Conservation news

Militarization and mining a dangerous mix in Venezuelan Amazon

The Venezuelan military stops motorists passing in front of Minerven, a state company just outside of the town of El Callao. These military checkpoints are a regular part of Venezuelan life today. Photo by Bram Ebus

EL CALLAO, BOLIVAR, Venezuela – In conflict-ridden Venezuela, slowing your car to a stop, rolling down your window, and opening your trunk to allow armed National Guardsmen to inspect your vehicle has become a standard routine for just about everybody.

Especially in rural Bolívar, the nation’s richest state in minerals, and a region at the heart of what’s known as Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc.

There, drivers can expect to encounter improvised roadblocks roughly every half hour. Rural roads are also patrolled by the military and intelligence services, looking for gold smugglers or maybe for an opportunity to extort money or supplies from those making deliveries of food and fuel to the mines.

“This government and President Maduro send everybody here: the military, SEBIN [police intelligence], the [state] police and the National Guard. Since about a year ago they have taken control and malandros [gangs] are farther away now,” says Manuel Álvarez (not his real name), a miner.

“So do not freak out!” he stresses. “You will see a lot of arms here!”

Álvarez has his own mine in Bolívar state where he employs 30 to 40 people. He even mined the gold for his own false tooth, which he happily displays. Álvarez explains that the town of El Callao in Bolívar is surrounded by illegal gold mines, along with legal ones run by small public companies.

This mingling of mining and all things military is typical of Venezuela today, a nation with a collapsing petro-economy that is enduring some of the worst military crackdowns, unrest and civil disturbance in its history — all of which is likely bad for the environment and its protection.

Manuel Álvarez (not his real name) shows off his golden tooth. He mined the gold himself. Photo by Bram Ebus

Maduro wagers on mining and his military

Venezuela is making a dangerous bet. The country, ravaged by corruption, is going all-in on large-scale mining to save the day. With the economy still in free fall, and a 2,300 percent inflation rate expected this year, whole families are fleeing their communities in the urban north and trekking into the remote mining regions to the south in search of financial salvation, or at least a living wage.

The lucky ones will reap the benefits of mining, what some critics call the “legalized larceny” of natural resource extraction, though the risks are extremely high.

The Mining Decree announced by President Nicolàs Maduro in 2016 opened up the Orinoco Mining Arc (Arco Minero) for exploration and exploitation; it is a rugged, largely forested area covering 112,000 square kilometers (43,240 square miles), much of it part of the Amazon.

The region, located south of the Orinoco River, is reportedly rich with the world’s most wanted ores, but is also plagued by conflict, fueled by the military, local armed gangs and Colombian guerrilla groups — all seeking control of an estimated, but uncertified, $100 billion in hidden minerals.

A small-scale miner awaits as the author is winched up after descending 40 meters (130 feet) into a Venezuelan mining shaft. Photo by Bram Ebus

So far, newly created national and international companies, mostly without much mining experience, have been lining up to get a piece of the pie — gold, coltan, copper, diamonds and much more — but they are not alone in the region: the military has also staked a claim.

When Maduro launched the Arco Minero last year, he also created an “Economic Military Zone” to protect it, entitling his armed forces to participate in all mining activities, while also increasing their operational capabilities inside the mining region.

Private corporations that want to mine in Venezuela are required by law to form joint ventures with state-owned-companies, many only just recently created. One of the new companies is the so-called Anonymous Military Company of Mining, dubbed CAMIMPEG.

This trend is nothing new for Venezuela. Business and the army are often closely linked, with active or pensioned high-ranking military personnel serving on about 30 percent of known public company boards. It was the late socialist President Hugo Chávez who first lavished significant authority on the national army, so that today it is able to operate with a high level of impunity throughout the country.

But that doesn’t mean that locals like or trust the military. In El Callao, for example, a town dominated by mining, soldiers maintain a strong visual presence, but many keep their faces hidden behind hoods and bandanas.

“They cover their faces if they [come] from the region themselves, to not get recognized. Soldiers have been killed before,” explains an owner of a local gold trading shop.

