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Venezuela's indigenous peoples protest coal mining
CARACAS, Apr 4 (IPS) -
Bare-chested, clad in traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, hundreds
of representatives of the Barí, Yukpa and Wayúu indigenous peoples from the
westernmost region of Venezuela marched on the capital to demand a halt to coal
mining near their lands in the Sierra de Perijá mountain range.
Coal mining operations "bring pollution and disease. They are destroying our
farming practices, they are going to destroy our water, and they will end up
destroying our lives," Cesáreo Panapaera, the leader of 32 Yukpa communities in
Tokuko, some 600 kilometres from Caracas, told IPS.
Scores of environmentalists and leftist political activists joined the
indigenous protestors in their march through downtown Caracas last Thursday.
Their destination was the federal government headquarters, but they were stopped
150 metres from its gates by anti-riot police.
"We want to tell compañero President Hugo Chávez that he can't continue granting
land concessions in the Sierra and in Guajira (a neighbouring region along the
Venezuelan-Colombian border) without consulting us first, as required by the
constitution. He speaks very nicely about us, but they haven't demarcated our
lands," said Wayúu community leader Angela González.
The indigenous protestors are staunch supporters of the left-wing Chávez. Most
were wearing red headbands with pro-government slogans, which date back to the
presidential recall referendum last August, when a majority voted to keep the
president in office. Others sported red berets, symbolic of the governing Fifth
Republic Movement party.
"Compañero Chávez, support our cause", read one protest sign, while another
declared, "Vito barí atañoo yiroo oshishibain (We don't want coal mining)". Yet
another was a copy of the "No" signs used by the pro-government side during the
referendum (meaning no to Chávez's removal from the presidency), but altered to
read "No Coal".
The Sierra de Perijá mountain range, which marks a section of the border between
Venezuela and Colombia and has suffered severe deforestation in the latter,
along with the neighbouring Guajira peninsula, also straddling both nations, are
home to significant coal deposits.
Colombia produces around 40 million tons of coal a year, mainly from two mines
in this region, Cerrejón and La Loma.
In 1987, coal operations started up in the Guasare mines of northwestern
Venezuela. Last year, production totalled eight million tons. According to
estimates, the Sierra-Guajira region contains coal reserves of at least 400
million tons, which means that current production levels could be sustained for
another 50 years.
Coal production operations are directed through consortiums formed between the
Venezuelan state-owned company Carbozulia and a number of transnational
corporations: the British-South African firm Anglo American; Ruhrkohle of
Germany; Inter-American Coal of the Netherlands; Chevron-Texaco of the United
States; and British-Dutch energy giant Shell.
Last year, Carbozulia and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil established a new
consortium, Carbosuramérica, to undertake additional mining operations in the
region. According to the president of the Brazilian corporation, Roger Agnelli,
the goal is to raise annual output to 10 million tons within a decade from now.
All of the coal is currently transported by truck to the port in the regional
capital, Maracaibo. However, there are plans to build both a railway line and a
deep sea port off the western coast of the Gulf of Venezuela, in order to
facilitate coal exports from both Venezuela and Colombia.
"Venezuela is becoming an exit platform to the Caribbean Sea, through the
building of ports, bridges, highways and railways which serve the interests of
the countries and transnationals that need to get their products out, but which
sacrifice the environment and the rights of the people living in the area," said
environmentalist Lusbi Portillo from the Homo et Natura Society, a
As a result, "we are opposed to these mining-ports projects that form part of
the IIRSA (Initiative for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration,
promoted by the nascent South American Community of Nations), which will serve
to take our energy, mining, forestry and biodiversity resources to Europe and
the United States," added Portillo.
Along the route used to transport the coal for export, "the water is polluted,
waterways are obstructed, the air breathed by humans, animals and plants is
contaminated, the habitat of the aboriginal peoples is disturbed and peasants
and indigenous peoples are forced off the land they have traditionally farmed,"
Jorge Hinestroza of the Front for the Defence of Water and Life told IPS.
Jesús Palmar, a Wayúu activist, commented to IPS that 17 years ago, the Carbones
del Guasare mining consortium purchased the land occupied by his community, a
36-hectare lot in the Matera Nueva area, for under 2,500 dollars. As additional
compensation, the indigenous inhabitants were promised employment, a new road
and other services.
"We made a mistake. It was all lies. They just forgot about us and now we are
living two kilometres from the company's gates. In January there was a gas-oil
leak of around 120,000 litres in the Paso del Diablo stream, which killed fish,
iguanas and squirrels. We used to sow, harvest, and live off of the land, but
now we are being driven to the brink of death," said Palmar.
Hinestroza maintained that "for years the rivers and streams have been polluted
with chemical wastes, detergents and coal residue. The communities near the coal
operations breathe smoke. Animals are being born with defects," he added,
showing a photograph of deformed goats, "and human health is at risk."
The Guasare, Socuy and Cachuirí rivers feed into the Limón River, which is the
largest north of the Maracaibo lake watershed and supplies the regional aqueduct
Another local environmentalist, Alexander Luzardo, told IPS that the coal mining
conflict intersects "with another debt owed by the Venezuelan government,
because according to the 1999 constitution, a law was supposed to be established
to demarcate indigenous territory, and this hasn't happened."
Ezequiel Anare, a Yukpa community leader, reported that "some company officials
have offered us money to keep quiet. But we won't. We are calling on the
president to get these companies off of our territory. We want to demarcate our
lands, where we live, farm and dream. We are the guardians of the Sierra," he
declared to IPS.
The march in Caracas brought together environmental and human rights activists
who have voiced opposition to the Chávez administration and enthusiastic
supporters of the president, like the representatives of the community media
network. Mixed in with the crowd was Douglas Bravo, perhaps the best-known
communist guerrilla leader in Venezuela in the 1960s and 1970s.
"This is a manifestation of an autonomous and independent revival of the popular
movement," said Bravo, who now devotes his efforts to promoting environmental
groups. "At the same time, it is the beginning of a new stage in the independent
environmental movement, against globalisation and the multinationals," he said
in an interview with IPS.
Environmental activists maintain that Venezuela is following a mistaken policy
in pursuing coal production, which contradicts its commitments as a signatory to
the Kyoto Protocol, the international instrument aimed at curbing carbon dioxide
"We want the government to hear us: we don't want coal," stressed indigenous
leader Panapaera, who added, "Here are our bows and arrows, and we will use them
against the miners if they come to our lands. And if we have to die fighting for
our lands, we will die."
First published by