For some years now, the majority of the time we spend in Venezuela has been in the city of Maracaibo in the state of Zulia. However, even before taking up our post in Maracaibo, we have for a long time been in a relationship of cross pollination with the folks who “are not for sale” of the Perija Mountains.
Since the time that we formed a base in Maracaibo, our visits there mean we are surrounded by loud car horns and the buzz of air conditioning units, the yells, the exhaust from cars, the garbage piled in the streets, the extreme heat reflected by asphalt, concrete and zinc roofing shingles. We then leave all of that behind for the waters of a river filtered by stones and coal, for the shade and freshness of the breeze that flows through trees, vines, and shrubs. Forests where macaws, toucans and other birds fly free and without worry of being shot or captured, and where it is normal to come across howler monkeys, spider monkeys, red-foot tortoises, and otters. We return to the Socuy River and the Wayuu communities of Wayuumaana and Kasussain where our friends have been resisting the extraction interests of Big Coal for 15 years.
Even with all the challenges that exist within the convenience and consumerist society-of-oil-dependence and the wide co-opting and homogenization as a result of the political nepotism-dressed-as-Socialism within Chavismo, the people within the Wayuu Organization Maikilralasaalii have been in a unique process of creating autonomy, forging their own collective self-determination based on the concepts of land, water, and dignity. This process is a Wayuu process in its entirety where the language of Wayuunaiki dominates all activities and spaces, while at the same time it has successfully created alliances and relationships of solidarity and mutual aid with such diverse social players such as ecologists, Chavistas, anti-capitalists, anarchists, other indigenous peoples and other Wayuu organizations in Venezuela and Colombia.
The inhabitants of the Socuy River do not grow all of their own food, nor do all their medicines come from the plants of the tropical dry forests. They are Venezuelans and processed starches are a huge part of their diet. Nevertheless, this diet is strengthened by milk from their goats, heirloom chickens, eggs and crops of kepeshuna (guajiro bean- an endemic variety), squash, yuca and chamomile that can be purchased at the Hierba Buena store in Maracaibo. The local inhabitants remain active in different skills-building processes with workshops that include the creation and application of bio fertilizers, installment and use of solar panels, as well as having produced various short and long films.
The hunting of wild animals is prohibited and they continue to raise red-foot tortoises. This project started with the trading of cartons of eggs for the tortoises that inhabitants of the community of El Paraiso capture and sell for human consumption. In this way, the Wayuu Organization Maikilralasaalii saves the tortoises from the fate of being someone´s meal.
The Socuy is working toward and creating its own reality within a context familiar with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle from the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), even though they exist simultaneously within Petro-dependent, consumerist Venezuela, where each day more and more people of all political tendencies want “Father Government” to solve everything and the culture of “do it yourself”, sustainability and self-reliance is rarer and harder to find than soap, disposable diapers and milk in local supermarkets.
During our recent visit we arrived with friends and allies to the Socuy process as well as other folks who were visiting for the very first time. We arrived as a series of skills building workshops on traditional Wayuu hat weaving was beginning and we were able to integrate the activities we had to offer into those already happening. During that week and day we offered our activities, the local folks dedicated their time to create and weave Wayuu hats, and sometime in the middle of the afternoon we hung the graphic campaign banners of Mesoamerica Resiste and the True Cost of Coal. The cloth banner of the True Cost of Coal we used belongs to the Autonomous School of Yalayalamana. If anyone is interested in showing their support by printing a banner of Mesoamerica Resiste for the formation processes of the Socuy River please contact the Bees.
For hours we shared the stories of the peoples and creatures of Appalachian Mountains and their struggle against coal mining as well as the stories of the peoples and creatures of Mesoamérica and the long story of struggle and resistance that started with the European Invasion and persists today within neoliberal, extractivist capitalism. During the presentation of the two banners there was simultaneous interpretation and discussion in Wayuunaiki and those present freely observed, listened, conversed, and reflected in their own language. All of this interaction revolved around the history of the Wayuu People, the Socuy River and was all presented through the banners; the Wayuu who migrated south to the Perija Mountains due to the droughts in La Guajira, later being displaced by the coal mines of Guasare and Paso del Diablo, and the Manuelote and Tulé dams, are now once again ready to fight against coal mining interests.
It has been a long history, after 15 years of not only resisting the expansion of coal mines in the Perija Mountains that would require the diversion of the Socuy River, but at the same time creating the ecological agriculture and self-reliant alternatives that the region needs. To resist coal in Perija is to resist the Initiative of Regional Infrastructure Integration South America (IIRSA). This resistance is to the mines, the train lines and Port América, projected to be built in the islands of Toas, Zapara and San Carlos. Regardless of all the adversity, during his life President Chavez changed his position and declared that the coal would stay underground. Years later, resistance was taken up again against the pretensions of the Chavista governor of Zulia State, Arias Cardenas, and the plan to create a coal-powered thermo-electric generation plant in Guasare. All of this over more than 15 years and now this?
After all of this on February 10th President Nicolas Maduro signed Decree 1.606 giving the go ahead to expanding coal mining. The cynical and selective amnesia of Maduro and Cardenas seems to underestimate the Venezuelan people, believing them to have forgotten the strong movement of popular resistance that caused Chavez to take back his words and say “no to coal” in 2007, even after announcing in 2003 an intention to triple coal production. This selective amnesia of the current government seems to think that the social movements do not have a critical understanding of the importance of the water from Perija for life in Maracaibo City and the whole Maracaibo Lake Basin. Those in power intend that the people do not see the fallacy in handing over the vital liquid of a dry and arid territory and instead attempt to call it progress, development, even “revolution”.
