Caracas, June 5, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Activists from grassroots organizations protested outside the Venezuelan Supreme Court Tuesday to demand that the body put a halt to a controversial mega-mining project spearheaded by the Maduro government.
The demonstration was organized by the Platform for the Nullity of the Mining Arc, an alliance of diverse movements and leading public intellectuals that emerged in response to a law authorizing open-pit mining in 12 percent of the nation’s territory.
In February, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro used emergency economic decree powers granted by the Supreme Court to declare nearly 112 square kilometers of the mineral-rich eastern Amazonian state of Bolivar a “strategic development zone”, which will be opened to as many as 150 national and transnational firms for the extraction of gold, iron, diamonds, and coltan.
The government has defended the initiative as a necessary step towards a post-oil productive economy amid a severe economic crisis triggered by the collapse of global crude prices, the principal source of Venezuela’s foreign currency earnings.
Nonetheless, the project has sparked vocal opposition from prominent leftist academics and former high officials under late President Hugo Chávez, including ex-Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio, internationally-renowned sociologist Edgardo Lander, Major General Cliver Alcala, former Minister of Education and Electricity Hector Navarro, Indigenous University of Tauca Rector Esteban Emilio Mosonyi, ex-Commerce Minister Gustavo Marquez, and former 1999 constitutional assembly member Freddy Gutierrez.
Also raising their voices in outrage over the decree are a plethora of indigenous, environmental, eco-feminist, and socialist collectives, who rallied together with the ex-officials outside the Supreme Court in Caracas in order to deliver a formal nullity plea to the body requesting an injunction against the mining project on constitutional grounds.
“The indigenous peoples of the region are the principal victims because they haven’t been previously consulted and they are the ones who will see all of the miserable consequences of mining from the private security firms to the prostitution, human trafficking, drugs,” explains Max Gomez, who is a researcher at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation and member of the eco-feminist collective La Danta Las Canta.
Under Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, indigenous peoples exercise inalienable collective property rights over their ancestral lands and must be consulted prior to any plan to extract natural resources from their territory.
Last month, the indigenous Ye'kwana, Sanema, and Pemon peoples of the Orinoco River basin issued a public statement manifesting their unequivocal rejection of the Mining Arc, which they condemned as a "violation of our legitimate right to health, our own safeguarded territory and quality of life."
The Orinoco Mining Arc may also violate the Bolivarian Constitution’s environmental protections, which mandate an ecological and sociocultural impact study before the approval of any development project, adds Gomez.
“And then there’s the water crisis, how is it possible that there are barrios in Caracas that don’t have steady access to water, yet these corporations are allowed to utilize massive quantities of water for mining?” he stated.
Facing the worst drought in 47 years, the Venezuelan government has implemented strict water and electricity rationing in order to avoid further decline in water levels at the El Guri hydroelectric dam, the source of 70% of the nation’s power supply.
According to experts, open-pit gold mining– which utilizes between 450 and 1060 liters of water per gram of gold extracted– will likely further exacerbate water and electricity scarcities across the country.
Others expressed concerns over threats to labor and civil rights.
“As a special economic zone– which by definition are designed to circumvent the legal framework of a country– the Orinoco Arc can ‘flexibilize’ labor protections under the Organic Work Law and even contains certain clauses that encroach on the right to protest,” said Andrea Pacheco of the Trotskyist organization Marea Socialista.
In particular, she pointed to article 25 of the law which states that “no particular interest of unions, guilds, or other associations will prevail over the general interest of the completion of the objective contained in the present decree” and authorizes security forces to take action against those engaged in “the total or partial obstruction of activities”.
An inflection point
For some at Tuesday’s rally, the Orinoco Mining Arc evidences a widening fissure between social movements and the socialist administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
“We believe that this [the Mining Arc] is an inflection point for the project of the current government, and we at Marea Socialista argue that neither the government nor the opposition have the solutions for the major problems facing the country,” asserts Pacheco.
Last year, Marea Socialista officially broke with the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and launched their own candidates in December parliamentary elections, citing high level corruption.
Others, however, continue to back the leftist government while stressing the need to step up pressure from below.
“I’m not a revolutionary to say ‘yes’ to the government, I’m a revolutionary to be critical of what the government is doing wrong,” affirmed Intifada Genesis Blanco, 25, who is a student at Misión Sucre and member of the Hugo Chávez Patriotic Front.
Amid the increasingly tense standoff between the beleaguered Chavista administration and the right-wing opposition-controlled parliament, social movements have been under pressure to close ranks behind Maduro.
“Often they brand us counter-revolutionaries,” Blanco continued. “But it would be more counter-revolutionary to watch and remain silent as the government make errors, harms the people, loses its horizon.”
Indigenous struggles and international law
Indigenous anti-mining movements have, in particular, been stigmatized for their opposition to extractivist projects pushed by state governments and the national executive.
Indigenous rights and environmental activist Lusbi Portillo has been accused by PSUV Vice-President Diosdado Cabello of conspiring against the leftist government for his prominent role in the campaign to seek justice for the assassinated Yukpa indigenous leader Sabino Romero.
“When we began this struggle in 1985, the governments of the Fourth Republic accused me of being part of Sendero Luminoso and when Chavismo came to power, I instantly stopped being considered a guerrilla to become an agent of the CIA,” the president of the environmentalist organization Homo Et Natura Society stated.
For Portillo, the only hope of stopping the Mining Arc is militant grassroots action. He says it's unlikely that the Supreme Court will strike down the executive decree.
“Given the pressure from the government and from the mining companies, the Supreme Court is going to rule in favor of the Mining Arc. Our only salvation is in the streets, occupying Miraflores [presidential palace], occupying the Vice-Presidency, the ministries of mines and indigenous affairs, the embassies, we have to exert political pressure.”
Last year, Homo et Natura and other Zulia and Caracas-based indigenous and environmental organizations took part in a campaign against a government decree expanding coal mining in the Perija Mountains, which was successful in negotiating a scaling down of the project.
In addition to street pressure, some Venezuelan indigenous activists have called for fighting the Mining Arc in international legal bodies such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
“It’s not anti-nationalist to defend the rights of indigenous peoples in international institutions if White criollo law fails to deliver justice,” declared Juan Carlos de la Rosa of the Zulia-based indigenous Wayuu collective Wainjirawa, which translates to “the heart of what we do”.
For De la Rosa, there is, however, no contradiction between continuing to struggle for revolutionary change in Venezuela and appealing to international legal tribunals.
“We are leftists if nothing else, but we are people loyal to the struggle for the land that we sow and harvest.”
At the conclusion of the demonstration, former Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio announced that the delegation of ex-officials had successfully held a meeting with the President of the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case.
The high court will study the nullity request and present a ruling in the coming months.