Will the Bolivarian Revolution End Coal Mining in Venezuela?

The Wayúu, Yukpa, and Barí indigenous communities who would have been displaced by the coal mining projects in their lands cautiously interpret the Chavez government's suspension of these projects as a temporary sign of relief. But their struggle against coal mining has lasted a quarter of a century and will not conclude until mining concessions are repealed for good.

Plans for new coal mining in the Sierra de Perijá, the northwestern region of the state of Zulia, Venezuela, were suspended by President Hugo Chávez last year following anti-coal declarations by Chávez and several ministers. The Wayúu, Yukpa, and Barí indigenous communities who would have been displaced by the projects cautiously interpreted the suspension as a temporary sign of relief. But their struggle against coal mining has lasted a quarter of a century and will not conclude until mining concessions are repealed for good.

On May 11th, 2008 President Hugo Chávez announced on his weekly Sunday talk show Aló Presidente that Corpozulia, the state-owned development corporation in the oil and mineral-rich state, would acquire 51% of all coal mining projects in the region within two years. Transnational coal companies that already operate in Zulia, such as Carbones de la Guajira, which is controlled by the Chevron-Texaco-owned holding company Inter-American Coal, will be turned into state-run “socialist” enterprises, the president said.

Have plans for new coal mining been renewed, this time under the management of the state rather than the transnationals? The national government did indeed decide in 2005 to create a national mining company that would replace transnational companies. Since then, Venezuela’s electricity, telecommunications, oil, cement, and steel sectors have been nationalized, which suggests that coal could be the newest front.

However, a recent anti-coal decision by the Ministry of the Environment suggests otherwise. On May 15th, Minister Yubirí Ortega proclaimed a total ban on open-pit coal mining and gold mining in the Imataca Forest in southeastern Venezuela, and the revocation of the environmental permits previously granted to transnational gold mining companies in that region. An official statement of the Toronto-based gold mining corporation Crystallex, which had coveted the Imataca concession for years, said the ministry “appears to be in opposition to all mineral mining in the Imataca region.”

Minister Ortega cited environmental concerns and protests from local indigenous communities in the Imataca region as the reasons for her decision, but it is unclear if the ministry will extend this policy to the Sierra de Perijá.

Coal policy in Zulia has gone through several back-and-forth changes in the last four years since new coal plans were announced, partially because the home base of decision-making power in the region has been obscured. Corpozulia, nicknamed the “second government of Zulia” by the indigenous communities, has contradicted national mining policies on several occasions. Corpozulia and transnational corporations are allies, and their pro-coal tentacles grip and surreptitiously manipulate local, state, and national decision-making bodies, including the national ministries under whose authority the state corporation is officially ascribed. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Zulia’s governor is Manual Rosales, who was an active participant the U.S.-backed April 2002 coup and ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential elections.

The government’s indecisiveness could also be because the choice about whether to expand or eliminate coal mining aggravates a persistent contradiction in Venezuela’s evolving, multi-faceted development model.

On the one hand, it appears the government seeks to expand the exploitation of natural resources, necessarily displacing the local population, while administering the projects in a more worker-friendly way and investing the profits in housing, education, health care and other social programs for which the Chávez administration is renown.

On the other hand, a large sector of the indigenous communities of the Sierra de Perijá have taken the initiative to organize their communities in an empowering, ecologically sustainable way that allows the local economy, culture, language, and identity to survive and be determined by the local people. They oppose any type of “progress” that includes coal exploitation.

Such community-led projects have been embraced by the federal government in other instances. The “23 de enero” barrio in Caracas is an inspiring example. But will local empowerment initiatives be prioritized in the region that holds 80% of Latin America’s coal?

Only by way of tireless struggle and confrontation have the local indigenous peoples injected their voices and opinions into the debate over whether the Bolivarian Revolution will carry on coal’s legacy in the Sierra de Perijá. It is crucial to review the history of this conflict in order to shed light on the realities which have led up to the ambiguous present situation, and to anticipate what the future holds.

Coal in the Bolivarian Revolution

In 2004, the Venezuelan government approved mining concessions for three mines along the Socuy, Mache, and Cachirí rivers in northwestern Zulia to be operated by the Brazilian, U.S., and Dutch conglomerate Vale do Rio Doce, the Dutch and United States company Inter-American Coal, and the Irish coal company Caño Seco, along with Corpozulia and its state-owned affiliate Carbozulia. The same year, the government also turned over a 12,000 hectare (30,000 acre) concession of lands formerly demarcated for the Barí indigenous community to the Chilean coal company Carbones del Perijá.

