MAC: Mines and Communities

Miners and Indigenous Peoples in Venezuela's Wild North-West

Published by MAC on 2003-03-15

Miners and Indigenous Peoples in Venezuela's Wild North-West

Richard Solly, Mines and Communities Network, London.

March 15th 2003

A confrontation is looming along the Colombian border of Venezuela: not a spillover from the conflict in Colombia, nor the continuing confrontation between the government of President Hugo Chavez and his opponents, but a struggle between huge foreign mining companies and the communities whose lives their plans will wreck. In fact, this struggle is one in which government and opposition find themselves on the same side because of devotion to big, cash-generating projects as a sign of 'progress'.

On the corporate side are London-based Anglo American plc, Ruhrkohl AG from Germany, and Inter-American Coal NV, based on the Caribbean island of Aruba, working together with Venezuelan state corporation Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). Anglo American was deeply involved in support for the former apartheid state in South Africa and is currently profiting from forced relocations of Indigenous and African-descent communities in northern Colombia, where it is part of a consortium running the world's largest coal strip mine. The coal deposits being worked in the Colombian department of La Guajira come close to the surface again on the other side of the Sierra de Perija mountains, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia. Coal mining has been going on there for many years, but if the companies get their way it will soon be enormously expanded.

On the other side are dozens of Indigenous communities who stand to lose land and livelihood because of economic 'development' which they do not want and from which they will not benefit, fishing communities who will find their fishery disrupted by dredging and port construction, ecologists concerned about the impacts on regional air and water quality, and the more aware members of the public in the state capital, Maracaibo, whose drinking water comes largely from the very areas into which the mining companies are planning to expand.

I was present at a meeting in Campamento, on the Guajira Peninsula between the Colombian border and the Gulf of Venezuela, on December 13th 2002. Local Wayuu Indigenous communities had learnt that mining company Carbones de Guasare was planning to construct a huge new coal port at nearby Pararu and a railway line, cutting through at least twenty Wayuu villages, to bring coal from a new mine to be developed at Socuy, 80 kilometres to the south. Carbones de Guasare is owned by PDVSA through its local subsidiary Carbones de Zulia (CARBOZULIA), Ruhrkohl AG and Anglo American plc (through Anglo Coal). It had been telling each Wayuu community that the other communities had agreed to the project. Adelina Kambar, the Wayuu elder who had first discovered the presence of workers surveying the route of the proposed railway line, decided to promote unified resistance to the company's plans. The meeting in Campamento was called so that people could discover what members of other communities really wanted. It was attended by representatives from the Wayuu villages of Campamento, Wichepe, Miralejos, Sumaincaii and La Gloria and chaired by Isidro Fernandez of the Organizacion Indigena del Territorio Wayuu (OITEWA).

Community members said that they had not been consulted about the construction of the port or the railway. They pointed out that the recent Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela speaks of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to be consulted beforehand by any company that wishes to start projects on their land. The Campamento meeting was an emphatic rejection of plans for rail and port construction. Community members said they wanted to unite to fight the threat. Carbones de Guasare had been deliberately fomenting division.

Cristina Fernández, President of the Asociacion de Vecinos de Wichepe, said that the communities needed to unite and organise to raise the voice of protest. They must not be passive in the face of any company that violates their rights. If they were they would have to accept the consequences. Tiburcio Montiel, President of the Sociedad de Vecinos de Miralejos, said that even though coal was already being extracted, local communities were not receiving any royalties. They were not receiving employment either. In each community there were hundreds of unemployed, and mining had done nothing to improve the situation. Leticia Gonzales, representing the Sociedad de Vecinos de Sumaincaii, rejected the project. Her community had animals and pasturage and it was their right to continue their way of life as guaranteed by the constitution. She was used to her way of life, with her humble dwelling and her animals, and it was her right to continue it. Marcionilla Fernandez, representing the community of Wichepe, said that the community had organised to throw out the company's representatives. She said people should not be afraid: in unity there is strength. They had rejected the message of the company's representatives and maintained a radical position. Company representatives did everything possible to convince the community but the community organised and expelled them from the town. Other speakers expressed fears for animals' pasturage, for cemeteries and other sacred sites, for the maintenance of a way of life which they wanted to continue.

Professor Lusbi Portillo of the University of Zulia explained that Wayuu communities will be affected by two mines, Paso Diablo and Mina Norte. Paso Diablo is owned by Carbones del Guasare. It currently transports its coal from Santa Cruz de Mara, just north of the state capital, Maracaibo. Currently exporting seven million tonnes annually, Carbones del Guasare plans to increase exports to 18 million tonnes a year by developing a new mine at Socuy, to the south of Paso Diablo. Santa Cruz is too small to handle such a tonnage, which is why the company wants to construct a bigger port at Pararu and to close down Santa Cruz. The sea is not deep at Pararu, and there are turtles and an abundance of fish. To get big coal boats in the coal companies will have to dredge the bay, thus causing enormous destruction to marine life and the fishing economy, on which 36000 families depend.

Mina Norte is owned by Carbones de la Guajira, itself owned by CARBOZULIA and Inter-American Coal Holdings NV. Carbones de la Guajira produces 1.2 million tonnes of coal a year and exports it from El Bajo, a small port in the middle of a community to the south of Maracaibo in the municipality of San Francisco, and Palmarejo, to the south of El Bajo, which is the property of Corpozulia. Corpozulia belongs to the Ministry of Planning and Development (Planificacion y Desarollo). They need both ports. Carbones de la Guajira is considering opening another mine, Cachiri, to the south of Socuy, to increase its production to 4 million tonnes a year.

