The Powerlines of Discontent
By Andrés Cañizález
In Venezuela, the extensive and much-delayed electrical powerline route toward Brazil continues to cause sparks, especially in protests by indigenous and environmental groups.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- A 1,500-km powerline route intended to carry electricity to northern Brazil and considered a symbol of bi-national integration is generating discord in Venezuela, where the project has been delayed by a series of disputes that involve demands made by indigenous groups and environmental organizations.
The electrical project, which is far behind schedule in construction, cannot shake free of environmental criticisms, while a parliamentary commission affirms that the initiative ignores current laws and that native communities in southeast Venezuela were not shown due respect.
''Behind the powerlines comes a sort of development that threatens our culture,'' warned Silviano Castro, leader of the Pemón Indians who in late March suffered a beating from army troops.
The initiative originated with an accord signed in 1997 by Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and then-president of Venezuela, Rafael Caldera. When Hugo Chávez took the presidential seat in Venezuela, two years later, he confirmed the agreement, despite having said during his electoral campaign that he would review it first.
Indigenous communities in the zone crossed by the electrical lines have repeatedly asked Chávez to decree a temporary halt to the work in order to conduct studies of its environmental and cultural impacts.
The Anti-Powerline Coalition, for its part, stresses that the project traverses the Canaima and Imataca National Parks, the upper basin of the Caroní River, two territories inhabited by Pemón, Akawaio and Kariña natives, as well as the natural reserves encompassing the 'tepuyes,' the impressive mesas of the Great Savannah, in southeast Venezuela.
These involve ''ecosystems unique on this Earth,'' says the Coalition, which involves 20 environmental groups. The Venezuelan president, meanwhile, asserts that the environmentalists and academics are manipulating the situation and that the Pemón natives are being ''subjected to outside interests.''
The 400-million-dollar project has been repeatedly delayed due to active indigenous opposition. The parliamentary subcommittee on parks has verified that at least 20 transmission towers and eight pylons have been torn down by the Pemóns.
The project’s proponents ‘’have not taken into consideration the consultations with indigenous communities and they did not carry out a study on its socio-cultural impact like they were supposed to do,'' ruled the parliamentary subcommittee.
The 1999 Constitution and the Indigenous Peoples' Habitat and Lands Act establish that indigenous territories are sacred grounds, and the electrical powerlines ''have desecrated a sanctuary and have violated the law,'' added the subcommittee.
The subcommittee's report was subjected to ''political interference'' in parliament by the governing 'Movimiento V República' party, asserts Jorge Padrón, of the National Ecological and Social Union.
Unlike what has occurred in Venezuela, on the Brazilian side of the border, ''they worked following a methodology of participation'' by the local communities, said Enrique García, president of the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), the international body that partially financed the Brazilian portion of the project.
''On the Venezuelan side there has not been this type of effort, and there has to be. It is essential work. Today we cannot initiate any kind of development project that does not focalize these social, environmental and cultural conceptions,'' García told Tierramérica.
''The electrical powerlines area a project that should never have been started. It arose to benefit the mining industry, that is the information we indigenous people have,'' affirmed deputy Noelí Pocaterra, president of the parliamentary Commission on Indigenous Affairs.
''From the beginning, the natives did not agree with this project,'' Pocaterra stressed in a conversation with Tierramérica.
''We are worried about what comes after the powerlines. Who can guarantee that industry, illegal settlers, miners won't follow?'' wondered the lawmaker. ''They would harm nature and the lives of the indigenous peoples,'' she added.
* Andrés Cañizález is an IPS correspondent.