Canaries in the coal mine

A Pemon indigenous leader recently told me that there is a saying among his people: “Wherever an indigenous person steps, there is wealth.”

The saying refers to the natural resources that are often found beneath the homes of this hemisphere’s first people.

In Venezuela, one of the greatest battles for the indigenous people is the one against mining: gold in the southeast, near the border with Brazil and Guayana, and coal in the northwest, where Venezuela curves against Colombia, and where Wayuu indigenous groups have lived for thousands of years.

This week, I tagged along with an environmental expert from the University of Zulia on a trip from Maracaibo, Venezuela’s oil cash cow, to the La Guajira peninsula. Much of the peninsula, which juts out into the Caribbean Sea, belongs to Colombia. Venezuela’s portion is a slender strip, studded with coal.

The Wayuu villages we were to visit are essentially surrounded by a giant coal mine. To get to them, one must climb into the back of a work truck and be escorted through the mine.

If a Wayuu person wants to travel from the village to a larger town to buy food (an increasingly important trip as contamination has made it increasingly difficult to grow crops in the mining area), he or she must wait for the escort truck, or make the two-hour walk through the mine, and risk getting caught near an explosion.

The mine has transformed the area from lush, green hills into deep, black canyons. One river that quenches the thirst of the villages is contaminated; another, which flows from a spring, was blocked by the mining effort.

There’s another challenge: the villages don’t have their own school. Children must venture through the mine each day to attend class, all the while breathing in toxins. The mine workers wear protective masks, but the villages don’t own any. Advocates for the Wayuu say children have been born recently with defects.

This is one of the most tense battlefields for indigenous people in Venezuela. A host of advocacy organizations have been created to help the Wayuu, but their work is mired in politics. While Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez continually promises that indigenous groups will receive titles to their ancestral land, the Wayuu say their birthright is already destroyed.

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