Venezuela’s Indigenous Protest Against Coal Mining in their Lands

A protest against coal mining in the Sierra de Perija Mountains, in Venezuela's western state of Zulia, highlighted how mining there is hurting their health, the environment, and their livelyhood.
Venezuelan indigenous demonstrators marched in Caracas against coal mining in western Venezuela. Credit: / ANMCLA

Caracas, Venezuela, April 1, 2005— Yesterday over six hundred Venezuelan indigenous people of the Wayú, Barí, and Yukpa ethnicities marched from the Plaza Morelos to the Presidential Palace of Miraflores in Caracas, protesting coal exploitation in the western state of Zulia. Alongside the indigenous people, civil society groups, political organizations, ecological and environment agencies and NGOs of the region walked the two miles to hand deliver a letter of protest to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Alvaro Acontacai, a representatative for the Barí ethnicity, explained that the letter protests coal mining in the Sierra de Perijá, the most northern chain of Andes mountains, charging that mining of the mineral is harmful both to the environment and to the people.

The letter details the number of workers in coal businesses Carbones de Guasare and Carbones del la Guajira who have come down with work-related illnesses. It explains that coal mining has not only displaced indigenous populations from their homes but also Zulia residents due to the contamination of the Catatumbo and Zulia rivers, preventing the five million citizens of Zulia from attaining daily access to water. Destroying the water supply not only harms the environment, the letter states, but also prevents the cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock.

venezuela indigenous march
Venezuelan indigenous demonstrators marched in Caracas against coal mining in western Venezuela.
Credit: / ANMCLA

It also made note of the constant stream of vehicular accidents along the routes used to transport the coal, from the mines to the loading docks along the shores of Lake Maracibo. According to Acontacai, the main arteries leading in and out of Maracaibo, as well as the adjoining towns of Santa Cruz de Mara, El Bajo de San Francisco, La Ceiba and La Cañada de Urdabeta, are filled with dusk and pieces of coal.

Venezuela's 29 Indigenous tribes won a series of long and hard fought battles with the approval of the country's new Constitution in 2000. This is the first Venezuelan Constitution to guarantee its indigenous populations bicultural and bilingual education, healthcare that incorporates traditional medicine and legal space to fight for ancestral lands, among other political, social, cultural and economic rights.

venezuela indigenous march
"Chavez, we demand a stop to coal mining in Perijá" said one of the banners at the Venezuelan indigenous demonstration in Caracas against coal mining.
Credit: / ANMCLA

In fact, Article 120 of the Constitution states that exploitation of any natural resource must respect the above mentioned rights and is "subject to prior information and consultation with the native communities concerned."

Also, Venezuela's indigenous peoples have three indigenous representatives in the National Assembly, who belong to the coalition of parties that support President Chavez.

Yet as multi-million dollar development projects attempt to extract coal from the region advance, Venezuela's 314,000 indigenous people, who make up 1% of the population, insist that social rights must weigh more than economic profits.

Some of the demonstrators accused the Chavez government of allowing neoliberal practices in the explotation of coal, by allowing multinational corporations -which they accuse of contamining the environment- to operate freely.