MAC: Mines and Communities

What's so Revolutionary about Venezuelan Coal?

Published by MAC on 2005-06-26

Christian Guerrero: What's so Revolutionary about Venezuelan Coal?

June 26, 2005

Christian Guerrero, CRAMA/CRA-El Libertario writes: In recent months, the Venezuelan government has announced its intentions to triple the production of coal mining in the western state of Zulia from 8 million to 36million metric tonnes per year.

This long-term energy sector expansion project falls into a much larger regional development plan that have come into sharp conflict with communities and environmental interest in the region.

In what seems to be contrary to the anti-imperialist revolutionary rhetoric of President Hugo Chavez, and more similar to other recent announcements that the Venezuelan government has in the last months with regards to its energy and development policy, Big Coal along with Big Oil, and the World Bank are at the drawing board when it comes to Venezuela's plans for development and "revolutionary process."

Zulia is Venezuela's most westerly state, and has been historically the cradle of Venezuela's oil wealth, generating hundreds of billions of dollars over the last half century in wealth for foreign oil companies that have exploited the region since the 1920s. It's also a region where many still primitive indigenous communities cling on to their last remaining ancestral lands threatened by the expansion of the oil industry. Bari, Yukpa, and Wayuu tribes have for decades also resisted the encroachment into their territory by lumber, ranching and mining interests, and have held the line at the Sierra de Perija Mountains.

In the last fifteen years since the early nineties, whole Wayuu communities were forced of their lands in the Guasare-Socuy river valley, a region in north-western Zulia and immediately north of the Sierra de Perija.

In that time Corpozulia, the regional/state development agency, together with foreign private mining firms opened two massive open-pit coal mines, Mina del Norte and Paso Diablo, displacing thousands of inhabitants in the immediate surrounding area, primarily due to the heavy metal laden dust produced by the mines that eventually can cause pneumoconiosis, a respiratory lung disease that can lead to lung cancer. The announcement to increase the quota of volume of coal exploited in the region also includes new mining concessions that span a territory of approximately 250,000 hectares that includes the entire foothills region east of the Sierra de Perija mountain range.

Dividing Venezuela and Colombia, the Sierra de Perija is a strategic route for drugs and arms trafficking and a safe haven for guerrilla and paramilitary camps. Its is also one of Venezuela's premier National Parks, with humid to sub-humid tropical rainforest and high-mountain grasslands extending over 300,000 hectares and harboring such unusual suspects such as the black eagle, capuchin monkey and the Andean bear. The Sierra de Perija also is a key source of fresh water in the region providing rivers and other rich riparian eco-systems that are also important sources of food security for communities in the river basin areas. Forming a semi-ring with the Andean mountain range around Lake Maracaibo, the Sierra de Perija is now the premier coal reserve in the country, with estimated deposits of 400 million metric tonnes.

Zulia's state capital, Maracaibo, with a urban-sprawling population of approximately 2 million people, is a city that despite being the most developed metropolis in western Venezuela, has always had severe water shortages and ration periods.

State officials claim that the water shortages are due to "low reserves in the Tule and Manuelote reservoirs." Local residents contest that the shortages are due to poorly regulated water systems, corrupt water resource authorities, and water contra banding businesses that steal from public water sources and resell the precious liquid in water-deprived areas of the city.

The two reservoirs, Tule and Manuelote, are Maracaibo's only sources of fresh water and fed by the Cachiri, Socuy, and Mache rivers. All three rivers are born in the Sierra de Perija and flow east into the Perija foothills. Maracaibo, ironically, sits on the coast of Lake Maracaibo, one of the largest fresh-water lakes in South America and the world, and once a safe source of fresh potable water for the city, now is too overly contaminated by decades of precarious oil exploitation practices that it is not even safe to swim in. Although some areas around Maracaibo are flooded and almost swamp-like, other parts of the city receive running water only once a week, and has seen its region's water quality and supply negatively affected by the existing coal mining operations in the Guasare-Socuy region that use the Socuy river to "wash" the coal during its collection and separation process.

