MAC: Mines and Communities

Support Indigenous Peoples vs. Coal Mines / Venezuela

Published by MAC on 2006-03-03

Support Indigenous Peoples vs. Coal Mines / Venezuela


3rd March 2006
Also available at

"We will not be removed from the lands where our ancestors are buried. We are defending the animals, the forests and the water. This planet can't withstand any more contamination. What good is all this wealth from oil and coal if we are dying of diseases and misery? Several years ago they pushed out some of our people to make a coal mine. In that region the animals, the fish, the birds and the people are all sick. Now they want us to move again so they can make more mines, but there is nowhere to go. We will defend our lands and our heritage with our lives."- Jorge Montiel, Wayuu leader

"If the coal mining project continues, the ecological impact will be disastrous. Is it worth destroying our natural heritage and our water source for coal?" --Herencia Gonzalez, Regional Manager of the Venezuelan Water Authority (Hidroven)

The Sierra de Perija is the northernmost range of the Andes mountains, reaching to the Caribbean along the Colombia-Venezuelan border. Rich in primary forests and biological diversity, the Sierra has become a battleground where the Venezuelan government must make a choice between indigenous rights and environmental protection on one hand, and exploiting the region's massive coal deposits on the other.

Indigenous Peoples' Rights -- The Sierra's quarter million indigenous people have already experienced environmental devastation, disease and social upheaval since two enormous open pit coal mines began operations in 1987. They are united in opposing the construction of three new mines and the expansion of one existing mine within their territories. The projects, which would quadruple Venezuela's coal production, would be joint ventures between the Venezuelan state and mining companies from the US, Ireland, Brazil, Australia, Chile, Japan and elsewhere.

For the Wayuu, Yukpa, Bari and Japreria peoples, the primary issue is securing their land rights, including the right to deny access to sub-surface mineral deposits. Venezuela's new constitution requires demarcation of indigenous lands and awarding of collective land titles - a significant step forward for indigenous peoples' rights. But the land titles can exclude existing mines and mining concessions as well as large cattle ranches within the indigenous territories. "We want collective title to all the ancestral lands that we have demarcated," says Yukpa leader Leonardo Martinez - including the areas designated for the new coal mines.

Water Resources -- For the down-river population of Maracaibo, a city of 1.5 million people, the main issue is water. Deforestation at the mine sites would cause erosion and siltation of the rivers and reservoirs that supply the city's drinking water, which is already in short supply. Open-pit mining uses huge quantities of water, competing with the needs of agriculture and urban areas. The mining operations would contaminate rivers with heavy metals, endangering the health of fish, wildlife, birds, livestock and humans. Acid mine drainage could continue to pollute the land and water for centuries to come.

Biological Diversity -- The three proposed new coal mines would destroy large tracts of ancient tropical forests that provide habitat for hundreds of endangered species, including many that are endemic (found nowhere else on earth). During the last 50 years cattle ranchers invaded the Sierra's lower altitudes, systematically destroying forests. As a result, jaguars, ocelots, Andean bear, giant anteaters, iguanas, macaws and spider monkeys already face extinction - and their demise would be accelerated by the coal mines. To export the coal, a new mega-port would be built on islands in the Caribbean, destroy-ing unique wildlife and bird habitat and fisheries, as well as the livelihoods of displaced fisher families.

President Chavez inspires the hope, gratitude and enthusiastic support of Venezuela's poorest citizens by using oil profits to provide far-reaching education, health and employment programs that are transforming the society. But environmentalists, scientists and indigenous people fear that the social gains will be short-lived if the country's forests, rivers, air and biological diversity are sacrificed for oil, gas and coal production. As Wayuu leader Angela Gonzales says, "We can live without coal. We can't live without water."

How Can We Help? Three times in the last year, the Wayuu, Yukpa, Bari and Japreria peoples have marched in the capital city under banners saying "No to Coal." At the World Social Forum in late January, they appealed to world citizens to help them convince President Chavez to annul the coal concessions on their lands. They said, "We are not against Chavez. We are against coal mines!" Please support their struggle by writing to the President and the Minister of the Environment.

Requested Action: Please write a polite letter to President Chavez (a model letter is available here)

* Tell President Chavez that you applaud Venezuela's constitution which provides for indigenouspeoples' rights.

* Urge him to grant the request of Wayuu, Yukpa, Bari and Japreria leaders to have a personal meeting with him concerning the coal concessions within their territories.

* Tell him why you oppose new coals mines in the Sierra de Perija. Some good reasons: 1) The indigenous people who live there oppose the new mines; 2) The mines would destroy ancient tropical forests whose biological diversity is of incalculable value; 3) Coal mining would contaminate the water supply of the entire population of Maracaibo; 4) Worldwide, we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, especially on coal -- the dirtiest source of energy and the greatest contributor to global warming and climate change; 5) Venezuela doesn't need this coal. The economic benefits would go primarily to multinational mining companies (otherwise, why do they want to mine there?), while Venezuela's land, water, wildlife and people would suffer irreparable harm.

* Tell him what you are doing to reduce coal consumption and fossil fuel dependence in your country.

Sr. Hugo Chavez, Presidente
Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Final Avenida Urdaneta, Esq. de Bolero
Caracas 1010, Venezuela
FAX: +58-212-806-8210

Please send copies of your letter to:
Ing. Jacqueline Faria, Ministra
Ministerio del Ambiente
Centro Simon Bolivar, Torre Sur, Piso 25
El Silencio, Caracas, Venezuela
FAX: +58 212 408 1024

Prof. Lusbi Portillo
Homo et Natura
Calle Carabobo No. 7-34
Maracaibo, Zulia

Postage from US to Venezuela: 84 cents
It would also be very helpful to send a copy of
your letter to the Venezuelan ambassador in your
country. Find the address at>

US Citizens should send copies of their letters to:
Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez
Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
1099 30th St. NW
Washington DC 20007
FAX: 202 342-6820

This Global Response Action was issued at the
request of and with information provided by the
Wayuu, Yukpa and Bari indigenous communities of
Cachiri, Socuy and Mache, and the NGO Homo et
Natura. For information on Venezuela, see and
For info on the environmental costs of coal, see www.uvduds.ot/vlrsn_energy/coalvswind/c01.html.

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