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(en) What's so Revolutionary about Venezuelan Coal??? By Christian Guerrero, CRAMA // CRA-El Libertario*

Date Thu, 02 Jun 2005 18:31:33 +0300

To: <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Subject: What's so Revolutionary about Venezuelan Coal???
By Christian Guerrero, CRAMA // CRA-El Libertario*

* This article is about expanding coal mining consessions in Venezuela`s
western state of Zulia. It explains the threats coal mining poses to
indigenous communities and water security for Maracaibo, Zulia`s state
capital. The article also explains how this initiative is part of a
larger regional development plan, IIRSA, and other proposed projects
that fall into Zuila`s regional development. The article is also about
the grassroots resistence movement against the proposed projects.
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 metric tons to 36mmt 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 it's 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 respitory 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 harbouring 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 400mmt.

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 portable 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" (or bads) 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 Perijá 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

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
Ministry of Development and Planning 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 Integración 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 colours have band together to create a
resistance movement to save the Sierra de Perijá 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 presidential palace Miraflores 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 travelled overnight, 12
hours to Caracas in a five bus caravan from the state of Zulia. The
mostly indigenous contingency were Wayúu 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. On April Fool`s Day-
the next day after the march in Caracas, Corpozulia, countering the
meagre media coverage of the indigenous protest, paid for full-page
colour publicity spots in all the local newspaper 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 favour 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 Perijá 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. To find out more about how you can help CRAMA in
their struggle to fight coal mining and save the Sierra de Perija
mountain and rivers in Zulia, please contact: noalcarbon(a)riseup.net

More alternative info in english & spanish about Venezuela:
* A journal of anarchist collective

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