Non-stop extraction of mineral riches

Jan 17, 2015 12:00 AM

Oil and gas; gold and diamonds; coltan, coal, iron, bauxite, copper: the Venezuelan economy is extractive, as it relies on taking mineral substances from the earth for sale or trade.
And the trend is towards an increase.
The government's 2013-2019 Homeland Plan contemplates doubling the production of oil and gas.
So, there is more extraction, more mining ahead. And more land affected and more ecosystems at risk.
Have you ever wondered why you hear almost nothing about the environmental and social consequences of these activities; why there is now less noise from environmentalists; or why in Venezuela, unlike in most other Latin American countries, this is neither noticed nor discussed?

Such concerns were raised by Rafael Uzcátegui and Lexys Rendón, both members of NGO Laboratorio de Paz (Peace Laboratory). "When looking at the map of current conflicts in Latin America, resistance to large mining projects comes at the top of the list," says Uzcátegui. "All indigenous communities and environmentalists are in this struggle together. But not in Venezuela. How can that not be the case in an extractive, oil producing country?"

And this is not because things in mining and the exploitation of hydrocarbons are being done so correctly that they do not cause any concerns. It is something more delicate and less desirable.

"This stems, first and foremost, from the process of institutionalization and the cooptation of indigenous and environmental movements, resulting in these organizations losing their agendas or taking up the arguments of the polarized country's agenda," says Uzcátegui." And secondly, from the fact that the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro have mythologized mining and oil production with the argument that thanks to revenues from resource extraction "missions" (welfare programs) and the fight against poverty can be financed."

The Peace Laboratory team toured key areas and collected first hand testimonies from indigenous communities who, despite their political leanings towards the ruling party, do not hesitate to express their grievances.

"As a general rule, the indigenous organizations dare now to speak up, even if they identify themselves with Chavismo, because they live with the problem and understand it clearly," says Uzcátegui.

The Peace Laboratory's fieldwork has identified some key issues; namely, that extractivism is the lifeblood of the economy and that it results in environmental degradation and social costs that are not addressed. Extractivism violates provisions of the Constitution, "And this is neither discussed nor protested," Uzcátegui says.

Overriding the Constitution

"The exploration, sale and trade of mineral and energy resources are carried out by the Venezuelan State," reads the report on extractivism prepared by the Peace Laboratory. The formula opening the participation of private or foreign capitals was that of joint ventures. It should be noted, however, that the great exploiter of resources is the State, and that it is precisely incumbent on the State to ensure that things are done according to the rules.

"In the 1990s a neo-liberal offensive was denounced in the region," Uzcátegui says. "But we are at a different moment now. Since 2005, exploitation is done through joint ventures and the State is responsible for attracting investments, and also for the exploitation and pollution resulting from the activity. It is precisely for that reason that we talk about ‘neo-extractivism,' with the State promoting territories to getting hold of natural resources."

The report indicates that the State is at fault. Both the exploitation of new oil and gas deposits and the formation of joint ventures are carried out violating norms of the Constitution. "First of all, there is the failure to conduct environmental impact studies and disseminate their results, as established in Article 129 of the Constitution: ‘Any activities capable of generating damage to ecosystems must be preceded by environmental and socio-cultural impact studies.' Another non-fulfilled constitutional mandate is the requirement to inform and consult with the native communities concerned, as provided in Article 120 of the Constitution: ‘Exploitation by the State of natural resources in native habitats shall be carried out without harming the cultural, social and economic integrity of such habitats, and likewise subject to prior information and consultation with the native communities concerned.'"

"The State has systematically failed to fulfill both constitutional duties," says Uzcátegui.

The report highlights another insight gained from the visits, "In the view of organizations advocating the rights of indigenous peoples, another right compromised by the increasing mineral and energy extraction is the right of the native peoples to collective ownership and demarcation of their ancestral lands, as established in Article 119 of the Constitution. Similarly, the 12th temporary provision of the Constitution set a two-year period for indigenous land demarcation fifteen years ago, but so far less than 5% of the country's indigenous territories have been demarcated."

Coal and the military

In December 2010, the Venezuelan government announced the establishment of "military districts" in order to "ensure the overall defense of the Nation."

Military District 1 was set up in the Guajira Municipality (Zulia state, along the Colombian border). Its alleged mission was to respond to the state of emergency caused by heavy rains and floods in the territory of the Wayúu indigenous people. Communal councils were notified of its creation, but not so the traditional indigenous organizations. "The military deployment in their territory would be for the construction of infrastructure and the management of social and development programs to the benefit of the communities" the report reads.

