What’s so Revolutionary About Venezuelan Coal?
by Christian Guerrero

In recent months, the Venezuelan government has an-nounced its intentions to quadruple its extraction of coal in the western state of Zulia--from eight million to 36 million metric tons per year. This long-term, energy-sector expansion project falls into a much larger development plan, which has come into sharp conflict with communities and environmental interests in the region. In seeming contrast to the antiimperialist rhetoric of President Hugo Chavez Frias, Big Coal and Big Oil figure heavily into Venezuela's plans for development and "revolutionary process." But indigenous communities and radical ecologists throughout the region are fighting back in defense of the land, the water and their way of life.

Zulia has historically been the cradle of the nation's oil wealth, generating hundreds of billions of dollars for foreign oil companies since the 1920s. It is also a region where many traditional indigenous communities continue to defend their last-remaining ancestral lands. For decades, Bari, Yukpa and Wayuu tribes have resisted encroachment by oil, mining, ranching and timber interests.

In the last 15 years, entire Wayuu communities have been forced off of their lands in the Guasare-Socuy river valley in northwestern Zulia, immediately north of the Sierra de Perija mountain range. The primary culprit in the relocation has been the metal-laden dust produced by two open-pit coal mines run by Corpozulia (the regional development agency), along with foreign, private mining firms. Exposure to this dust can cause pneumoconiosis, a respiratory disease that can also lead to lung cancer. The government wants to increase the volume of coal exploited in the region, with new mining concessions spanning more than 620,000 acres--an area that includes the entire eastern foothills region of the Sierra de Perija.

Dividing Venezuela and Colombia, the Sierra de Perija is home to one of Venezuela's premier national parks, with humid to subhumid tropical rainforests and high-mountain grasslands extending across 700,000 acres. The park harbors such rare fauna as the black eagle, capuchin monkey and Andean bear. The Sierra de Perija is a key source of fresh water in the region, birthing rivers and rich riparian ecosystems that are also important sources of food security for river basin communities.

The ecologically rich Sierra de Perija is also the premier coal reserve in the country, with estimated deposits of 400 million metric tons.

Zulia's state capital, Maracaibo, with a sprawling population of approximately three million, has always had severe water shortages--in spite of being the most developed metropolis in western Venezuela. The Tule and Manuelote reservoirs--the city's only sources of fresh water--are fed by the Cachiri, Socuy and Mache rivers, all of which originate in the Sierra de Perija. The region has already seen its water supply contaminated by coal-mining operations, which use the Socuy river to "wash" coal during the collection and separation processes. Ironically, Maracaibo sits on the coast of Lake Maracaibo, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Contaminated by decades of oil exploitation, Lake Maracaibo is no longer safe to swim in.

In addition to increased coal mining, Chavez has chosen Zulia as the site for Puerto America--a mega-industrial seaport for the export of coal, oil, petrochemicals and other "goods" (or bads) to the US and Europe. Puerto America would be built atop three islands at Lake Maracaibo's outlet to the Gulf of Venezuela. These islands are home to unique, artisan fishing communities, which maintain a modest lifestyle and a close relationship with nearby Los Olivitos, a nature preserve for rare sea birds.

Chavez's plans also include a coal-powered electric plant and an extensive railway system to facilitate the transportation of coal to the proposed seaport. According to Corpozulia 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.

Since the government announced its plans to increase the volume of coal exploited in Zulia, indigenous communities and environmental groups of all colors have banded together in a resistance movement to save Maracaibo's water sources and the Sierra de Perija.

On March 18, a crowd of 3,000, mostly Yukpa and Bari, marched 12 miles to the city of Machiques, a small farming town close to the proposed mining concessions. After reaching the city, the crowd overtook the central plaza for a rally and occupied the mayor's office, shooting arrows and breaking though the front door. Their main slogan: "No al Carbon [Coal] en la Sierra de Perija."

Earlier that month, a Chilean mining company called MIACCA announced that two of its coal transport trucks had been "destroyed" and a Chilean mining engineer had been kidnapped. Shortly afterward, Bari warriors released the captive engineer unharmed and admitted responsibility for "disabling" the two transport trucks. The warriors declared their total opposition to coal mining in the Sierra de Perija.