El Bajo and Palmarejo are far from the mines, so Carbones de la Guajira wants to construct a new port, Terminal Carbonero de San Bernardo, the first part of the enormous Puerto America project, at the mouth of the inlet leading from the Gulf of Venezuela to Lake Maracaibo, on former islands in the Municipality of Almirante Padilla. This will affect a tourist zone, in which tourism is controlled by local communities, and fisheries. The community in the area is a mixture of Wayuu and non-Indigenous people. The area is made up of the former islands of San Bernardo and San Carlos, which were joined together, and to the mainland, with materials dredged from the seabed during construction of the navigation channel to Santa Cruz de Mara.

The San Bernardo project will affect all the tourist potential of San Carlos and San Bernardo and is opposed by fishers. Shrimps and other species caught by fishers exist along the coast between the two planned ports. Shrimp travel from an area near Pararu along the coast into Lake Maracaibo and back, so the ports will affect the migration route of the shrimp. The whole area is very sensitive for marine life. Dredging and the presence of large boats will have a permanent effect on the fishery. At San Bernardo a platform in the sea is planned, and permanent dredging because the sea is so shallow. All the sand around the coast of the Gulf of Venezuela ends up round San Bernardo because of the prevailing currents, so dredging will have to be constant. Despite this, the project was approved by Dutch environmental engineering company Royal Haskoning in a study part-funded by the Dutch government.

Coal from mines in the department of Norte de Santander in Colombia is currently taken in lorries to the ports of Palmarejo and El Bajo in Venezuela. If bigger ports are constructed to the north, it will be too far to take this coal by lorry, and it will need to be transported by boat using the Rio Catatumbo and Lake Maracaibo. The Rio Catatumbo will be dredged as far up as Encontrados in Venezuela to facilitate coal transport, according to plans drawn up by Corpozulia. There will be coal dust pollution all along the river and across the lake.

At the moment, small boats take uncovered loads of coal to a huge boat called Bulk Wayuu anchored in the bay as a fixed platform or floating port. There is a similar boat in the channel by the port of El Bajo, anchored one kilometre off shore. This big boat comes and goes, but Bulk Wayuu stays where it is and big boats load from it. Boats carrying Colombia coal will need to unload at Bulk Wayuu.

San Bernardo will not be served by a railway but a road bridge may be constructed from the south over the bay between Maracaibo and San Bernardo. This will itself cause problems of dredging and coal dust pollution.

Professor Portillo is involved with Maracaibo-based ecological research and campaign group Homo et Natura. Group members told me that the problems posed by the mines and ports at present include the following:
1. Each week there are one or two accidents on the road involving coal trucks. Most of these accidents result in deaths, others in serious injuries. The lorries carry 45-50 tonnes of coal at a time. The roads are not good - they are very narrow. Lorries travel 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Trucks travel too fast because drivers are paid per journey completed.
2. The lorries transporting coal are so heavy that they cause vibrations which crack the walls of houses along the way.
3. At the ports of Santa Cruz and El Bajo, there are dwellings close by. They are affected by coal dust, which enters houses, the air, water, people's lungs.
4. Open pit mining causes deforestation. This affects the hydrology of the whole area. The Rio Paso Diablo has almost disappeared. Other small rivers have also disappeared or been polluted with heavy metals. Heavy metals also pollute subterranean water. Explosions at the mines fracture the rock and cause the water table to sink deeper.

Dr Hebert Chacon, a Wayuu councillor in the municipality of Paez, where the port of Pararu is to be built, says that when Mina Norte was being constructed, the company promised local communities 2000 jobs. They actually produced 60 jobs for local people, of which 10 went to Wayuu people. No benefits have come from mining to the local community - just ecological destruction. In contrast to the 36000 livelihoods in fishing which could be lost if port construction goes ahead, Mina Norte employs a total of 240 people. The port of San Bernardo will employ a maximum of 150 people, mostly educated and trained. Paso Diablo currently employs 1300 people.

Dr Chacon admitted that there are Wayuu people who support the proposed projects. While the traditional Wayuu-speaking communities are against them, the more acculturated communities can only see unemployment around them and believe the company's promises of jobs - despite the fact that evidence to date suggests the promises will prove vacuous. But opponents include many others in the west of Zulia because the effects on water supply and water quality will be so damaging. Wayuu traditionalists have found allies in ecological organisations in Maracaibo and Church and human rights organisations at national as well as regional levels.

The two existing and three planned coal mines affecting the Wayuu are all within the same river basin. Three of the rivers that rise in the Sierra de Perija - the Guasare, the Cachiri and the Socuy - join to form the El Limon, which flows into the sea close to San Carlos/San Bernardo. On the Rios Socuy and Cachiri there are reservoirs which supply the two million inhabitants of Maracaibo and many other people in northern Zulia with drinking water. The planned mines are above these reservoirs. All the rivers which flow into Lake Maracaibo from the west rise in the Sierra de Perija and all will be affected by mining if all the concessions are exploited. The Rio Guasare had a flow of 30000 litres a second in 1973 according to a report from the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment. Now it is down to about 10000 litres a second because of mining: partly because of deforestation but mostly because of blasting, which causes water to go further down into the earth because of the cracking of the bedrock.

Local people and the regional organisations which are supporting them are calling for international support. They want people in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany to be aware of what companies based in their countries are doing - the environmental destruction and abuse of local people's rights which will result from a project which will at the same time help to increase the rate of global climate change by making available enormous extra quantities of coal. Residents of those countries need to pressure multinationals involved in the expansion projects in Zulia to abandon them.


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