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March 24, 2007

By Presidential Decree, the Environmental Minister Prohibits New Coal Mines in Zulia State


VENEZUELA- After more than a year of intense pressure, on March 21 President Chavez issued a Presidential Decree that no new coal mines will be built in the Sierra de Perija, and no expansion will be permitted in existing coal mines. "By saying today 'Not one more mine in Zulia state,' president Hugo Chavez brings back hope for the future of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra de Perija and for life itself," said the Wayuu and Yukpa communities in a press release.

The Sierra de Perija along Venezuela's northwestern border is home to Wayuu, Yukpa and Bari indigenous peoples who have vigorously protested explorations in their territories by multinational coal companies. The indigenous communities rejected collective land titles offered by the Chavez administration because the titles excluded the sites of new mines slated for development this year.

In January 2006, I was among thousands of participants in the World Social Forum who marched with people from the Sierra de Perija through the streets of the capital, under banners that read NO AL CARBON (No to Coal). I visited their remote communities and, with the help of the environmental NGO Homo et Natura, developed a Global Response campaign to internationalize their struggle.

Muchisimas gracias to everyone who wrote a letter to president Chavez for this campaign. Pro-Chavez people told us we shouldn?t campaign against his policies. Anti-Chavez people told us he would never respond to international pressure. We campaigned for the rights of the indigenous peoples and for protection of a magnificent, biologically rich forest ecosystem, as we do all around the world. The indigenous communities kept up constant protests against the mines until yesterday – when they won! It is very sweet to celebrate this victory with them!

Paula Palmer
Director of Global Response Program
Cultural Survival

Below is an unofficial translation of a press release issued by Homo et Natura and the Wayuu and Yukpa communities:

By Presidential Decree, the Environmental Minister Prohibits New Coal Mines in Zulia State

Caracas, March 21, 2007. By presidential decree, the Environmental Minister Yubiri Ortega de Carrizalez announced yesterday to the Yukpa and Wayuu indigenous peoples of the Sierra de Perija that opening new coal mines in the state of Zulia is prohibited, as well as the expansion of the existing Guasare and Paso Diablo mines.

Yesterday, indigenous people from Perija and the social and environmental movements that were protesting against the coal mines at the Ministry felt that we had buried in Caracas the ghost of coal and its threats against the indigenous peoples of Zulia state. However, until the mining concessions are canceled by decree, we will continue this struggle.

"We are very hopeful," said the Environmental Minister to the Yukpa and Wayuu leaders, Homo et Natura and the alternative media, "because the president has ordered a new model of development for the region encompassing ecology, agriculture, tourism and sustainable development."

We know that the powerful multinational mining interests in Zulia will keep trying to keep their mega-coal project alive, whatever the cost. Questions remail about the future of the Nigales Bridge, Bolivar Port and the Zulia railroads, all of which were designed to carry coal?.

If coal mines -- which represent the grief of thousands of families that have lost their children and husbands, suffered poverty and contamination of their soil, air and water, lost their forests, rivers, vegetation – are stopped forever,

If the Venezuelan state decrees finally that mines will be defeated and replaced by agriculture, sustainable grazing, in favor of life, we will find the eyes of the world seeing an exemplary act of social justice and the beginning of necessary change.

Coal mines already destroyed whole communities in Mara, destroyed the forests and rivers in their way, left the Bari indigenous people without lands, and brought indigenous leaders to their knees for decades, making their own people feel ashamed of them. By saying today "Not one more mine in Zulia state," president Hugo Chavez brings back hope for the future of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra de Perija and for life itself. "Now we await the decree that will defeat forever this black curse."