Action alert: Venezuelan indigenous oppose coal project

Paula Palmer writes for Global Response Action Alerts:

In late January at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuelan indigenous leaders asked Global Response to support them in their struggle to stop construction of open-pit coal mines in their territories. I joined them in an all-day march through the streets of Caracas, carrying banners saying “No al Carbon!” (No to Coal).

Later I visited the Wayuu, Yukpa and Bari communities in northwestern Venezuela, where villages, rivers, forests and farms would be directly affected by the coal mines. Everywhere there were signs that read “No al Carbon!” By foot, canoe and donkey-back, community leaders arrived to appeal for international support to stop the mines. We saw the concrete markers where the mining companies have staked out their concessions, encompassing forests, farmlands and villages. We walked to one of the rivers that would carry mine-polluted water into the reservoir that serves the city of Maracaibo, potentially affecting the health of 1.5 million people. In the cool tranquility along the river, it was impossible to imagine the enormous gray cavity that the miners plan to excavate, the blasting, the choking dust, the screeching of machinery and trucks. “The river is our mother,” said Lida Narva, a Yukpa community leader. “We cannot let them kill our mother.”

Most of the indigenous people and the poor throughout Venezuela enthusiastically support President Chavez, who is channeling millions of dollars of oil revenues into state programs for education, health care and job training. “We’re not against Chavez,” the indigenous people chanted as they marched in Caracas; “we’re against coal mines.”

In that spirit, we are launching this new Global Response campaign — not against Chavez, but for sound environmental policy and indigenous peoples’ rights. Please join the Yukpa, Wayuu, Bari and Japreria peoples in this campaign.

Support Indigenous Peoples vs. Coal Mines / Venezuela

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.

Addresses and sample letters are online.

See also “South American Pipeline Wars,” WW4 REPORT #118

See our last post on Venezuela.