[Marxism] Chávez collides with indigenous nations..

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at resist.ca
Tue Oct 4 19:44:58 MDT 2005

This was posted to the A-list by Jim Yarker. Any comments?



In January 1997, the Venezuelan government began construction
work on an Electric Energy Transmission System from Venezuela
to Brazil through the lands of the Pemon people in southern Venezuela.
This event sparked a struggle between the Venezuelan State
and indigenous peoples in cooperation with environmental activists,
over the use of indigenous territory for this project, a conflict
that has had profound local, national, and international implications.

The struggle over the electric transmission line gained prominence
at the national level for two main reasons: (i) the indigenous
groups affected by the project; and (ii) the ecological value of the
area in which it was to be built. Located in the Bolivar State of Venezuela
in the Imataca Sierra and the Gran Sabana regions, the electric
transmission line passes through the ancestral lands of the
Arawako, Akawayo, Kariña and Pemon indigenous peoples. There
was concern that the construction of the line would open up the
area, with devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples and
the environment.

The change in political context provided an opportunity to solve
the struggle over the line as the Chavez Government entered into
negotiations with the indigenous peoples affected by the construction
of the line. However, even though the government signed an
agreement with the representatives of the indigenous groups, the
conflict took a new turn as some of the indigenous communities
most affected by the construction rejected the agreement because it
permitted construction to continue. The transmission to Brazil began
operating in August 2001. However, the conflict remains unresolved.
This case study provides a detailed account of the conflict from
its inception, and the lessons that can be gleaned from this struggle
in terms of conflict prevention and resolution. In so doing, it points
to the importance of empowering indigenous communities and
movements to provide the basis for a sustainable process of conflict
resolution and prevention, even if that process leads to some initial
conflict. The case study pinpoints the deep roots of the conflict, roots
that lie in widely differing conceptions of development and the values
attached to that process, and sensitive problems of‘representativity’
in negotiating agreements in the political arena. It
concludes with a reflection on the meaning of a ‘democratic’ approach
to conflict resolution and prevention in the context of powerful
state and business interests.

The following is an overview of developments:
• 1997: On 26 February 1997, the Pemon sent a letter to
the CVG and to the National Institute of Parks
(INPARQUES), asking for information about the ongoing
construction, without any response.9 The Pemon
went to Caracas in June and July 1997 and marched
along with the environmentalists, publicly demonstrating
their opposition to the project;
• 1998: The conflict worsened. The Pemon of the Gran
Sabana participated in a series of protests and demonstrations,
and closed off the international motorway to
Brazil in July and August 1998. These actions had several
consequences, including a meeting in August between
the indigenous peoples and the governmental
authorities. In November of that same year, a writ petition
(recurso de amparo) was filed against the transmission
line at the Supreme Court of Justice, which
was found to be inadmissible (March 1999);
• 1999: The conflict captured public attention and the
issue of indigenous peoples’ territories received front
page coverage. As a result of intense public debates,
the new Constitution adopted that year reflected many
of the indigenous peoples’ demands and included eight
articles recognising their rights. This achievement was
a direct consequence of the debate around the transmission
line that had started back in 1998, with the
indigenous peoples leading the movement they were
taken into account for the first time in the history of the
nation. They were even called upon to participate in
the drafting process of the new Constitution. When a
new Government took office at the beginning of 1999,
it tried to respond to the conflict through the authorities
of the Ministry for the Environment and the Natural
Renewable Resources (MARNR), and the Venezuelan
Corporation of Guayana (CVG). Throughout the
year, the MARNR office tried to settle the conflict
through strategies of dialogue, without achieving any
significant results;
• 2000: The indigenous opposition to the transmission
line continued despite an initial agreement signed in
July by the Government with some indigenous representatives,
led by the president of the Indigenous Federation
of the State of Bolivar (FIB), who until then had
been the spokesman of the sectors that opposed the
transmission line. The Pemonton went to Caracas in
May and August. As a result of these visits, the actions
of both the environmentalist and human rights activists
intensified, and they joined forces to form the Coalition
against the Transmission line to Brazil. During
their May visit, the Pemon introduced a second writ
petition against the transmission line, which was
again ruled inadmissible by the Supreme Court in
November, on the basis that the petitioners did not
represent the Pemon people.10
• 2001: Construction work for the transmission line intensified,
as did the indigenous peoples’ protests and
demonstrations. Several towers of the electric system
were knocked down; in response, the Gran Sabana region
was militarised. This led to several confrontations
between the military forces and members of the Pemon
people. The electric line began operating in August
• 2002: The conflict remained unresolved. Following an
argument over the electric line, on 24 May 2002, Miguel
Lanz, a Pemon from the San Rafael de Kamoirán community
in the Gran Sabana was killed by a sergeant of
the armed forces stationed in the Luepa military camp.
Sinviano Castro, the Capitán of the Kamoirán community
described this as a result of the repressive policies
of the Venezuelan State against the struggle of the indigenous
peoples (Provea, 2002; 254);
• 2003: With reference to the participation of the indigenous
peoples in the use, administration and management
of the protected areas under the special administrative
regime (ABRAE), in August 2003, the Executive
ordered that this be accommodated in the National
Park of Canaima and in other protected areas in the
region, inhabited by the Pemon. However, a September
2003 visit to the region conducted by the Venzuelan
Programme for Education and Action in Human
Rights - Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción
en Derechos Humanos (Provea 2003) reported that the
indigenous communities had not been informed of this
decision, and no measures taken in this regard.
Venezuela is currently engaged in a process of demarcation of
indigenous territories. This should have been finalized by December
2001, by constitutional mandate, but has been delayed.11