The report further reads: "Four years later, the indigenous organizations denounced that the presence of the military had proven unable to deliver the benefits promised to the population, and that the true reason for their presence was to create the conditions to achieving the displacement of entire communities so as to leave the door open to the construction of port and road infrastructure for extractive activities."

In the report, a Wayúu leader is quoted as saying: "The State is ruling us militarily for one reason: Pararú, which is part of a deep water port that will reduce costs for transportation and shipment of coal."

He refers to the Puerto América Project, which contemplates the construction of a new integrated mining and transport mega complex requiring the dredging of rivers to build various canals for transporting increased coal production. The Zulia state government has announced plans to enlarge annual coal production from 7 Mt to almost 20 Mt by 2016, the long-term goal being to produce 22 Mt.

Yes, coal

"Environmental groups have denounced the environmental and social consequences of the construction of this port, which involves taking over beaches on the islands of San Bernardo, San Carlos, Pájaro, and Zapara and building offshore docks for coal and oil platforms. This would have devastating results for the almost 20,000 people that live directly or indirectly off small-scale fishing. Dredging would move enormous quantities of sediments and metals deposited on the bottom of the Gulf, creating an impact of colossal proportions that is difficult to measure or predict in the absence of any environmental impact study whatsoever," reads the report.

The military deployment has resulted in problems of coexistence. "Since the inception of the military district in Wayúu territory, the Guajira region Human Rights Committee has counted 13 alleged executions, 15 cases of torture, and 60 illegal searches. Regional Human Rights organizations have told the Peace Laboratory that as many as 760 Wayúu Indians have been arrested and are being prosecuted in courts of law, charged with smuggling."

Smuggling of subsidized Venezuelan foodstuffs across the border into Colombia for resale, a practice known locally as "bachaqueo," is a very sensitive issue that has stigmatized the entire Wayúu nation.

According to Uzcátegui, the military are impeding the observance of ancestral rites like the Wayúu wake. "The family of the deceased must entertain 200-300 guests, so they must have food to offer them for several days. But the military won't let them take food to the waking places, and this, which is part of the Wayúu culture, can no longer be done because they are accused of smuggling."

The Farc too?

On December 31, the Ombudsman's Office of Bolivar state (south) received a complaint about the presence of Farc guerrilla members in an indigenous territory. Four armed people dressed in camouflage passed through the villages of Eñepa and Jodi.

The complaint, made by indigenous chiefs, councilors and the villagers of Eñepa and Jodi was publicly disclosed by the human rights group Provea (the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights). "Eye witnesses claim that the four alleged guerrilla members were picked up by an Armed Forces plane and flown to Ciudad Bolívar, the state's capital city. The dialogue between the military and the Indians seems rather curious: 'We asked the commander of the military if they had any problems with the guerrillas, to which the commander replied that there was nothing to worry about, that the guerrillas were acquaintances and friends, and Bolivarian revolutionaries as well, and that they were always in touch with the chief of the guerrilla members."

The Peace Laboratory lists similar problems in other regions:  "The COIAM, Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de Amazonas (the umbrella organization of indigenous peoples in the Venezuelan State of Amazonas) has denounced that ‘garimpeiros' (Brazilian small-scale illegal miners), Colombian guerrillas, and Venezuelan miners practice illegal mining, destroying one of the world's most bio-diverse areas digging for gold, diamonds, and coltan. Survival International estimates that around 4,000 illegal miners operate in the area. The governor of the Baniva people was quoted as saying: 'Illegal gold mining is done somehow with the approval of the Armed Forces. When the Indians complain, they are immediately repressed.' Deforestation due to illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon is estimated at 1,100 km2 per year."

There are complaints from other organizations as well. Horonami, a Yanomami organization, alerts on the recruitment of Yanomami as cheap labor to work in mines in the Amazon jungle. And Oipus, a Piaroa Indian organization, denounced the presence of illegal armed groups restricting the passage to their sacred lands, and also increased mining activities, with consequences like diseases, drug addiction and prostitution. All this adds up to the pollution of rivers and the alterations in cultural patterns. And even though these matters have been reported formally, the government has not moved a finger.

It did move a finger though. The government decided last March to increase the exploitation of gold and diamonds south of the Orinoco, yet again dispensing with the required consultation and environmental impact study.

Translated by Sancho Araujo

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