The Environmental Cost of Coal Mining in Venezuela

The government of Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez is supporting a controversial plan to increase coal mining production in the oil producing state of Zulia. Critics say the plan may threaten the state’s most important water supply.

By Robin Nieto — Venezuelanalysis.com
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The government of Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez is supporting a controversial plan to increase coal mining production in the oil producing state of Zulia.  The plan may threaten the state’s most important water supply, according to biologists, state water authorities and environmentalists.

Coribell Nava, a biologist and teacher at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Maracaibo, says that increased coal mining would mean the destruction of the surrounding environment in the biologically rich Sierra Perija Mountains.  The mountains are a vital source of water for Zulia, Venezuela’s most westerly state, bordering Colombia.

"Coal is found in the heart of the hydrological valley. The (coal mining) concessions that are being granted in the Sierra Perija would terminate our water source," Nava said.

Maracaibo, the capital of Zuila, holds over half the state’s population of approximately 2.5 million people and depends on only two sources of water in the Perija mountains, the Tulé and Manuelote reservoirs. Both reservoirs are fed by the Cachirí and Socuy rivers respectively.

Corpozulia, the national government’s regional development corporation, is planning to open new coal mines along both rivers above both reservoirs.  The state water authority, Hidrolago, is also concerned about the national government’s plan to increase coal production in the area near the water reservoirs.

"If the coal mining project continues, the ecological impact will be disastrous," Herencia Gonzalez said, the manager of the regional institution of Hidroven, the national government’s authority on water.

Gonzalez said that last year she and the Minister of the Environment Dr. Ana Elisa Osorio visited the coal mines currently in operation in the Sierra Perija and said she was shocked by what she saw. "I could not believe my eyes," Gonzalez said, "Is it worth destroying our natural heritage and our water source for coal?" Gonzalez asked.

Indigenous communities and coal mining

The coal mines visited by Gonzalez and Osorio are the Paso Diablo and Norte mining concessions, located just north of the Manuelote water reservoir.  Coal mining at these two locations has already displaced indigenous people living in the area.  William Fernandez is a 27 year-old student at the Bolivarian University in Maracaibo, and a member of the Wayuu nation.  One of 10 brothers and sisters, he and his family were forced to move from their home because of contamination from the coal mines.

Coal mining projects offer economic benefits at the expense of the environment in the Western Venezuelan state of Zulia.
Credit: Nicanor Cifuentes

"We lived in the Caño Corolado sector by the Guasare River from 1986 to 1995,” said Fernandez.  “We dedicated ourselves to agriculture, corn, and the raising of cattle. Because of the effects on the environment we had to leave the area.”

Fernandez and his family are now living in another region that is also being affected by mining, but this time from Barite mines. "We are now thinking of leaving this area too because of how it affects our animals," Fernandez said.

Families like the Fernandez’ are often overlooked by the national government because the population of indigenous communities in the Sierra Perija is small and underrepresented. Communities like the Barí, the Jukpa and the small numbers of Wayuu who have opposed mining have had to do it in the form of protest.

Indigenous territories in the Sierra Perija have yet to be demarcated by the national government and this is something that Rusbel Palmar, a leader within the Zulia indigenous organization, ORPIZ, wants to be settled before new mining projects begin.

"The coal infrastructure plans have not been presented to indigenous people.  These plans cannot be done without consultation with indigenous people and different sectors of civil society," Palmar said adding that ORPIZ will not support increased coal production if there are serious environmental consequences. "If the environmental impact assessment finds that there are negative impacts then developments should not continue," Palmar said.

Venezuelan government’s coal production plan for Zulia

The national government’s plan to increase coal production involves hundreds of millions of dollars and includes the construction of a mega port for the international shipping of coal and its extraction by multinational corporations.  A thermoelectric plant powered by coal and a railway system to facilitate the transportation of coal from the Sierra Perija mountains to the proposed new port is also in the works. These coal mining projects are set to begin next year according to Corpozulia.

Corpozulia´s plans outlined in the Zulia-wide newspaper, Panorama, in an October 27, 2004 article, shows that a large port to be called Puerto America will be built at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo in the Gulf of Venezuela.  Corpozulia has predicted investment for this port to total $160 million. The port represents a vital part of the plan to increase coal production.

Further developments include a $946 million proposal to build a 500 megawatt coal-powered thermoelectric plant to satisfy an electricity demand of 2,800 megavolts in Zulia.  A railway system for the "clean and efficient" transportation of coal is also in the works with a predicted investment of $281 million.