Along with the announcement to increase the coal mining concessions in Zulia, Chavez has also agreed to the construction of Puerto America, a mega multi-use industrial sea-port for international exportation of coal, petrol-chemicals, and oil among other "goods" to US and European consumer markets. These plans also include a coal-powered thermoelectric plant and an extensive railway system to facilitate the transportation of coal from the Sierra de Perija to the proposed new sea-port.

Puerto America is proposed to be built atop three islands off the coast of Zulia and at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo's entrance to the Caribbean Sea.

Zapara, San Carlos and San Bernardo Islands, considered unique artisan fishing communities that maintain modest lifestyles and close relationships with the fauna island refuge Los Olivitos, a nature preserve for rare sea birds, are in complete disapproval with the proposed sea-port construction plans and claim never to been reasonably consulted about their fate. These expanded coal concessions and parallel transportation projects are set to begin next year with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the World Bank, according to Corpozulia.

All these development projects have been negotiated behind closed doors and without the knowledge or consent of local communities slated to be affected. The appropriate question to ask now would be ... who is at the drawing board when it comes to these long-term energy-sector and transportation plans?

The list of multinational corporations investing in the region is too long to list, not withstanding the usual suspects in Big Oil: Chevron Texaco being Hugo Chavez's favorite darling. The Development Ministry calls the coordinated initiatives in Zulia the Western Axis of Development ... which is one of three axis of development designated to Venezuela within the larger continental development initiative called IIRSA.

Funded in part by the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Andean Development Corporation, among other banks and states, IIRSA, in Spanish stands for Integracion de Infraestructura Regional de Sur America ... or in English, the South America Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative.

As the name explains, IIRSA is a regional or continental wide initiative aimed at integrating and synchronizing strategic infrastructure works that will facilitate "a more efficient" exploitation of resources, human and natural. IIRSA seeks multi-state cooperation and funding for a wide range of sectors such as, transportation (land, sea and air), borders, ports, information technology and communications, and energy markets.

In Venezuela, there exist three main development axes; the eastern and western axes spanning "vertically" at each extreme of the country, and the Apure-Orinoco axis, that runs "horizontally" spanning across the country connecting the other two axes like a "H."

Zulia's coal industry and Puerto America are the cornerstone of Venezuela participation in IIRSA mostly due to their geographical contributions, facilitating a gradual connection to the Central American infrastructural integration initiative, Plan Puebla Panama (PPP). Along with the recently announced gas-pipeline between Colombia and Venezuela (Gasoducto Trans-Guajira) and the "now proven" heavy crude oil reserves (the largest in the western hemisphere) in Venezuela's Orinoco river basin- the main component in the Apure-Orinoco development axis, Hugo Chavez, Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe, and their closest associates in Big Coal and Big Oil, have secured for the first-world's unsustainable and growing energy markets, cheap and reliable fossil fuels for the next 50 years.

Since the announcement made by the Venezuelan government to increase the volume of coal exploited in Zulia, indigenous communities and environmental groups of all colors have band together to create a resistance movement to save the Sierra de Perija mountains and rivers, Maracaibo's fresh water sources.

On March 18 a crowd of 3 thousand mostly Yukpa and Bari marched into the city of Machiques, a small farming town close to the proposed mining concessions. After marching 20 kilometers and reaching the city, the crowd overtook the central plaza for a rally and shortly afterward occupied the city's mayor's office, shooting arrows and breaking though the front door. Their main demand and slogan was "No al Carbon en la Sierra de Perija." Coal in Spanish is called carbon.

Earlier in that month, MIACCA, a coal mining company form Chile, had announced that two of their coal transport trucks had been "destroyed" and a Chilean mining engineer kidnapped. Shortly afterward Bari warriors released the captive engineer unharmed and admitted responsibility to "disabling" the two transport trucks, claiming they are in full resistance to coal mining in the Sierra de Perija.

