Caracas, Venezuela (VA) – Activists from diverse social movements gathered outside Venezuela’s Ministry of Energy and Mining in Caracas this morning to demand the repeal of a presidential decree authorizing coal mining in the country’s northwestern Perija mountain range located in Zulia state.
“In Revolution, we don’t eat coal,” chanted the small but spirited group, who reject the project on account of its potentially devastating implications, both for the environment and for the indigenous peoples of the region.
“I’m part of the youth who are concerned about having sustainable life on this planet as well guaranteeing that the autonomy of indigenous peoples is respected, because life in the Perija mountains is seriously threatened by decree 1606,” Fidel Acosta, 18, told venezuelanalyis.com. Acosta, a resident of Caracas, is active in eco-socialist and indigenous rights collectives.
Signed by President Nicolas Maduro in February, presidential decree 1606 grants the Chinese state-owned Sinohydro- the largest hydroelectric construction firm in the world- a 30-year lease to exploit the immense coal reserves of the Perija, comprising approximately 24,192 hectares.
Opponents of the measure fear that the project will cause extensive deforestation as well as contaminate the Socuy, Machay, and Cachiri rivers with deadly consequences for biodiversity as well as the health and wellbeing of people in five municipalities in Zulia state, including Maracaibo, the second largest city in the country.
“The mining will harm the ecosystem, the water, the crops- it’s all related,” notes Monica Saltarin, 41, of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Union. “What are our children and grandchildren going to eat, and their grandchildren, what water will we drink, how are we going to survive?”
For the indigenous Wayuu people of Zulia, the mega-project could spell the same fate for them as their relatives across the Colombian border in Guajira, where the transnationally-owned Cerrejon coal mine has been the source of massive human rights violations, including land theft and pollution.
“Mining doesn’t come by itself, it comes with soldiers, with everything that we’ve seen in Colombia with massacres, with mass graves. We don’t want this reality of transnational mining, whether it’s the US or any other empire,” affirms Reynaldo Fernandez, 25, of the Zulia-based indigenous Wayuu organization, Wayaa Maikiraalasalii, which translates to “those who do not sell out”.
Decree 1606 threatens the Wayuu people, Fernandez warns, with “extermination of our lands, our animals, our peoples, our culture.”
Many of those assembled also objected to what they described as the Maduro government’s selective claim to Hugo Chavez’s legacy, pointing out that the late president ordered a halt to a similar mining project in 2007, famously declaring, “Between the forest and the coal, I’m with the forest, with the river, with the environment, let the coal stay in the ground.”
“I don’t know how President Maduro can approve this law when the fifth line of the Plan of the Motherland reads ‘safeguard the ecosystem,'” adds Saltarin, referring to seven-year national plan for socialist economic and social development written by Chavez and approved by the National Assembly after the former president’s death.
In place of coal mining, social movements are demanding that the Bolivarian government invest in solar and wind power.
In particular, they are calling for the completion of the 600-hectare Guajira Wind Farm, which is projected to produce approximately 8,000-10,000 megawatts of electricity in its tenth and final stage, roughly equaling the output of coal-powered electric plant to be built by Sinohydro.
The movements are currently participating in a round of discussions with the vice-minister of energy and mining, but they say they are ready to step up the popular pressure in the streets in the event that the government refuses to rescind the decree.
“We are determined to stop these mines, because it means the dignity and life of a people,” announced Acosta.