Zulia´s water shortage

In sun scorched Zulia, temperatures run regularly between 30-40 degrees Celsius. The state already faces a chronic water shortage felt not only by the people of Zulia`s north-western regions of Mara and Paez, where coal is currently being extracted, but also in Maracaibo where many areas of the city receive running water only once a week.

Recognizing the sever water shortage in Zulia, the national government recently provided a loan of $15 million for water infrastructure for the state’s north-western region.  However, this water infrastructure would still depend on the two reservoirs currently under threat of contamination by increased coal production.

Site of proposed new coal mines in the Sierra Perija mountains. Reservoirs can be seen in the background.
Credit: Fernando Rojas

Coal mining contaminates water through the dumping of waste and coal runoff into the rivers, according to Nava.  The biologist explained that coal contains sulphur, and when coal waste and runoff reaches water sources, the water is acidified, making it deadly for those living organisms that depend on the water. This essentially destroys the ecosystem.

Nava also stressed that it is not only the coal itself which affects the rivers that flow into the water reservoirs, but the deforestation that occurs around Zulia`s water supply that is part of the coal mining process. "The cutting down of pristine forest is just part of the ecological disaster. The deforestation will also affect the water reservoirs since without trees and their roots to sustain the soil of surrounding mountains, the rain will literally wash the soil directly into the water reservoirs," Nava said.

The health of coal miners will also be directly affected by coal says Nava. "Just as the rivers are acidified with sulphuric acid when coal combines with water, the process also occurs within human lungs leading to an illness called Pneumoconiosis."

Drinkable water or regional development

In coal mining regions like Mara, the conflict between water and coal boils down to a choice between clean water or regional development.  For many citizens of Mara who currently depend on potable water from trucks and who receive running water perhaps twice a month, water is more important than both coal and oil.

"We can live without coal and oil but we can’t live without water," says 20-year-old Desireé Reverol. Reverol lives in Mara’s capital city of San Rafael de El Mojan located along the coast between Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela. This year, El Mojan, as the city is called, was devastated by consecutive days of rain which left unpaved city roads flooded due to a lack of a functioning drainage system.

At City Hall, the new chief administrator, Elio Moran, who came in with a newly elected mayor who supports the national government, says that the most important sources of revenue for the municipality is tax on coal mining and grants from the national government. Moran says that Mara's challenge to develop a public works infrastructure depends on these revenues.

Due to serious infrastructure problems, seasonal rains take their toll on the streets of Mara, where most roads are unpaved and riddled with deep craters and pot holes, the signs of years of neglect.  Moran says the region will use the resources provided by both the coal mining industry and development funds by the national government to get the region on its feet. 

"Give us 3 months to change things. If after that time things remain the same then we’re out," Moran said adding that their number one priority is to get Mara roads in working order, a major overhaul which Moran said will begin in a year, the same time new coal development is expected to begin. Moran also pointed out that Carbozulia, a subsidiary of Corpozulia in charge of coal mining, has offered to donate asphalt towards their road development project.

The regions of Mara and Paez, with predominantly indigenous populations, are considered among the poorest in Venezuela.

Due to the lack of a drainage system along roads and a poor sewage infrastructure, rain water mixes with overflowing raw sewage and stays in festering pools all over San Rafael streets for days. And without clean water for such basic necessities such as drinking, washing and cooking widespread illness is a problem each year.

The newly elected municipal government under 25-year-old Luis Caldera, recognizes the problems their region faces and has pledged to fix them or leave office as Moran has stated. But this promise is based on funding from revenue sources such as coal mining and grants from the national government which depends on oil and increased coal production for its own national revenue.

Mara’s development is at the top of Carbozulia`s concerns according to Vice-President Enrique Matta who says that the importance of coal mining in Zulia is the revenues it will provide directly to Zulia for development in regions like Mara. "Coal mining will provide resources through a special (national government) development fund for Zulia and in particular to northern Zulia, to the regions of Paez and Mara," Matta said.

Cost of coal mining

The Paso Diablo coal mine has displaced indigenous people and contaminated the Guasare River.
Credit: Nicanor Cifuentes

Environmentalists and biologists say that the cost of coal mining far outweighs the economic benefits that it provides to the state. "Coal today currently represents only 0.02 per cent of revenues for the national government," says Lusbi Portillo, a professor of Logic at the University of Zulia and the head of environmental NGO, Homo et Natura.