On March 31, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Caracas, in an attempt to march to the Miraflores presidential palace to ask President Hugo Chavez to personally cancel the expanded coal mining concessions.

The protesters also demanded the immediate recognition of indigenous self-demarcated lands, outlined in Venezuela's new "Bolivarian" Constitution and in the Indigenous Territory Self-Demarcation Law.

Hundreds of protesters traveled overnight, 12 hours to Caracas in a five bus caravan from the state of Zulia. The mostly indigenous contingency were Wayuu from the Guasare-Socuy valley, communities affected by existing mines in their region, and Yukpa and Barì communities from the Sierra de Perija mountains that are resisting the opening of new mines in their territories. Also, a large group of university students and adults from Maracaibo joined the caravan. Among them were ex-employees of the Guasare-Socuy mines wanting to protest the lack of health and safety standards used in the mining operations.

These groups were met in Caracas by hundreds of more protesters from all over Venezuela, representing a wide spectrum of social, human rights, and environmental groups. Many individuals and groups are supporters of the government under President Hugo Chavez and the "Bolivarian revolutionary process," but feel the development plans of the coal industry are not in the best interest of Zulia and the local communities in the region.

The protest ended late in evening, with the delegation of representatives never meeting with President Hugo Chavez, who was actually too busy to attend to the thousands of protesters in the streets because he was in a high profile meeting with Argentinean soccer legend and renowned party animal, Diego Maradona.

The next day after the march in Caracas, Corpozulia, countering the meager media coverage of the indigenous protest, paid for full-page color publicity spots in all the local newspapers friendly to the Chavez government, leaving one wondering if publicity editorials that claim their "commitment to the environment and the effected communities" were aimed at Chavez supporters.

The reality is that behind these green-washing initiatives is a greater development plan that receives little attention.

Unlike other international "cooperation" initiatives like the FTAA or the PPP or even Plan Colombia which are overtly despised by the Venezuelan government, IIRSA has received little or no media attention at all. This is because Venezuela's government has been quiet frankly in favor of the initiative, marketing it as a step toward Simon Bolivar's dream of a united South America of independent states. But what is not being discussed are the social and ecological impacts that these "cooperation projects" will have on communities and the natural environment.

The campaign to stop coal mining to save the Sierra de Perija and water for Maracaibo has opened a much larger can of worms.

Along with other slogans used in flyers and banners at protests, NO al PPP and No al IIRSA have become standard messages that activist in these struggles have used to connect the dots between the many industrial development projects taking place the region. And this has not come without the propaganda backlash from the "revolutionary government."

More recently on April 22, an Earth Day protest organized in collaboration with the Colectivo Radical Autonomo Morfo Azul, or CRAMA, that had intended to march to the headquarters of Corpozulia in Maracaibo, turned into a media stunt propagated by the head of Corpozulia, General Carlos Martinez Mendoza.

Like many other important positions held in the Venezuelan government, high military officers in business suits are calling the shots.

General Martinez, getting word of yet another annoying indigenous march and protest, called for a rally of supporters of coal in front of Corpozulia. Actually, contracting coal transportation truckers and other mining employees employed by Corpozulia, the "counter-march" was reminiscent to the marches seen in 2002 and 2004 during the contested fight between opposition and supporters of President Hugo Chavez.

General Martinez claimed the counter-march was spontaneous and a surprise to him, seeing the "overwhelming support for Zulia's mining industry." He failed to explain though how the spontaneous counter-march had organized streets to be blocked off by police, and a huge rally stage with concert-like sound equipment had been set up in front of Corpozulia so spontaneously and to his surprise.

CRAMA, in English stands for the Blue Morphos Radical Autonomous Collective -- as in the striking beautiful butterfly particular to the region. This Earth First!esque collective has been carrying out a popular education campaign, visiting various communities slated to be effected by the expansion of the mining concession and the parallel transportation projects that are proposed. Making face to face contact with the communities, conducting workshops, sharing experiences, videos documentaries and music, this collective has done a considerable job in bringing necessary information to how all these projects mentioned are intimately connected.

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