Guns, gangs and gold: A brewing social and environmental crisis in Venezuela


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

Scientists reveal yet another reason fig trees are titans of biodiversity


Biologist David Mackay got a surprise when he began studying the birds visiting fig trees in his native Australia: While he expected to see plenty of species coming to eat the figs, he didn’t expect the insect eaters to outnumber them two-to-one.

Mackay already knew that figs feed more bird species than any other fruit. His research, published in June, would show that fig trees are disproportionately important for insect-eaters too. It adds to growing evidence that fig trees are titans of biodiversity with important roles to play in conservation.

What makes fig trees so crucial is their ancient relationship with tiny wasps. The trees depend on the wasps to pollinate their flowers, while the wasps can only breed and lay eggs inside their partner’s figs. Thanks to this partnership, figs are available year-round and have been called ‘keystone’ resources for fruit eaters. Mackay’s study is the first to show that fig-wasps emerging from figs before they ripen are also valuable year-round resources for a diverse variety of insect-eating birds.

Altogether, Mackay recorded 55 bird species visiting Ficus rubiginosa fig trees to feed on insects. They included ten species — such as the superb fairy-wren and the shining bronze-cuckoo —whose recent declines in numbers have concerned conservationists. Mackay and his colleagues say fig trees are “very likely” to be similarly important to insect-eating birds throughout tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions globally.

To support this view, Mackay points out that in just his study and two others in localised areas of India and Costa Rica, researchers have already identified more than a hundred insect-eating birds visiting fig trees. “The presence of avian insectivores in figs in these three continents strongly suggests their occurrence in figs is ubiquitous,” he says.

“I can hazard a wild guess that there are at least several hundred species of insectivorous birds that forage in fig trees worldwide,” Mackay told me. “This has important implications for the conservation of insectivores, many of which have suffered and continue to suffer declines in response to habitat loss and fragmentation.”

As Mackay points out, the number of fig-wasps emerging from figs on a single Ficus rubiginosa tree in just a few weeks could approach ten million. He adds that insect-eating bats would also relish fig-wasps, many of which fly at night. His study adds to a growing body of evidence that fig trees are centrepieces of vast food webs that include tens of thousands of species.

“I suspect fig trees could play an important role in conservation of declining insectivores as well as contributing to the conservation of other species in the wider communities they inhabit, including frugivores and the other plants that depend on them for seed dispersal,” Mackay said.

Increasingly, researchers and conservationists are turning to fig trees to boost rainforest regeneration by attracting seed-dispersers. Mackay said that using fig trees could also slow or even reverse declines of insect-eating birds: “If we don’t do these restoration projects with figs then we stand a chance of losing these birds altogether.”

This post was first published by on 6 July 2018 and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.

Read more about the ecological and cultural importance of fig trees in my book, published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.


Mackay, K.D., Gross, C.L. & Rossetto, M. 2018. Small populations of fig trees offer a keystone food resource and conservation benefits for declining insectivorous birds. Global Ecology and Conservation. Published online on 20 June 2018.

Photo credits

Left to right —  Superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus): Patrick_K59 / Wikimedia Commons; Eastern yellow robin (Eopsaltria australis): Graham Winterflood / Wikimedia Commons; Eastern spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris): DavidFrancis34 / Wikimedia Commons

Religion + fig trees = a boost for biodiversity


A sacred fig tree at a Hindu temple in Bengaluru (Bangalore) – credit Anoop Negi

When Tarsh Thekaekara and Shruti Agarwal spotted a lone fig tree in sea of tea bushes in southern India, they knew it had to be special. The researchers were documenting sacred groves in tea plantations to see if they helped conserve wild species. They learned that the fig tree was all that remained of a grove consecrated by local Paniya people who, for generations, had convinced tea estate managers not to fell the tree.

As in many other countries, fig trees have been sacred species in India for thousands of years. Wherever they grow, figs are also key resources for wildlife. Thanks to their curious biology, they feed more bird and mammal species globally than any other fruit and so sustain the seed dispersers of thousands of other plant species. In India, and in many other countries, fig trees could play key roles in protecting biodiversity and regenerating lost forests — but policies to protect these trees are rare.

