Beneath the rainforest to the south of Venezuela’s mighty Orinoco River lie vast reserves of gold, coltan and other minerals. While some say these resources should fund the country’s development, others say they should stay put and that Venezuela should diversify its economy away from resource extraction. But neither is happening. Instead, lawlessness and extreme violence reign.
A social and environmental crisis is unfolding, say researchers who publicly shared their findings for the first time on 26 July in Trinidad, at the Latin America and Caribbean Congress for Conservation Biology. Dutch criminologist and independent researcher Bram Ebus called it the “biggest mining conflict in the making in Latin America”.
The situation stems from a decree signed by President Maduro in 2016 to open up a vast area to mining. Dubbed the Orinoco Mining Arc, the zone encompasses 112,000 square kilometres, or 12% of the country. The region is home to 198 indigenous communities and has several protected areas that are rich in wildlife including jaguars, giant anteaters and 850 bird species. All are now under threat.
The decree invites multinational companies to form joint ventures with state-owned mining companies. While few multinationals have yet shown interest, plenty of other actors have. Ebus says the military, national guard and police, as well as Venezuelan organised criminal syndicates and ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents from across the border in Colombia, all have mining interests in the area. They are adopting the methods of small-scale illegal miners already present in the region and are implementing them on a grand scale.
“The mining arc decree is a legal jacket put on illegal mining,” says Ebus. He explains that criminal gangs, often backed by state forces, fight each other for access to mining areas. There are frequent massacres – in July the burned corpses of 20 murdered miners were found in a mass grave. Armed groups now control thousands of workers, some of whom are effectively slaves, says Ebus — tattooed with numbers and forcibly moved around and made to work.
The situation comes amid an economic crisis in Venezuela, whose inflation rate the IMF expects to reach one million percent by the end of the year. Tens of thousands of urban Venezuelans — even doctors and lawyers — have rushed south of the Orinoco, desperate to earn a living. Many local indigenous people have also succumbed to gold fever having initially resisted. Women who recently farmed crops now sell their bodies in brothels.
Although the Mining Arc impinges on indigenous territories, these people were not consulted about the plans, nor given an opportunity to give their free, prior informed consent as required under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, to which Venezuela is a signatory.
“Of course, most miners know they are doing something very damaging,” says Ebus. “But they are living on a day-to-day basis and need money for food and medicines.” This makes them ripe for exploitation. The work itself is dangerous. Miners spend long hours in deep pits or tunnels that are at risk of collapse. Mercury, despite being banned in Venezuela, is widely used to extract gold. Workers exposed to the chemical are suffering serious health effects, including Minamata disease.
The mercury also enters waterways and accumulates in the food chain. As a result, more than 90% of indigenous Yek’wana and Sanema women have mercury levels in their bodies beyond the World Health Organisation’s safe limits, says Francoise Cabada-Blanco of Universidad Simón Bolívar. Children are being born with neurological disorders and missing limbs.
A deadly outbreak of measles among the Yanomami people who live near the border with Brazil has been linked to the arrival of illegal miners. And there has also been a huge upsurge in malaria cases, linked to the artificial water bodies that mining creates, and in which mosquitoes breed. In 1960s, Venezuela had virtually eradicated the disease, but in 2016 there were more than 240,000 reported cases. By 2017, that number had risen by 69%, with many cases still unreported.
Mining is also polluting rivers that are home to more than a thousand fish species and causing widespread deforestation. But the Mining Arc decree was passed without an environmental impact assessment. “The only thing sustainable about mining in Venezuela is its environmental impact, because it is going to last a long time,” says Ebus.
Juan Carlos Amilibia, a scientist working with the Venezuelan NGO Provita, presented data showing that between 2000 and 2015 the area deforested doubled every five years. Much of the forest loss coincides with new open-pit mines which resemble a lunar landscape, or bombsite. “Since 2010, illegal mining has grown without control within the Venezuelan Amazon, resulting in larger impacts and further forest loss,” says Amilibia. “The Orinoco Mining Arc creates great uncertainty in the region and likely even greater deforestation rates.”
Critics says the Orinoco Mining Arc decree violates Venezuela’s constitution, as well as national and international regulations on the environment. “In Venezuela, there is no efficient institution for environmental control,” says José Rafael Lozada of the University of the Andes, in Mérida, Venezuela. “That is why the Mining Arc must be rejected.” Chances of that happening are slim. The Venezuelan government claims the Mining Arc has the world’s second largest gold reserves (worth US$200 billion) and the largest reserves of coltan (another US$100 billion), as well as diamonds and other resources.
“This is a government you can’t work with on environmental issues,” says Ebus. He says the state mining company Minerven is buying gold from illegal miners, rather than mining itself. But according to Ebus, in 2017 less than 10% of the gold reached the central bank. The rest, he says, is sold on the black market or smuggled across the border to Colombia or over the sea to Dutch Caribbean islands where it is easy to launder.
Venezuela’s Ministry for the Development of Ecological Mining, set up by President Maduro to oversee the Mining Arc, did not respond to questions about the claims made by the researchers. Contrary to the Government’s stated intentions, gold is not being used for social development, says Ebus. “It’s stolen, absolutely stolen. The Government is not interested in cash for the good of the country. It is a kleptocracy. They are going to be thieving what’s left until they’re not in power anymore.”
In August 2018, the Latin America and Caribbean Section of the Society for Conservation Biology issued its first ever formal statement, urging action to reduce the threats the Orinoco Mining Arc poses.
Photo credits: Bram Ebus / Creative Commons