Another argument is the environmental consequences that will
come later with the installation of a system of electric interconnection,
which will attract gold and diamond miners to the area. The
mining activity will produce an increase in the process of sedimentation
and deforestation of the basin of the River Caroni – main
water source of the Guri Dam, which supplies 70% of the electric
energy of the country. The effective life of the dam depends on the
state of the basin; due to its vital importance for the national
system, it is protected as a zone of limited use. However, the
mining activity is a major menace to this. From the environmental
perspective, water resources are much more important than gold
and diamonds.


As a final inventory of the several years of the conflict, we can see the
impact of the agreement for the continuation of the transmission
line, signed by the Government and some Caciques and members of
the indigenous communities of the area. This agreement had a major
influence in the final decision of the Supreme Court. It was
achieved after a long and strong process of opposition and questioning
of the project that had as main actors the indigenous sectors
and the FIB. The process also had an important influence on the
candidature of Hugo Chavez to the Presidential elections of 1998.
He demonstrated an indigenous orientation in his discourse which
propitiated the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in the new
The sectors that were against the project had direct participation
in the process of the drafting of the Constitution, especially
through the President of the FIB, Jose Luis Gonzalez – who was later
elected as one of the indigenous members of the National Assembly.
This brought about a series of rapprochements between the FIB and
the Government, with President Chavez going to the region to seek
an understanding between the parties. An agreement was finally
reached, thanks to the participation of the President of the FIB as
mediator in the conflict.
This sequence of facts is a major clue in the task of identifying
the conditions needed for the search of an understanding in the
process of this conflict, and also in order to better understand how
they actually interacted. This is especially true if we consider the
possibilities that those who oppose the project have had to influence
the governmental decisions. The fact that the new Constitution
included a chapter specially dedicated to the rights of Venezuela’s
indigenous peoples is in a good measure a reflection of the struggles
that the indigenous peoples of Bolivar State have been staging since
1997. We could thus conclude saying that, in the framework of this
conflict, the indigenous peoples have managed to influence the
Government’s decisions.
However, even if this is true, the constitutional achievements
(which include the political participation of indigenous leaders in
the national process) have also functioned as a perverse mechanism
in the attempt to debilitate the indigenous opposition to the project.
This is especially true when the agreement for the continuation of
the project comes as an immediate response to the achievements of
the new Constitution, and to the presence of several indigenous
leaders in the national political scene. In this sense, the Government
had more influence in the decisions of the Pemon resistance, than
they themselves had in the Government’s decisions. And this is
mainly due to the fact that the agreement managed to have some
aspects of legality and legitimacy, due not only to the direct participation
of one of the leaders of the movement against the transmission
line; but also, because in the campaign for its legitimisation,
those who favoured it used the argument of the majority’s rule before
the minorities. This is true even though the president of the FIB
stated at the beginning of the negotiations with the Government,
that the indigenous communities only take decisions by consensus.
As for the environmentalist groups, and their possibilities to
have an impact on the governmental decisions, such a possibility
was rendered difficult due to a strategy to discredit them implemented
by the Government. This strategy was centred on the argument
that, as their interests are alien, occult, and come from the
North, they are not valid interlocutors. This obviously seriously affected
the possibilities to have their opinions heard.
The essential issues that this conflict reveals need to be thoroughly
discussed. These are basically: the clash of visions regarding
the environmental perspective of development; the definition of
general interest; and the cultural diversity within a nation. As long
as these issues are not confronted, conflicts such as this one will
keep on happening.


Macdonald Stainsby
In the contradiction lies the hope.

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