated to me by many people living within the Venezuelan region of Perija and Colon.”
De Armellada continued that “Secret punitive expeditions” were organized against the Motilones.
Oil Companies: Bombing the Indians
Some reports suggest a fair degree of cooperation between the government and oil companies in organizing armed expeditions. Not surprisingly, the government’s policy of allowing oil companies to enter Motilon territory led to greater violence. The U.S. Consul in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, noted that a state of open warfare existed in Motilon territory:
“During the last year the Indian attacks have increased in frequency and bitterness. On several occasions lately boat crews have abandoned their tows, because they were attacked so fiercely and so persistently by the Motilones [sic] that they considered it necessary to get away as speedily as possible.”
Even more alarming, “attacks on trains have been made only within recent months, and in these attacks the Indians have shown a persistence that they never exhibited before.”
According to de Armellada, in the 1930s and early 40s the oil companies were able to encircle the Motilones in a tighter ring stretching over several hundred square kilometers. However, this had resulted in many deaths.
There is some evidence that the oil companies even resorted to aerial bombardment. One British diplomat noted that the Motilones hated strangers, and were “embittered” as a result of an attempt by an American company to bomb their settlements.
The diplomat did not specify which company was involved in the attacks, although it would seem at least possible that this was Creole Petroleum Corporation, an American company which sought to open up Motilon territory to oil expansion, and which had planes.
Chavez: A New Beginning for Zulia Indians?
In the mid-1990s, Indians in the Sierra of Perija continued to face daunting challenges. For example, Wayuu and Yupka peoples lost their lands to large, state-controlled coal mines and oil drilling.
In 1998, the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency stood to dramatically change the plight of indigenous people. In contrast to earlier regimes, Chavez took a more anti-missionary stance on indigenous policy. For example, he expelled the New Tribes Mission, an American missionary group working with Venezuelan indigenous communities. Chavez accused New Tribes of collaborating with the CIA.
Chavez’s 1999 Constitution represented a big step forward for Indians. Under article 9, Spanish was declared the official language of Venezuela, but “Indigenous languages are also for official use for indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic’s territory for being part of the nation’s and humanity’s patrimonial culture.” In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognized the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands.
What is more, in a critical provision the government recognized land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable. Later articles declared the government’s pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups.
Chavez himself has distributed millions of acres of land to indigenous communities. The move forms part of the so called Mission Guaicaipuro which shall provide land titles to all of Venezuela’s 28 indigenous peoples.
Indians to Chavez: Land Policy a “Fraud”
Despite the passage of the new constitution, however, Indians from the Sierra of Perija have protested the government which they claim does not pay sufficient attention to their needs.
In 2005, hundreds of Wayuu, Bari and Yukpa Indians traveled to Bolivar Square in Caracas. Bare-chested, wearing traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, they denounced mining operations in Zulia.
Interestingly, the indigenous protestors were staunch Chávez supporters and most sported red headbands with pro-government slogans, while others wore red berets, symbolic of Chavez’s governing Fifth Republic Movement party.
One protest sign read, “Compañero Chávez, support our cause.” Another declared, “Vito barí atañoo yiroo oshishibain (We don’t want coal mining)”.
Despite their pro-government leanings, Indians said that efforts to formalize their ancestral lands constituted a “fraud.” In a statement they declared, “They will allocate lands to us but later try to evict us to exploit coal.”
The leader of the Wayuu delegation, Angela Aurora, said that coal mining in Zulia had deforested thousands of acres of land as well as contaminated rivers. Mining additionally had killed or sickened local residents with respiratory diseases caused by coal dust.
Sierra of Perija and Contradictions of Chavismo
Though Chavez has derided globalization and large financial institutions, the case of the Sierra of Perija reveals a fundamental contradiction within Chavismo. In fitting irony, Douglas Bravo, a former communist guerrilla from the 1960s and 70s, was also present at the indigenous protest in Caracas. Bravo now devotes his time to promoting environmental groups.
“This is a manifestation of an autonomous and independent revival of the popular movement,” he said. “At the same time,” he added, “it is the beginning of a new stage in the independent environmental movement, against globalization and the multinationals.”
In a sense, Bravo is right. The Sierra of Perija is in the crosshairs of important economic development. The government has sought joint ventures between the public coal company Carbozulia and various foreign companies including Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil, the British-South African Anglo American, the Anglo-Dutch Shell, Ruhrkohle from Germany and the U.S. Chevron-Texaco.
On the one hand, Chavez needs political support from indigenous peoples. But he also seeks important hemispheric integration, which could jeopardize this support. The Venezuelan northwest is vital to solidifying ties with Brazil and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc [for more on these inherent contradictions, see my earlier Counterpunch article, “The Rise of Rafael Correa: Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo,” November 27, 2006].
“If We Have to Die For Our Lands, We Will Die”
Some government officials have big plans for Zulia. In 2004, Carbozulia and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil created a new consortium, Carbosuramérica, to undertake additional mining operations in the region. Activists fear that Zulia is fast becoming an exit platform to the Caribbean Sea, and that the area is serving the interests of transnational companies. While the companies seek to get their products out, the environment is being sacrificed.
Mining and ports projects within Zulia in turn form part of the IIRSA, Initiative for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration (promoted by Brazil and the new South American Community of Nations).
Chavez, who is trying to construct an alliance of left leaning regimes in South America, knows that he must secure vital diplomatic support from President Lula of Brazil. But if the Venezuelan government presses ahead with its development agenda in the Sierra of Perija, the regime will have to reckon with severe domestic opposition.
During the indigenous protest in Caracas, Cesáreo Panapaera, a Yukpa leader, declared, “We want the government to hear us: we don’t want coal. 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.”
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). He will shortly start work on another book, South America’s New Direction, also to be published by St. Martin’s Press.