This piece is part of our Spring 2022 issue of the NACLA Report.
Historically, environmental movements in Venezuela have been complex. The dependence on oil extraction has sidelined environmental protection and created powerful alliances favoring extractivism. Despite this dependence, the country has long had grassroots movements that have struggled to preserve the natural resources and ecosystems that sustain them. And in this respect, the struggles of Indigenous peoples for autonomy and control over their ancestral territories have been fundamental.
To address these issues, I spoke with Claudía Rodríguez Gilly, a sociologist with a degree from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, as well as a researcher, environmental activist, and Indigenous rights defender. Her career spans years of socioenvironmental struggles, including before Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1999, when the movement was marked by the defense of the Imataca Forest Reserve against national and transnational mining interests and the fight against a power line project that sought to export energy from the Guri dam to Brazil across the Guiana Shield.
Over the past two decades of the Bolivarian Revolution, these struggles have moved from being supported rhetorically but largely sidelined by the government, to being outright avoided and repressed. We need look no further than the murder of Yukpa leader and rights defender Sabino Romero in March 2013, the suspension of lawmakers elected to the National Assembly in the state of Amazonas in 2015, and the government’s promotion in recent years of large-scale illegal mining in the Orinoco mining arc.
Against this backdrop, Rodríguez Gilly’s reflections focus on the most important changes in the socioenvironmental struggle in light of what she calls the expansion of extractivism, which now threatens the country’s urban areas with mass tree removal and the dismantling of environmental protection measures. Our conversation, conducted over Zoom, has been edited for length and clarity.
Antulio Rosales: Let’s talk about the roots of the Bolivarian process and how it relates to environmental struggle. What is your assessment of that process with respect to the struggle in the past 20 years?
Claudia Rodríguez Gilly: My assessment is rooted in my experiences with compañeros in the struggle against the Imataca project and the [Guri dam] power line project. Both were processes that predated the phenomenon of Hugo Chávez. That was my school, where I became an activist.
The Chávez phenomenon was like a fire extinguisher. The Indigenous and environmental social movement, with all its diverse characteristics, had a lot of autonomy and was growing. And from the start, the process that Chávez led appropriated this rhetoric, and that meant that many of those actors began betting on that possibility. The constituent process [to rewrite the constitution] came along and many movements went on standby to see what was going to happen. I think that was the moment when, for the first time, there was agreement between power structures and grassroots demands.
At the same time, different actors clearly adjusted to certain power structures, claiming that they could make transformations and deliver on demands from within. They ended up becoming loyal gatekeepers for the structure while distancing themselves from the demands.
AR: If we can speak of some initial achievements, what would they be?
CRG: During the constituent process, for example, there was an effort to have Indigenous representatives from the communities who spoke their communities’ languages. There was some attempt toward representation and legitimate Indigenous leadership. And certainly, these people fit the profile. But once they were elected as lawmakers, they returned to their communities and told their brothers and sisters, “We cannot legislate on Indigenous issues, because now we are lawmakers and we answer to the nation, and we have to see issues as national.” And what’s strategic for the country is relations with our neighbors, because we started to see priority given to interests of foreign capital, capitalism, and the global economy. When the economic project or vision for the country, 21st century socialism, started to take shape, it was in accordance with the world capitalist system and based on satisfying international demand in a way that kept Venezuela an enclave. And the constitution left this intact.
Of course, as a result of many struggles, [the constitution] was very progressive in recognizing, for instance, the rights of Indigenous people and in using very trailblazing language around autonomy, social rights, and human rights. But none of this was going to be possible in a context of economic dependence. Meanwhile, Indigenous Pemón leaders and environmental leaders did not raise alarm about what was happening because they felt that there was agreement in the [government’s] discourse. What was implemented was a reformist economist vision that aimed to capitalize more on rents to serve the population’s well-being. Certainly, this process built some housing, created some [social] missions, and for a while responded to the basic needs of disadvantaged sectors. The idea was that the rents would be redistributed in the most just way possible. However, that did not happen. It was a failed attempt.
AR: Jumping off from that failed attempt, what path did the Bolivarian project take in terms of the environmental and Indigenous struggle?
CRG: It imposed an extractive model, whose façade is increasingly cracking. What are the most significant turning points in this situation? Clearly, the Orinoco mining arc. Formally, the “legal” mining arc is an area of extensive geographic coverage, but mining activity surpasses these limits—we’re talking about a territory that includes multiple states. So it’s about allowing large-scale illegal mining. Mining activity has always existed, including illegally. With the mining arc, the logic is, well, this is happening and we can’t stop it, so we’re going to take advantage of it. I remember a debate in the Ministry of Environment where [Chávez’s environmental minister] Ana Elisa Osorio presented Imataca as an opportunity to regulate illegal mining activity by legalizing it. That’s like saying in an urban setting, “We have assaults, offenses, robberies; to solve the problem, we’re going to make it all legal and tap into it,” instead of turning the situation around. It was a way of accommodating a situation that produced the extractive dynamic.
So we experienced a process of degradation, disintegration, and exploitation and extraction of both human labor and nature. Although extractivism and the exploitation of nature has always existed under capitalism, this hit the accelerator and rolled out a tractor to expand that process and intensify its reach as quickly as possible.
It’s about normalization. There was never really a commitment to rupturing the relations of power, exploitation, and oppression. The mining arc emerged as a concrete idea right at the time of the oil boom, when the price per barrel was at its peak. And there was a lot of revenue. That’s when mining exploitation started to be thought of as a way to “diversify” revenues. So it wasn’t really a proposal for an alternative or independent production model, but rather it was the same as oil activity, just extending it to other forms of extraction to satisfy the demands of the global capitalist market.