Then on March 31, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Caracas in an attempt to personally meet with Chavez and ask him for the cancellation of the expanded concessions. The protesters also demanded the immediate recognition of indigenous lands, as outlined in Venezuela's new "Bolivarian Constitution" and Indigenous Territory Demarcation Law. Hundreds of protesters traveled overnight in a five-bus caravan from Zulia, a mostly indigenous contingent composed of Wayuu from the Guasare-Socuy valley (communities already affected by mines in their region) and Yukpa and Bari from the Sierra de Perija (communities resisting the opening of new mines in their territories). A large group of university students and adults from Maracaibo also joined the caravan; among them were former mine employees protesting the lack of health and safety standards in the mining operations.

These groups were met in Caracas by hundreds of protesters from throughout Venezuela, representing a wide spectrum of social, human rights and environmental groups. Many of those who attended are supporters of the populist Chavez government and its sociopolitical movement, the "Bolivarian revolutionary process," but they feel that the plans of the coal industry are not in the best interests of Zulia or the local communities.

The demonstration ended late in the evening, without a meeting with Chavez. The president was "too busy" to attend to the thousands of protesters in the streets because he was in a high-profile meeting with the Argentinean soccer legend and renowned party animal, Diego Maradona.

The next day, Corpozulia paid for full-page, color publicity spots disguised as editorials in all of the local Chavez-friendly newspapers, leading one to suspect that the ads' claims of a "commitment to the environment and the affected communities" were meant to equate coal with the progress of the "Bolivarian revolution" in people's minds. The reality is that behind these green-washing projects lies a greater development plan, one that receives little attention.

All of the development projects in question have been negotiated behind closed doors and without the consent of local communities. The appropriate question to ask would be: Who is at the drawing board when it comes to these long-term energy and transportation plans? The names of the multinational corporations investing in the region are too many to list, but they include all of the usual suspects in Big Oil--ChevronTexaco being Chavez's favorite darling.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Development and Planning calls the coordinated Zulia initiatives the "Western Axis of Development," which is one of three axes designated for Venezuela within the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (IIRSA).

Funded in part by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, IIRSA is a regional initiative aimed at integrating and synchronizing strategic infrastructure projects, which will facilitate a "more efficient" exploitation of human and natural resources. IIRSA seeks multi-state cooperation and funding for a wide range of sectors, such as transportation (land, sea and air), information technology and communications, borders, ports and energy markets. Zulia's coal industry and Puerto America are the cornerstones of Venezuela's participation in IIRSA, mostly because they facilitate a gradual connection of South America to the Central American infrastructural integration initiative, Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) (see EF'J November-December 2004). Along with the recently announced gas pipeline between Colombia and Venezuela (Gasoducto Trans-Guajird) and the largest heavy crude oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere in Venezuela's Orinoco river basin, the Zulia projects have allowed Chavez, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and their closest associates in Big Coal and Big Oil to secure 50 years worth of cheap and reliable fossil fuels for the First World's unsustainable and growing energy markets.

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

The campaign to stop coal mining and save Maracaibo's water and the Sierra de Perija has opened a much larger can of worms. "No al PPP" and "No al IIRSA" have become standard messages that activists in these struggles are using to connect the dots between the many industrial development projects taking place in the region. This has not come without a propaganda backlash from the "revolutionary government."

On April 22, an Earth Day march to Corpozulia's headquarters in Maracaibo turned into a media stunt propagated by General Carlos Martinez Mendoza, head of Corpozulia. As with many other important positions in the Venezuelan government, military officers in business suits are calling the shots at Corpozulia. Martinez, getting word of yet another annoying indigenous protest, called for a rally of coal supporters in front of the office. Contracting coal truckers and other Corpozulia mining employees, the "counter-march" was reminiscent of the tactics of anti-Chavez forces during their fights with the president's supporters in 2002 and 2004. Martinez claimed that the counter-march was spontaneous and that he was surprised to see the "overwhelming support for Zulia's mining industry." He failed to explain how the "spontaneous" counter-march had arranged for streets to be blocked off by police and for a huge rally stage with concert-like sound equipment to be set up in front of Corpozulia.

The original, anti-Corpozulia march was organized by the Union of Alternative Collectives (UCA), a broad group of radical ecologists, music bands, and video and street artists. This Earth First!esque collective has been carrying out a popular education campaign by visiting various communities that are slated to be affected by the proposed mining and transportation projects. By making face-to-face con-tact with the communities, conducting workshops, and sharing experiences, video documentaries and music, this collective has done a considerable job in revealing how all the development projects are intimately connected.

For more information about how you can help fight coal mining and save the rivers and mountains of the Sierra de Perija, contact UCA or visit the web site

Christian Guerrero is an international green and black propaganda agent and freelance troublemaker, Latin American Division. Contact Christian Guerrero

© Earth First! Journal July-August 2005