Corpozulia President Martínez Mendoza announced during a ceremony presided over by President Chávez that the projects would contribute $20 million to social programs in the Zulian region in the first year. Corpozulia spokesperson Hernando Torrealba, projected that yearly national coal production would be increased from 8.3 million tons to 39 million tons. Given that Venezuela’s internal coal consumption hovers around 100,000 tons of coal per year, the majority of the extracted coal was destined for the United States, Japan, Europe, and South America, Torrealba confirmed.

These developments fit the plans of South American Regional Infrastructure Integration plan (IIRSA), which was based on the recommendations of the World Bank and the Southern integration organization MERCOSUR, of which Venezuela currently aspires to become a member.

Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe collaborated to concretize IIRSA plans for the massive expansion of export infrastructure, including the Port of Bolívar (some said it would be called the Port of America) in the gulf of Venezuela, railroads, superhighways, and bridges. All of this would be necessary to export coal by way of the Colombian Pacific Ocean, Panama and Central America, and the “Andean Axis” of IIRSA which would link South American countries.

These announcements ignited the most recent phase of the anti-coal struggle of the indigenous communities allied with ecologist groups from Zulia’s state capital Maracaibo and Venezuela’s alternative media network, ANMCLA.

The communities of the Socuy, Maché, and Cachirí rivers had already received refugees who had been displaced by the two open-pit mines opened along the nearby Guasare River in 1988 and in the late 1990s, which still operate today. The Devil’s Pass Mine and North Mine are controlled by Carbones del Guasare, a conglomerate which includes the U.S. company Peabody, the English and South African company Anglo-American Coal, and Inter-American Coal.

In well-documented reports by independent media, these refugees describe how they were promised to be moved to fertile lands and promised health care, housing, educational and cultural activities, and how these promises were not kept. Reports are plentiful of rashes, lung diseases, fertile lands rendered infertile, aborted livestock pregnancies, and the protracted contamination of the Guasare River on which local communities depend for subsistence.

Proponents of new mines also promised local residents that the coal will be extracted cleanly and they will benefit from the profits. There is evidence that these promises are more credible than those of previous governments. Indeed, the government’s subsidized food market, Mercal, Barrio Adentro health care clinics, and educational programs have impacted the neighborhoods just outside of the lands the coal companies seek.

Despite having received some benefits from these government programs, the 350 indigenous families living on top of the coal deposits are skeptical of any promises coming from Corpozulia or the government. They have taken the reins to organize alternative community programs which respond better to their culture, native language, and history. These inspiring local initiatives deserve attention and will be detailed in Part II of this series, since the purpose of Part I is an overview of coal politics in the region.

The two active mines employ approximately 2,200 workers including the transportation workers. Most engineers are creole or white, and most lower-level workers are of indigenous descent and lived off the land before the mines took over. Workers have denounced not being paid and not receiving health benefits. Lung disease is extremely common. Workers have been intimidated or fired when they organized to defend their rights. Worker unions are small and dominated by the leadership, which in some cases has made deals with the management to push sections of the workforce, particularly transportation workers, into lower-paid, less protected contract work. The workers thus contracted were registered by Corpozulia as “worker cooperatives” promoted by the state company, even though cooperativism was not the real purpose.

On several occasions, the workers, with the financial and political backing of Corpozulia and Zulia’s principal newspaper Panorama, have defended the coal industry and asserted that coal exploitation does not actually contaminate the environment. However, the workers are not clamoring for nationalization, and have on other occasions acquiesced to government proposals for a transition away from coal.

The towns in the area are frequented by both coal workers and small farmers who sell their products or attend school in the city. The towns are not wholly dependent on coal, and coal mining is not a big part of Venezuela’s economy. It composes less than one percent of national GDP, and Venezuelan coal deposits represent less than 1.5% of the coal in the world, according to professors from the University of Zulia in Maracaibo.

On January 3rd, 2005, the waste disposal site of the Devil’s Pass mine spilled an estimated 20,000 to 120,000 liters of diesel waste into the Guasare River, according to an investigation by the National Front for the Defense of Water and Life, made up mainly of professors and activists from western Venezuela. Indigenous communities downriver, which had not been originally forced from their land when the mine arrived, were no longer able to survive in the zone due to the contamination. Many of them migrated to lands nourished by the Socuy, Maché, and Cachirí rivers. Two years later, $90 million was allocated from the National Development Fund (FONDEN) for the cleanup of the Guasare River.

Following this incident, amidst increasing pressure from the indigenous communities of the Sierra de Perijá and their growing network of social movement allies across western Venezuela, President Chávez and several of his ministers began to change their rhetoric on mining policy.