AR: But the idea became reality under the Maduro government. What are the most important differences between the two governments?
CRG: Although the idea emerged during the oil bonanza as a strategy to diversify natural resources for extraction, it did not yet materialize and was even diverted. The design had been mapped out and the idea was there since the Chávez government, but it was finally implemented under the Maduro government, when oil was in decline and PDVSA had been dismantled due to lack of maintenance. So mining offered a new cash flow. There was a maelstrom to try to quickly take advantage of it. The transnational companies given access didn’t even end up setting up shop in the territory because in the end illegality and armed groups like the so-called mining pranatos took over. The government didn’t have power or authority, nor did it have an interest in doing things differently. Rather, it followed the logic of legalizing the illegal and subordinated itself to the need for profit in the global market.
But it didn’t even manage to achieve that legitimacy. Because the government exchange system imposed a gap between the real price of gold and the dollar amount obtained through sale to the state, so gold extraction could not be channeled and converted into money. Nobody went to exchange gold for national currency. And under these conditions, that kind of project isn’t appealing even to transnational companies. In the end, the actors taking advantage of that gold for international commerce are the military, government authorities, the ELN, the FARC, and other rebel groups. In addition, in an investigation we did on the Orinoco mining arc, we found that the gold goes toward luxury goods. It’s not for technology, health, or the good of humanity. No. The majority of the gold that is extracted from nature at the cost of women, human beings, Indigenous peoples, and cultural diversity is destined for jewelry.
The acceleration and expansion of the extractive model means it is now reaching cities. Both the government and private sectors have taken advantage of El Ávila [a national park, officially called Waraira Repano, in the Caracas area]. The extractive model, subservient to the interests of big capital, is here at the tree in front of my house. So the environment is affecting the citizens in the most populated areas close to home, and it’s no longer seen as an abstract issue. When they start to cut down trees to put in a bodegón (convenience store), or grant permission to construct housing or a new cable car in protected areas, or remodel the Humboldt Hotel for tourism that benefits economic elites, you realize that something is beginning to not make sense.
The fact that the people are mobilizing, protesting, and organizing in Caracas around the issue of trees being cut down or El Ávila being affected is symbolic. It is significant and symptomatic of there being more awareness around environmental issues and the extractive model.
It’s not just people in the city—it’s something more essential. There have been numerous protests in recent years for water and electricity, above all in popular and rural areas. When we were without power for several days in March 2019, feeling vulnerable, not knowing who was going to bring [the power] back, we clearly saw how we depend on the system for water and electricity. We saw the lack of investment and maintenance, as well as the failure to take care of our spring water.
In the environmental struggles that I come from, we were an environmental and pro-Indigenous vanguard that went throughout the regions, that mobilized, that stood in solidarity with the Indigenous or campesino struggles. But now the environmental struggles are becoming more pragmatic, visible, and close to home. Environmental struggles are about water, electricity, your way of life. It’s becoming less and less complicated to see what the power line or the Amazon or the mining exploitation in Orinoco has to do with you. Now the environmental struggle is increasingly close to home and it’s no longer something foreign.
AR: In this context of accelerated extractivism, do you see hope in the emergence of these diverse struggles?
CRG: Initially, we saw a very strong process of polarization where you could not show that you were disloyal to the Bolivarian process. So as an activist you had to turn a blind eye because you were betting on what was going to come later on. But in the end that didn’t happen. We could say that was an achievement, though it sounds a bit cruel. Getting out of that Manichaean political polarization laid bare the real polarization between the oppressors and the oppressed. And it’s easier, for example, to join forces to call out capitalism, patriarchy, the national government, the local governments, and the regional governments. You can unite struggles. Realigning forces is good. The voices from below—we exist. This government isn’t even progressive. So this shows that we have advanced in that sense, because the Chávez phenomenon made it so that many activists would not break with him, but now it is more clear that the promise of extractive exploitation left us empty handed. But the mask is slipping, and we can return to joining forces, uniting struggles.
When that spark comes, we need to join with others, which opens the debate about how we produce and reproduce the struggle. And in this sense, I would say that the women’s struggle, the struggle for legal abortion, is very symbolic and significant, because we are talking about how we reproduce life. Are we going to do it recklessly, no matter the cost? In an economy that does not value the wages sought by the working class? Or are we going to be mothers when and how we decide, in certain conditions? Struggles could unite, because the struggle for better wages, which is very concrete, also has to do with the struggle to legalize abortion. Because we are saying how we are and aren’t going to have children, how I am going to relate to others and with my environment. Struggles are linked.
There are concrete demands we must make on behalf of the people, like wages equal to the cost of basic goods, an emergency plan to respond to the needs of the working class and popular and rural sectors, measures to combat violence against women, and measures to protect informal workers and health and education workers who are on the frontlines of the pandemic or otherwise pay the greatest costs in the pandemic and an economic crisis fomented by the government and imperialist sanctions. We also need an emergency plan with resources from taxing big and transnational companies, confiscation of assets obtained through corruption, complete oil sovereignty, abolishment of extractive agreements, nonpayment of external debt, and no more purchases of military and police equipment.
We must unite struggles in favor of the people and rebuild capacity to center the debate on a production model where the point is no longer to fatten up big capital.
Antulio Rosales is assistant professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. His research focuses on the political economy of natural resources.
Claudia Rodríguez Gilly is a sociologist, researcher, environmental activist, and Indigenous rights defender. She is a member of the Partido Socialismo y Libertad.
Translated from Spanish by NACLA.