"Coal is not very significant in terms of economic production," Portillo said. "However coal is important to other countries like the U.S. which consumes more than 900 million tons of coal each year," Portillo said.

The Ministry of the Environment is in charge of weighing the environmental consequences of development in Venezuela.  Back in Caracas, the Vice-Minister of Environmental Conservation, Jose Luis Berroteran, said that coal mining in the Sierra Perija in Zulia is incompatible with the vision of the current national government.

"Coal mining is not in accordance in a country that agrees with the Kyoto Protocol. Perhaps coal mining may be acceptable in other countries but not here, not in a country with a government that has a new vision. It runs contrary to policies of sustainable development," Berroteran said.

The conflict between conservation of the environment and coal development is nowhere more obvious than within the national government and its institutions, which are not in agreement when it comes to increasing coal production.  While Berroteran does not support further coal development in the Sierra Perija, the Ministry of Environment has yet to ban coal mining along the Socuy and Cachirí rivers that feed the water supply for over a million people in Zulia.

Venezuelan coal mining and multinational corporations

More than 80 per cent of Venezuela’s 8.5 million metric tons of coal extracted each year comes from just two mines north of the Manuelote water reservoir, Mina Norte and Mina Paso Diablo.

The coal mines are each owned by mixed companies composed of private and government shareholders.  In each case the national government is a minority partner. Carbones de la Guarija operates the coal mine at Mina Norte, 20 kilometers north of the reservoir. The company is a joint venture between the government’s Carbozulia and privately owned Carbomar, an international consortium that owns 64 per cent of the mine. Carbomar is composed of the following partners:   The Massey Family (30.9 percent); Chevron Corporation (29.94 % percent); Meta Corporation (21.56 percent); Art Gommers (8.74 percent); Marcel Van den Berg (8.74 percent); and employees at (0.12 percent).

Carbones del Guasare, which operates the neighboring coal mine at Paso Diablo, 5 kilometers north of Manuelote, is held jointly by Carbozulia, Anglo Coal (24.9%) and new partner, Peabody Energy (BTU). Peabody recently purchased 25.5% of holdings from the German mining conglomerate, RAG Coal International, in a deal worth USD $32.5 million.  Peabody Energy is the largest coal mining company in the world with annual sales of over 200 million tons of coal and more than $2.8 billion in revenues.  According to Peabody’s company profile, their products fuel more than 10% of all U.S. electricity generation and more than 2.5% of worldwide electricity generation.

With the strong presence of these and other multinational energy companies such as Tomen America, TransMar Coal and Keysone Coal in the coal mining business in Venezuela, the push to increase coal production in a country with proven coal reserves of over 600 million metric tons may be too appealing for the national government to pass up.

"Coal mining doesn't serve the interests of Venezuelans or Zulians. It serves the interests of coal mining multinationals already operating in the country," says Portillo.

Puerto America is a key project for increasing coal production.
Credit: Nicanor Cifuentes

Portillo claims that investments for Puerto America will eventually come from the IMF and the World Bank, running contrary to the anti-globalization policies of the Bolivarian government. "Venezuela is serving the (U.S.) empire at our expense and Zulia is a zone of sacrifice." The veteran environmentalist said.

Despite serious environmental concerns about Venezuela’s new coal mining plans as well as oil and mineral exploitation, Portillo admits that the environmental movement under the Bolivarian government of President Hugo Chávez is at its weakest point ever, even weaker than during the previous governments. "It’s like ploughing the ocean," says Portillo, "In an oil culture where we were taught that oil, coal and minerals make us rich, where can you go?," Portillo asks. "PDVSA (the state oil company) is supposedly ours now, it has been rescued from multinational corporations, this is what people believe, and this makes our work as ecologists even harder," Portillo said.

Protest at the Presidential Palace

Meanwhile Portillo has pledged to protest the coal mining projects at the presidential palace in Caracas in March of 2005.  "Five buses will take indigenous people and social organizations from Zulia to Miraflores (the presidential palace) because Chávez should provide compensation for the people affected by coal mining.," Portillo said.

The last hope for activists to stop the coal mining plans is direct intervention by the President himself. "Only Chávez can intervene for social reasons," Portillo said.

President Chávez has so far demonstrated support for Puerto America which is vital to increased coal production in Zulia.  Many of those against the coal plans support Chávez and the social programs that are part of his Bolivarian platform.  However those same people in the communities of the Sierra Perija, in Zulia`s universities and even his own environmental authorities, say they cannot afford the environmental cost of the government’s enormous coal development projects.