In September 2005, Chávez proclaimed a “big turnaround” in national mining policy, assuring that Venezuela would no longer grant private mining concessions to national or foreign companies, but instead would favor state-run “socialist” enterprises and small-scale mining cooperatives that would act more responsibly. Chávez said, “we are going to launch a national mining company of our own – we do not need [outside] investment.”

The policy shift was substantiated when 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of mining land were handed over to local cooperatives and 125 new state-owned Social Production Units (UPS) were created, mainly in another of Venezuela’s principal mining regions near the Imataca Forest in the south eastern state of Bolívar where similar conflicts have occurred among indigenous communities, transnational gold mining corporations, and the government.

Shortly after this, in 2006, the Venezuelan National Assembly unanimously voted to reform the mining law to force companies with idle mines to become minority partners in mixed enterprises with the state.

This set the legal precedent for Chávez’s most recent declarations. The government had decided to stand up to transnationals by taking charge of coal mining, but showed no signs that the mining would be halted. It remained unclear what effect this would have on the active mines, and whether new coal extraction plans would proceed under state management.

In January 2006, during the World Social Forum in Caracas, indigenous communities from the Sierra de Perijá and their allies marched to demand that all new mining plans be discarded. Independent media allies pounded their networks with news on the reclamations being made.

Then, on May 24th of that year, Chávez made his first public statements in opposition to coal mining in Zulia. Chávez told the press in the Miraflores presidential building in Caracas that he had said to Corpozulia President Martínez Mendoza, “Look, if there is no method of assuring the respect of the forests and the mountains… in the Sierra de Perijá, where the coal is… this coal will remain in below the ground.” This is “a concept that each day should become more of a reality, it should be concretized in our model of construction of socialism,” Chávez added.

The president repeated his anti-coal statements on June 10th, 2006 in Maracaibo. Paradoxically, during the same press conference, he ratified the construction of the Bolívar Port, railways, mega-highways, and bridges that were an integral part of the 2004 plan to expand coal exploitation in Zulia according as part of IIRSA. He also announced plans to construct a grand pipeline between Venezuela and Panama.

At that point, the government and Corpozulia’s paths diverged, their policy agendas began to clash, and Chávez’s declarations were sometimes out of sync with the actions of his supporters.

On November 17th of that year, the president launched the Energy Revolution Mission, a federal program which replaced 300,000 light bulbs across the country with energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, demonstrating the government’s commitment to save energy so as not to rely on coal-powered electricity, which was the previous plan.

Meanwhile, Corpozulia stepped up its acts of brutal intimidation against indigenous communities’ efforts to organize in the Sierra de Perijá. The weekend of Indigenous Resistance Day, October 12th, the communities invited activist allies to gather in the Socuy River community known in the Wayúu language as Wayuumana for an anti-coal conference. Before the activists from the city arrived, Corpozulia functionaries accompanied by armed National Guard troops arrived in Wayuumana, uninvited, and aggressively interrogated and threatened the Wayúu gathered there. The interrogators quickly retreated, however, when a community leader pulled out a hand-held video camera that had been gifted by independent journalists.

Those months were especially tense because Chávez was running for re-election against Zulia’s coup-supporting governor, Manuel Rosales. The communities in the Socuy area were suspected of being agents of the opposition because they criticized the president during election season. The indigenous peoples and their allies were frequently accused by Corpozulia and pro-Chávez electoral campaigners of being counter-revolutionaries, terrorists, and lackeys of the empire.

In reality, Governor Rosales has always been recognized by the communities in the Sierra de Perijá as an ally of transnational coal corporations, along with Corpozulia, although Corpozulia and Rosales are publicly at odds. Both red-shirted (pro-Chávez) and blue, green and yellow-shirted (opposition) government officials from the federal, state, and local levels have worked in the interests of pro-coal sectors, and are not trusted by the community. The community does not claim to be Chavista or anti-Chavista, but rather an indigenous struggle of which the government is sometimes an ally.

In the midst of this, anti-coal momentum seemed to be on the rise. In October 2006, the Minister of the Environment Jacqueline Faría made a sweeping statement that coal was “unnecessary” for national development, since Venezuela had plenty of oil to rely on. She clarified, however, that coal extraction would be permitted only by presidential order in areas where the mining would not harm the rivers which are Maracaibo’s principal source of potable water. Since Chávez had previously come out against coal, Sierra de Perijá communities rejoiced at what they perceived to be a sign of victory.

An executive ministry report from July 2005 shows that Minister Faría had originally made this exact policy recommendation more than a year before she made public statements about it.

