Venezuela: Dispute in Indigenous Yukpa Territory Due to Coal Extraction

Human rights organizations sent out an alert last week in defense of academic and indigenous leader Lusbi Portillo, when the Venezuelan government accused him of being a “CIA agent” due to his work to defend the Yukpa territory against coal mining. More than 180 academics signed a letter in defense of Portillo’s life and in support of his work in the Zulia region. 

Barí, Añu, Japreria, Yukpa, and Wuayúu, indigenous nations, nestled between Colombia and Venezuela, have been fighting against coal exploitation for decades in a region that holds one the largest coal reserves, rounding 9 billion tons. As you can see on the following map, the Venezuelan government has militarized the state of Zulia to exploit natural resources, concretely, for coal production and exportation.

Even though Venezuela’s constitution protects the rights of indigenous people over their ancestral lands, Nicolás Maduro’s government decided to open the country to coal extraction on indigenous territories. Venezuela has run out of international economic reserves, forcing them to make long-term contracts to pay in kind with oil and minerals, in China’s case. Hugo Chávez had made a commitment to keep the coal underground, and his government invested in ambitious aeolic and solar projects, which lay now abandoned. The political will of the elite extractivist class was just not there. A couple months before Chavez’s death in March of 2013, the national electric company Corpoelec announced future plans for coal mining in Zulia.

In 2015, Nicolás Maduro’s government issued a  decree that officially opened the doors to coal mining once again when he nationalized and expanded the coal concessions in Zulia. This allowed the government to build a coal-fired thermoelectric plant in the state. The indigenous people and environmentalist groups strongly opposed the project and declared, according to the Andrés Bello Fundación: “We have been struggling for 14 years, in an intense fight for our biodiversity, the water, and lands. With our fight, we succeeded in stopping our comandante (Chávez) from carrying out the mineral exploitation projects, and now, we ask the same of president Maduro”. 

The expansion of coal mining on the Perijá Mountains was agreed between state-owned Carbozulia and Glenmore Proje Insaat of Turkey in 2018. Sadly, according to Reuters, coal exports to Europe have tripled since, mainly due to the US sanctions on Venezuelan petroleum. However, many insist on shifting the country into more sustainable energy sources and warn, for instance, the impact on the water sources of inhabited areas due to mining.  

In the letter written on August 14th, academics in support of Zulia’s defense stated, “The ongoing coal mining in Zulia, and the endeavors of recent State governors to boost plans of the expansion of such mining immediately threatens the water supply in Maracaibo, a city that is currently living under a deep crisis due to this very reason, and where many communities and parishes have lacked water supply for weeks, months, even years.”

Currently, there is great concern about plans by the governor of Zulia State, Omar Prieto Fernández, to open three new Special Economic Zones in the region. According to reports from civilian society organizations, private companies in these zones would be exempt from abiding by regular labor, tax, and environmental laws. It is believed that accusations against Portillo are directly related to vocal opposition to the Special Economic Zones.

Homo Et Natura organization, led by professor Luisbi Portillo, has been helping indigenous people’s struggles since 1985 with legal aid, research, local investigations, legal complaints, and movement building. Because of their successful activism, they have been accused of being “enemies of the state” by several succeeding governments. Accused of being “guerrillas” by conservative governments and today, by a government that claims to be leftist, of being CIA agents. Such accusations can mean a death sentence for the indigenous rights advocate.

Homo Et Natura has answered to the accusation by asserting: “Since 2000 indigenous movements and social, ecological, and university organizations haven’t allowed the execution of such fateful carboniferous extractivist plans…The governor is lying because the movements and struggle have helped to expel companies of Perijá and la Guajira belonging to American, Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and Colombian investments.”
The indigenous struggle in defense of their territory, like always, surpasses borders. In 2018, in the same geographic area, but on the Colombian side,  the Yukpa village began a legal fight in defense of prior and informed consent against coal mining in their territory. In April 2021, the court and State Counsel decided to meet the court’s resolutions supporting the Yupka village and wrote a decree suspending all mining activities in the region. With the current political environment in Venezuela, indigenous rights advance at a much slower, precarious pace.