It’s About the Oil, Even in Venezuela

“If We Have to Die For Our Lands, We Will Die”: Bombing Venezuela’s Indians

For Hugo Chavez, large, industrial mega projects could turn into a political mine field. The contradiction between Chavez’s rhetoric stressing social equality, on the one hand, and environmental abuses on the other, was driven home to me over this past summer when I attended the first ever environmental conference of Lake Maracaibo. The event was held in the city of Maracaibo itself, the capital of Zulia state, and organized by the government’s Institute for the Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (known by the Spanish acronym ICLAM).

Somewhat oddly, outside of the dining hall where conference participants ate lunch mining companies had set up promotional booths. Walking through an adjacent hallway, scantily clad women working for mining and oil companies plied me with glossy pamphlets and even candy. Later during the conference itself, one panelist, a representative from the local development agency Corpozulia, gave a rosy presentation about new port and infrastructure projects planned for the state of Zulia.

Later, I went back to the luxurious Hotel Kristoff where the government had put me up for the duration of my stay. One morning, sitting at a table overlooking the hotel pool, I was joined by Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.

Sierra of Perija: Area of Conflict

Hinestroza spoke to me of destructive coal mining in the Sierra of Perija, a mountain range which marks a section of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The area, which is home to large coal deposits, has suffered severe deforestation.

Industrial coal production, Hinestroza explained, had damaged Indian lands. He complained that America Port, a new project proposed by Corpozulia, would prove “catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area.” The project, he continued, was linked to coal exploitation. What’s more, Corpozulia itself owned the mining concessions.

According to reports, the Añú community, comprised of 3,000 people living around the Lake Sinamaica region in Zulia, is concerned about the devastation that would result from the construction of a deep-water port in the area, for exporting coal.

If Chavez does not attend to rising calls for greater environmental controls, he will lose support amongst one of his most loyal constituencies, the indigenous population. Already, industrial mega projects have led to angry protest and undermined public confidence in the regime. For Chavez, it is surely one of the thorniest problems that his government must confront.

Launching Raids into Indian Country

Though Indians inhabiting the Sierra of Perija have had to confront extensive coal mining in the Chavez era, it’s not as if indigenous peoples living in the area are strangers to conflict. In the first half of the twentieth century, Motilon Indians [also known as the Bari], which included several indigenous groups inhabiting the area of Perijá, confronted British and American oil prospectors.

In 2001, I was living in Maracaibo doing research for my dissertation dealing with the environmental history of oil development in Lake Maracaibo. Working in the historical archive, I was struck by historical accounts of oil prospectors headed to Indian country.

In 1914, for example, one oil expedition marched into the jungle accompanied by a large company of 50 peons. In seeking to penetrate Motilon Indian country, oil prospectors were aided by the Venezuelan government. As one oil pioneer put it, “we had for arms 12 Mauser military rifles from the government. Every man had either a revolver or a rifle.”

Oil prospectors on one expedition discovered a Motilon house, but were forced to make a harrowing escape in canoes along river rapids when Indians appeared. The oil men shot back, hitting at least twelve men.

One oilman commented: “I do not like the idea of destroying a whole community of men, women and children. But this would be the only thing to do unless peace is made … If oil is found up the Lora [River], peaceful relations with the Indians would be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the company.”

“It Would Be Convenient to Suppress Them with Gas or Grenades”

Eventually, oil infrastructure in Indian country proceeded. Indians had to contend not only with armed prospectors but also growing contamination from open earth oil sumps and dwindling hunting grounds.

For the growing American community in Maracaibo, the Motilones were a nuisance. One English language paper, the Tropical Sun, remarked, “It would be convenient to suppress the Motilon Indians by attacking them with asphyxiating gas or explosive grenades.”

There are no documented cases of large scale artillery attacks on the Motilon Indians. However, Father Cesareo de Armellada, a Capuchin priest who later played a pivotal role in contacting groups of Motilones, claimed that

“It was said by some sotto voce and others even admitted publicly that in the Colombian region [of Perija] the national army organized raids under the slogan of: there is no other way. And it is also said that in the same region the Motilones were bombed by airplanes. The same thing has been repeated to me by many people living within the Venezuelan region of Perija and Colon.”

De Armellada continued that “Secret punitive expeditions” were organized against the Motilones.

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