Extractivism in Venezuela: the veins remain open – Rafael Uzcátegui interview + Documentary

By Juan Andrés Misle


Our guest today is Rafael Uzcátegui, chief coordinator for Programa Venezolano de Educación – Acción en Derechos Humanos, better known as Provea, widely regarded as one of the most respected and well-known human rights NGOs in Venezuela. Provea recently launched a new documentary about the impact of extractivist policies on the environment and the aboriginal tribes that inhabit across and throughout the Orinoco River in Venezuela. We give a warm welcome to Rafael Uzcátegui to our program. Welcome Rafael.

The new documentary is titled “Extractivism in Venezuela: The veins remain open.” The short film opens with an allusion to Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s best known work – “The open veins of Latin America” – an essay examining chronicles and historical anecdotes about the exploitation of natural resources in Latin America throughout its colonial and contemporary history. What is the idea behind this title? Why the allusion to Galeano?

Venezuela is a country that has always lived off its sale of oil and gas. It is a country whose economy relies entirely on the energy sales to the international market.

However, for various reasons inside our country, the discussion over the social and environmental consequences of this model of development has not been realized in the same manner as in other countries in Latin America, where there is great participation on the part of the different communities that are being affected by this type of development, including some government initiatives to mitigate these harmful consequences. In Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentina there is a lot of discussion over this subject while in Venezuela there is none.

We have been warning about this situation since a recent decision by the government of Venezuela to give 12% of its national territory in concessions to multinational companies to exploit minerals like gold, coltan, and iron. Ever since this decision, a new debate over the potential fallout for both the environment and the indigenous communities, which conform a population of 800,000 people, has initiated within the country.

In this project, the mining arc of the Orinoco, the exploitation will occur on the southern banks of the Orinoco river – the most important source of water in Venezuela.

This is why we wanted to do a remembrance of Eduardo Galeano’s very popular and widely known book “The open veins of Latin America.” We want to say that in Venezuela these veins continue to be open because the model of development that is behind this mining and extractive path, has not only remained, but unfortunately is deepening.

We wanted to make this first take from an educational perspective, beginning this discussion from scratch, hence the allusions and metaphors we have prepared for this short.

What is the difference between the Orinoco mining arc in Venezuela with other mining and oil exploitation projects in the region? In Ecuador we see the case of the Yasuni national park where concessions to oil transnationals are being opened in one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet. Is there a difference between these projects?

Yes. In Venezuela the model of resource exploitation, be that oil, gas, or any mineral, is based on what has been called here “mixed enterprises.” This means that the Venezuelan state has an active role in attracting capital from transnational companies to create new enterprises in which these companies are going to participate. However, the Venezuelan state retains the majority of the shares. In other words, 51 percent or more of the shares from these newly created companies for oil, gas, and mineral extraction. The business model in Venezuela has the state as the main promoter alongside the participation of international companies.  

This is why in our case, the Venezuelan state will become the primary culprit of the effects that this model of development will have on our territory.

We are demanding the compliance of two prerequisites that are in our constitution: first is the realization of an environmental impact study in order to thoroughly understand what the consequences of this mining exploitation on 12 percent of Venezuelan territory will be. Second, is the realization of free, informed, and prior consultations to the indigenous communities that live across this area, whose way of life will be severely affected from this outcome.   

There is participation on the part of multinational companies, but the one generating the business model, the conditions for exploitation, the permits, and is the primary actor, is the Venezuelan state. This is why human rights organizations are deeming the Venezuelan government responsible over the potential human and environmental rights violations that occur in these territories.


In the documentary, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro talks about ‘ecosocialism.’ Does this policy of ‘ecosocialism’ have any coherence? Or is it a mere contradiction within its own movement?

Unfortunately, there is a contradiction in the terms. We think that president Maduro is promoting this development model with pretty words that do not correspond with the facts.

Besides ‘ecosocialism’, we have something called the “Department of Ecological Mining” created as a way of implying that we are putting forward a model of mining exploitation different to those done in other countries. However, to this day, we have not been told what that difference is going to be.

Foreign investors with bad trajectories as pollutants of the environment in other countries are being brought in. We don’t believe an alternative model exists to the one that we already know in Latin America.

