Maduro Signs Decree to Re-Open Controversial Coal Mines for Chinese Development

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro passed a presidential decree outlining a deal with the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, granting them the authority to mine and develop 24,192 hectares (nearly 60,000 acres) of Venezuelan land.

By Z.C. Dutka
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Boa Vista, April 7th, 2015 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro passed a presidential decree outlining a deal with the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, granting them the authority to mine and develop 24,192 hectares (nearly 60,000 acres) of Venezuelan land.

The Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, the world's largest hydropower construction company and the 14th largest global contractor, will enjoy the benefits of the contract during a period of 30 years – so that they may “regain” what they’ve invested in Venezuela’s economy.

The vast natural area delineated in the decree encompasses the lush Guasare river basin and the mountainous Sierra de Perija region, populated by Wayuu and Yukpa indigenous.

According to government plans, Sinohydro will export carbon from five designated lots, while constructing a carbon-electric plant which in its finished stage should generate between 8,000 and 10,000 megawatts for Venezuela’s Western states.

As the project advances, the plant will require the rerouting of the Socuy river – potentially posing a serious threat to the region’s biodiversity and the integrity of the nearby indigenous peoples.

Last month, environmental activists gathered to oppose the move. A group of over 100 ecologists, indigenous people, professors, and general public gathered in Zulia state to discuss the pending threat.

“I am here with companions from the Wayuumana and Kasussain communities surrounding the Socuy river in the Sierra de Perija, to protest against the exploitation of carbon and the 1606 decree,” said Jose Diego Fuenmayor of the Wayuu Maikiralaasalii Indigenous organization.

“We’ve been resisting for 14 years, in an intense struggle for our biodiversity, water and lands. With our struggle we managed to get our comandante (Hugo) Chavez to paralyze the exploitative mining projects, and now we ask President Maduro to do the same,” he stated.

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.

After over 20,000 liters of diesel waste were spilled from mines into the Guasare River, and amidst increasing pressure from the indigenous communities of the Sierra de Perijá and the growing network of 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, announcing 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.”

However, many economists argue that in today’s Venezuela, between the sliding price of oil and a contracting economy, Maduro does need outside investment.

In January, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $20 billion in investments to the South American country during a historic meeting between the Asian nation and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Venezuelan leaders have long supported global efforts toward multipolarity, preferring to emphasize deals with Russia and Brazil rather than the United States.

Just weeks before the 1606 decree was passed, Vice President Jorge Arreaza defended Venezuela’s growing reliance on Chinese investment. ”China is a great potential, and it is not imperialist. It is a great potential that wants for all of us to have respectable and dignified living standards.”

But many Venezuelan activists have pointed out the paradox between the latest deal and Chavez’s legacy; the Homeland Plan. The 5th and final of the broad objectives stated in the so-called blueprint left by Chavez for Maduro to follow indicates that government policy must contribute to the life of the planet and human survival.

At the March 23rd meeting in Maracaibo, organizers detailed practical plans for clean energy programs that could serve the country’s Western region, including solar and wind energy.

“We say no to carbon, yes to clean energy… and to the development of socially productive and afro-ecological projects. We demand that our communities be consulted before approving any project that will affect our territory,” Fuenmayor said.

The group agreed to coordinate efforts, reaching out to government officials and old allies, activating once again the network that once pressured Chavez to set coal mining aside.

The hashtag campaign #ObamaRevoketheDecreeNOW against US president Barack Obama’s executive order has already produced 8 million signatories to the Venezuelan government’s petition. In the past week, a parallel initiative has been launched, with the tag #NicolasRevokethe1606DecreeNOW.

As of yet, no official response has been given.

Additional reporting by James Suggett.