Indigenous protesters from northwestern Venezuela marched Friday through the streets of Caracas, which is hosting the sixth World Social Forum (WSF), to protest plans for mining coal on their land.
The bows and arrows, traditional indigenous dress, drums and ritual dances were similar to those seen in past demonstrations by Wayúu, Ańú, Yukpa and Barí Indians. But this time the roughly 150 indigenous protesters were accompanied by some 2,000 representatives of Venezuelan environmental and leftist groups, and activists from Brazil, Canada and Colombia.
Next February, "the state-run enterprise Carbozulia plans to begin mining coal along the Socuy River in order to boost total annual output from eight million tons in 2005 to 20 million in the shortest possible timeframe," environmentalist Lusbi Portillo, one of the organisers of the protest, told IPS.
Carbozulia's argument "is that they will not hurt the Socuy River because they will work at least 100 metres away from it," said the activist, who was carrying a sign proclaiming "No to Coal".
"But that promise doesn't matter to us, because we know the mine will degrade the environment anyway, in the area where indigenous communities live off the land," he added.
In addition, Puerto América, a port installation that will be used to export coal from the new mine as well as the coal that comes from Cerrejón in northeastern Colombia, will be built on the coast of the Gulf of Venezuela, added Portillo, one of the leaders of the local non-governmental organisation Homo et Natura.
"What we want is for President (Hugo) Chávez to simply state that no concessions will be granted, and that the land that belongs to indigenous people will be formally awarded to them," Avelino Korombara, a member of the Barí community from Semadoji, in the extreme western portion of Venezuela along the Colombian border, commented to IPS.
"We support our indigenous compatriots from Zulia in demanding collective ownership over land, in order to achieve real people's power, socialism," said Tomás Ribas, with the Ezequiel Zamora Agricultural Cooperative.
"These problems have arisen because our president has not yet brought about the formal demarcation of our land, and in the meantime continues awarding concessions without consulting us," said Wayúu activist Ángela González, standing next to a banner reading "Out With Vale do Rio Doce, No to the IIRSA".
Carbozulia and the Brazilian state-owned Companhia Vale do Rio Doce have formed a consortium to mine coal in the region, where joint ventures are already operating between the Venezuelan company and transnational corporations like the British-South African Anglo American; Ruhrkohle, Germany's largest coal company; Interamerican Coal, based in Aruba, in the Dutch Antilles; and the coal divisions of U.S. giant Chevron-Texaco and British-Dutch Shell.
Environmentalist Francisco Mieres lamented the fact that the government "places priority on its energy commitment to Brazil, to the detriment of the environment and indigenous communities."
Under the left-leaning administrations of Chávez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, joint ventures have been developed for public works, mining and energy sector cooperation. The two countries' state-owned oil companies are planning to build a refinery in northeastern Brazil, while Brazilian companies will drill for heavy crude in Venezuela.
One of the most recent agreements involves the construction of a natural gas pipeline that will stretch from Venezuela's Caribbean coast to Argentina, running through Brazil.
These and other projects form part of the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration programme (IIRSA), a Brazilian initiative, "but along the way, the water, soil and air will be polluted and indigenous people will be forced to abandon the lands they now use for farming, grazing and fishing," remarked another environmentalist, Jorge Hinestroza.
The two-km protest march by indigenous activists from the northwest - who represent around 300,000 indigenous people in this country of 26.5 million, according to the state-run Statistics Institute - also served to show WSF participants that there is opposition to Chávez administration policies in progressive as well as conservative sectors.
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