This is an attempt to downplay the environmental consequences this project will have on the indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, this is what we call in Venezuela an “empty significant,” meaning pretty words that ultimately have no substance. We will continue to insist that the prerequisites present in our constitution are enforced.  

A few months ago, the National Assembly of Venezuela, now controlled by an opposition majority, approved a declaration rejecting the executive’s mining arc decree . Could this move have any impact? Does it have any judicial validity if one of the main bodies of government rejects this decree?

What’s interesting is that different sectors and actors that conform Venezuelan civil society are beginning to be incorporated to the rejection of the mining arc decree and many are publicly voicing their concerns over the mining arc. Among them is the National Assembly of Venezuela.

It’s important to remember that since May 13th, Venezuela is going through something called a “state of exception and economic emergency,” of which one of its consequences has resulted in the National Assembly’s comptroller faculty being stripped by the executive branch. This means the government can push these type of deals and projects without institutional checks and balances from other public powers.

Despite this, we find it an important step that the Venezuelan National Assembly has promoted this pronouncement because they form part of the universe of social organizations in Venezuela that are standing in rejection to the Orinoco mining arc.

It is not only organizations linked to the indigenous peoples, but also environmental organizations, universities, and even sectors and members of different political parties that are elevating their concerns about a project that is being promoted in an improvised manner and without abiding by the legal prerequisites present in our constitution.

We find it to be very positive that the National Assembly is able to talk to other public powers in other parts of Latin America that this is an irregular situation. This could focus the attention of international human rights, environmental and indigenous organizations on the situation happening on the mining arc in Venezuela.

Do you believe there to be an existing credible and sustainable development alternative able to strike a balance between industrialization and protecting the environment and aboriginal tribes?

Unfortunately in Venezuela, we do not have an alternative project to deepening the extractivist oil, gas and mining economy.

However, the debate generated by the Orinoco mining arc could begin to awake the necessity that we have as a country to think of a post-oil Venezuela.

It is interesting that we can now see a depolarization of various sectors of national life preoccupied with the environmental situation and the indigenous peoples in our country, and have begun to discuss and propose a post-oil Venezuela.

There are no real policies protecting indigenous communities in our country. Nonetheless, there are laws that have been approved in the past years included in an entire chapter of our constitution, such as the 8th chapter of our constitution, on top of other similarly approved laws that gives us a legal framework favorable to this protection.

This legal framework is not being respected, and it is important that human rights organizations and allies accompany a process of empowering indigenous communities and organizations.

In recent years, traditional organizations have been weakened through a policy of intervention by the Venezuelan government. It is them, the traditional organizations, the ones that need to step up and lead this battle, not only in fighting the mining arc, but rather the negative externalities brought by this model of extractivist development.

Some indigenous organizations from the states of Amazonas and Zulia are starting to wake up, articulate and organize themselves to give an answer to this situation. We will be there accompanying them alongside all other human rights and social groups.


What can people who live urban centers far away from the mining arc – and in some cases far from Venezuela – do to help defend aboriginal tribes that will be affected by this project?

We are sensitizing the inhabitants of cities like Caracas and the main urban centers in Venezuela because this type of projects will ultimately affect those who live in the main cities.

For instance, currently we have a situation where basic services are being interrupted, such as that of access to clean water, because the main sources of water in Venezuela don’t have sufficient capacity to supply water to all urban centers. This has been one cause of the deforestation of the forests and jungles in Venezuela, and these types of projects will hamper the access to water supply services.

We also have a severe crisis of access to electric energy in Venezuela. We do not have a project or plan for mitigating the effects of climate change in our country. This has brought as a consequence that we unfortunately depend on rainfall or periods of rain to generate sufficient electricity in Venezuela.

This deepening of the basic services crisis will exacerbate if projects like the Orinoco mining arc do not address the ramifications that the country’s main urban centers and its inhabitants will have. There is a link between the quality of life inside the main cities in Venezuela and the deepening of these type of projects in our country.


Rafael Uzcátegui is the chief coordinator for the human rights organization Provea. You can follow them on social media and twitter @_Provea and @fanzinero.