In a strange and unfortunate turn of events, Minister Faría was dismissed shortly following her nationally televised declarations. The new minister appointed after President Chávez’s landslide re-election in December 2006, Yubirí Ortega (who currently holds the post), did not immediately uphold Faría’s policy pronouncements. At the same time, Corpozulia and ministry officials repeatedly arrived in the Sierra de Perijá in their satellite technology-equipped jeeps and hummers for purposes that were not explained to the local community, and it soon became clear that the pro-coal campaign in the region was still underway.

Sierra de Perijá communities marched on Caracas once again in March 2007, this time as part of the broader “March for All Our Struggles”. The march was promoted by ANMCLA and included the Ezequiel Zamora National Farmer’s Front, a radical farmers’ rights group, Urban Land Committees (CTUs) representing Venezuela’s barrio-based revolutionaries, and the left wing of Venezuela’s workers movement. These groups collectively sent the message that, while they support President Chávez as a leader of the revolution, the persistent contradictions which perpetuate many forms of oppression in the country must be overcome, and the oppressed must be the protagonists in team with the government.

A smaller countermarch occurred in front of the Ministry of the Environment in Caracas. Workers from the active mines on the Guasare River and community councils from the municipality of Mara where the miners live were brought to Caracas by their employers. They declared that “coal is life” and demanded that the Ministry of the Environment provide them with an alternative form of subsistence if the mines are closed.

While the anti-coal indigenous communities and their allies rejected new coal mining projects, they called for a gradual end to the active mines. Some anti-coal activists met with miners to discuss possible methods of phasing out coal while supporting the miners as they find alternative forms of subsistence.

Success seemed once again on the horizon for the anti-coal movement. The next day, on March 20, 2007, the new Minister of the Environment declared that, by presidential order, plans for new coal mines and the expansion of existing coal mines in the state of Zulia were officially suspended.

Simultaneously, the community councils from the municipality of Mara declared their support for the Environment Ministry’s proposal of sustainable agriculture and tourism as alternatives to coal mining in their communities.

Two months later, Chávez reiterated publicly that he had “ordered [coal mining] to stop” and that “between the forests and coal, I’ll keep the forests, the rivers, the environment… coal remains below the ground!” He acknowledged the “high level of lung diseases in all those communities where the coal big-rigs pass through,” and said he had flown in a helicopter over the prospective coal mining areas and seen the beautiful forest for himself.

During the same declaration, however, the president stated, “now, if someday a technology is developed to extract this coal without destroying the forest, well then, that would be a reserve for the future, it is possible”. To this day, coal concessions have not been officially repealed by the president, and the mines on the Guasare River continue to operate.

The pro-coal campaign of Corpozulia persisted in the face of the government’s anti-coal rhetoric. On May 14th, 2007, the Panorama newspaper, which is usually pro-government, published a two full-page, color advertisement defending the coal mines. The ad accused ecologist groups of being counter-revolutionary, and criticized the Wayúu, Barí, and Yukpa communities of sadly falling into the scheme of the opposition led by Governor Rosales.

Since the Ministry of the Environment and the coal miners` community councils came to an agreement on an alternative form of subsistence for mining communities, no further steps have been taken toward this end.

Also, the IIRSA infrastructure expansion plan is still officially underway. In October 2007, Chávez and Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe jointly announced the completion of a 220 kilometer pipeline connecting Venezuela, Panama, and the Pacific Ocean. The two presidents signed a gas industries integration accord with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. The project was promoted as a symbol of the regional integration of which South American independence fighter Simón Bolívar dreamed. But for the anti-coal movement, it caused uncertainty as to whether coal mining would eventually be made part of the project again.

Uncertain Future

After four years of conflict over coal exploitation in Zulia, the outcome of this complex and drawn-out debate over Venezuela’s development paradigm is far from clear.

Sources from within Corpozulia have leaked that Chávez recently made firm, private statements to Corpozulia directors that new coal projects will not proceed. The president’s enthusiasm for the construction of the Port of Bolívar, which was one of the principal projects Chávez had planned in 2004 with President Uribe, has also waned, possibly because of the current diplomatic dispute between the two countries, these sources report.

Meanwhile, Corpozulia continues campaigning for coal exploitation on several new fronts. The state company is asserting various forms of control over local community councils, promising to help indigenous communities become shareholders in the future coal projects, and hiring infiltrators of indigenous descent to carry out the company’s media campaign and intelligence work with a lower profile. This local and regional battle for control of community councils, for the demarcation of indigenous territories, and the ways this has been affected by recent secessionist efforts by anti-Chávez sectors of the Zulia state legislature, shall be examined in the second part of this series.