The Decree1.606 approves the exploration and extraction of 24,192 hectors of coal and other minerals associated with energy production in the Montes de Oca (Majayura Mountains), the natural northern limit with Colombia along the northern border of the Socuy River. As if this was not enough, the Chinese multinational company with whom the agreement is signed, Sinohydro, demands more coal. Sinohydro has pressured the engineers of the Venezuelan State-owned Petroleum company, PDVSA, to “include within the project´s Financial Plan the projects of a coal-powered thermo-electric generation plant and the recuperation of coal mines, this with the purpose of supplying constant coal to this plant” (Project Coal-powered Thermo-electric generation plant). These policies have been consolidated in Carbozulia, which is currently under the presidency of Coronel Carlos Antonio Cabré Córdoba.
In commemoration of the two years since Hugo Chavez passed, Carbozulia realized an activity commemorating his legacy. “The best way to preserve the legacy left by the Commander Chavez is to achieve with the demands of this historic moment. With the support of General Erling Rojas Castillo, president of PDVSA Industrial and the commitment of all the workers of Carbozulia we will recuperate coal production in the State of Zulia”. It is quite audacious and shameless to pay “homage” to a person, speak about his legacy, and then go completely against his crystal clear words, words with which he said that he would “rather keep the rivers and the forests, and that that coal stay underground”.
These breaks with Chavez´s final position on coal in the Perija Mountains and the recent brutal treatment of indigenous Ye´kwana and Sanema at the hands of Venezuelan military in the state of Bolivar, spurred by involvement with illegal mining, does not leave the Venezuelan State in good standing before its indigenous, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist citizens and much less their international equivalents. This comes during a difficult moment in the Venezuelan story, a time when the dangers of a coup d’état are very real within the country. These actions only further confirm that the Bolivarian Process in Venezuela continues to destroy nature and raze territories and ecosystems just as the governments prior to Chavismo came into power. It should be recognized that within the rank and file of Chavistas there are many environmentalists that attempt to demand coherency from within the Bolivarian process of the State, though these people are few and far between and have had minimal influence and a lack of decision making power within state policies. They have had little effect, as well, in fomenting a paradigm shift regarding worldviews of the Earth, environmental protection, and education.
On a national level there was the elimination of the Ministry of Popular Power of the Environment to create the Ministry of Ecosocialism by Maduro. In Zulia, the creation of multiple ecological routes and parks (many of which are excellently conceived and administered though others in states of abandonment or that caused environmental destruction with their creation) by Cardenas has served as a cover, as “greenwashing”. In the same way that corporations like Pacific Rubiales, Endesa, or Ecopetrol use the practice of greenwashing to appear as though they are contributing to the fight against pollution on this planet or the root causes of the climate crisis as they destroy the planet, so have the environmental efforts of the Maduro and Cárdenas administrations, coupled with their complete reliance on extractivism to finance their government, their efforts are poor attempts of putting green bandages over a industrialized and polluted landscape.
After the sharing of thoughts that came about as a result of exploring Mesoamerica Resiste and the True Coast of Coal, the night´s last activity was a film screening. We watched “Abuela Grillo”, another short film called “Wayuumaana” (made by a student from Mérida), and the feature film of the evening was “Macuro”. The films, the banner workshop, and the weaving of hats created a dynamic day where the problems as well as the solutions to the challenges faced by the Socuy River and the whole Maracaibo Lake Basin were dealt with.
The Wayuu Organization Maikiralasalii, the various collectives, movements, national and international Bees that defend the struggle for water, land, and life are ready for another battle against coal extractive interests, destroyers of life and land, regardless if it dressed as socialist or outright capitalist. There have already been numerous protests, public forums and debates. Cardenas has been silent, not attending the majority of events to which he has been invited. Currently folks from Socuy are in Caracas lobbying to halt all extraction projects in the Perija Mountains. In terms of local allies in Maracaibo the movement brings together a mix of Chavistas with varying degrees of criticism of the government and a wide array of non-government supporters including anarchists, far-left communists, and even some mainstream opposition.
As La Guajira Peninsula and the Perija Mountains are one, there is no border, and the coal, the forests, the rivers, the animals, and the Wayuu (and the Yukpa and Bari) are one. What is done on one side of the region will affect both peoples and territories alike, whether it be in the land called Venezuela or the land called Colombia.
In all the visits we have had to the Socuy River, we always leave with the urge to come back and stay longer. We are happy to share, take up again the building and walking with the compañerxs from the process of the river. It is always exciting and spirit-filling to interact with the non-human inhabitants of the Socuy, animals like the dwarf caiman, parrots, toucans, macaws, snakes, spider and howler monkeys, who come up close to us with no fear at all. On this occasion we had the privilege of interacting with a juvenile otter that swam up only a meter away from us, exploring us with the same curiosity we had. We were overtaken by excitement in the presence of such a special and power water creature, a guardian of the water, the otter.
This last visit contributed to an even longer history of special visits and exchanges along the Socuy, and we look forward to being able to return with more time and capacity required to continue building and creating new processes in defense of life, water and land. If there are persons or entities who would like to support our work with the Wayuu Organization Maikiralasalii, the struggle against coal mining in the Perija Mountains, and support community based projects such as reforestation, agro-ecology and Meliponicultura along the Socuy River, we can be contacted through email@example.com.