Writing in the Indian Express, Thekaekara and Agarwal tell how they returned to the lone fig tree and set up camera traps to find out what wildlife visited. They soon recorded monkeys, many bird species, civets and a species of flying squirrel. “As the figs ripened and fell to the ground, the place really came alive,” they write. “Porcupine, wild boar, barking deer, sambhar deer, bear and, even, an elephant! A leopard also walked by, probably feeling like she was missing the party, and to try to dine on a couple of fig-eaters!”

Thekaekara and Agarwal highlight the important ecological role the tree plays in a landscape dominated by tea bushes. “The irony is that even with this knowledge, there is no official protection for the tree,” they write, “and it could legally be cut if the correct permissions are sought.” They note that, across their study area, many sacred groves had been reduced to just a solitary tree — most commonly a fig tree.

In India’s urban areas too, the loss of wildlife-friendly trees is elevating the importance of surviving fig trees. In a new study, Harini Nagendra and colleagues documented 5504 trees at religious sites— 62 temples, churches and Hindu, Christian and Muslim cemeteries — in Bengaluru (Bangalore).

Compared with trees in the city’s parks and streets, the trees at religious sites were far more likely to be native species, which offer more to local biodiversity. As in the tea plantation, fig trees (Ficus species) are disproportionately important in urban areas as they feed so many birds and mammals, and at least one fig species was present at 71% of the religious sites the researchers surveyed.

“Fig trees play a critical role in supporting Bangalore’s threatened biodiversity,” says Nagendra. “Bangalore’s tree cover is extremely fragmented, and Ficus trees act as keystone species, improving canopy-to-canopy connectivity and supporting a wide range of species, including birds, butterflies, bees, bats, macaques, and even the endangered slender loris.”

The researchers found 286 individuals of just one fig species — the banyan, Ficus benghalensis — at the religious sites, where it was the fourth most common tree species. But in the city’s streets and parks, all species of fig trees were relatively rare. None ranked in the top ten species the researchers counted there. Nagendra and colleagues says the large numbers of Ficus trees in sacred sites “demonstrate a strong potential” for urban conservation.

“Unfortunately, there is no policy to promote the planting or fig trees, or to conserve them,” Nagendra told me. “Many Ficus trees in Bangalore are heritage trees, decades and even centuries old. Yet many are now under threat, their branches pruned, the bases concreted, or are cut down for road expansion projects.”

In fields and cities in India and all across the tropics, fig trees play key roles in sustaining wildlife. The ecological importance of these trees results from their 80-million-year old relationship with their pollinator wasps, and it helps explain why fig trees have become embedded in religions in many countries.

Over millennia, diverse cultures have protected fig trees but few societies today value them in the same way. Yet, with the right policies in place, these trees could help us to address 21st century challenges — from conserving biodiversity to restoring forest cover.

Tarsh Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservation researcher with The Shola Trust. Shruti Agarwal worked with The Shola Trust before joining the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. Harini Nagendra is a professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Read more about the many ways fig trees have shaped our species and the world about us in my book, published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. Readers in India can buy the book here.


Related posts

The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees

Why one fig tree in the middle of nowhere has a 24-hour armed guard

Fresh evidence of the power of fig trees to sustain wildlife and restore lost forests

Photo credit

A fig tree (Ficus religiosa) alongside a Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman in Bengaluru (Bangalore) — Anoop Negi (reproduced with permission). See Anoop Negi’s website for more images.


Jaganmohan, M. et al. 2018. Biodiversity in sacred urban spaces of Bengaluru, India. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 32: 64-70. [Read online]

Thekaekara, T. & Agarwal, S. 2018. The Ficus in the Tea: The fight for the lonely atti maram (fig tree). The Indian Express. 22 April 2018. [Read online]


Confession: I ate shark fin soup

Photo by Albert Kok

Late in 1998 a man hauled a shark out of the sea. With a sharp knife he hacked off its fins and put them somewhere safe, then he tossed the mutilated fish back into the ocean. Its blood clouded the salty sea. Unable to swim, the shark sank to the sea bed where it died a slow death… all so I could eat a bowl of soup.

No… No… No. That won’t do. I never saw the shark die. I don’t know its final moments. I don’t know who caught it, and where or when or how. But, yes, I did eat the soup, and whenever I think of that meal I paint the above picture in my mind. It is possible that it is a perfect portrayal but I just don’t know for sure. Continue reading