Shops that buy and sell gold dominate the town of El Callao, a miners’ enclave. Small-scale miners rarely receive the full value of the gold they mine. Photo by Bram Ebus
Each morning, small-scale miners gather at the central square of El Callao. Depending on weather conditions and demand in the mines, they are offered day jobs. If they don’t find work, they often simply spend their days searching the local rivers with their washing boards. Photo by Bram Ebus

Inside the Mining Arc

Maduro’s declaration of the Economic Military Zone is meant “to implicate the military in mining,” says Alexander Luzardo, who has a doctorate in environmental rights, and who wrote the environmental protection legislation included in Venezuela’s current constitution.

Luzardo and other environmentalists fear that unrestricted mining and the presence of the military in the Arco Minero will endanger rivers and forests, as well as the Amazon region’s extraordinary biodiversity.

The Arco Minero encompasses Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles). Its forests and flat-topped plateaus are home to jaguars (Panthera onca), giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) and giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla).

The region slated for mining development also includes the Imataca Forest Reserve (30,000 square kilometers); the La Paragua and El Caura reserves (50,000 square kilometers; 19,000 square miles); the Cerro Guanay Natural Monument; and the Caroní River watershed (96,000 square kilometers; 37,000 square miles).

The owner of a local gold pawn shop in Tumeremo, Bolivar state, shows a stack of Venezuelan money, worth only a few dollars due to the nation’s rapidly escalating inflation. Photo by Bram Ebus

Inside the Mining Arc, the National Guard now controls most of the roads, where it is reported to earn money through extortion and smuggling, while the army controls many mining operations. Generals often dominate resource-rich areas; according to locals, these commanders frequently operate above the law — bad news for the region’s biodiversity, environment and indigenous and traditional communities.

Luzardo believes that President Maduro’s Arco Minero decree not only violates the country’s constitution, but also other national legislation and international regulations designed to protect the environment and indigenous peoples.

“You cannot legalize an environmental crime,” he says, explaining that the army should protect the environment and not partake in its destruction.

A migrant miner in El Callao shows us “la veta,” an underground vein rich in minerals. Photo by Bram Ebus

Small-scale miners

Making things more complicated, mining companies and the military are competing with, as well as exploiting, the artisanal mining sector. Venezuela has an estimated 250,000 small-scale miners. Some operate their own small mines (both legal and illegal), while many others work in gang-controlled mines, especially inside the Arco Minero, or are part of mines controlled by the military.

Life is typically tough for these small-scale miners. Many became prospectors after losing their jobs as a result of the catastrophic Venezuelan economic crisis born out of government mismanagement, corruption and the collapse of the country’s petro-economy in 2014.

Now they spend their days deep in mining pits and tunnels, or up to their necks in rivers where they mine for gold and other minerals. The operations they work for are often illegal, which means that the small-scale miners are criminalized, while also being repressed and poorly treated. They depend for their livelihoods on local power structures, which are very fluid, typically changing every few months.

Often deprived of a fair price for the minerals they mine, or underpaid, these men frequently fear for their lives and must cope daily with dangerous conditions, risking mine collapses and handling toxic mercury used in gold ore processing. Most small-scale miners simply want to bring home the bacon to support their families, so it’s no surprise that environmental regulations rate far down their list of priorities.

A Tumeremo gold pawn shop owner sits behind his desk while enjoying the luxury of a cooling desk fan. He says that he is happy to buy and sell gold, and that it is far too dangerous to work in or around the mines. Photo by Bram Ebus
A gold trader in Tumeremo displays 68.9 grams of gold he just certified. The Orinoco Mining Arc is claimed to hold $100 billion in as yet uncertified and hidden minerals. Photo by Bram Ebus

“A façade to continue the fraud”

Manuel Álvarez, the miner, says most mines within the Arco Minero continue to be protected by armed gunmen. At first, the region’s natural resources were heavily contested between competing gangs, he recalls, but when the government declared the Economic Military Zone, some order was restored.

“The army really has treated the people well,” he says. “They’ve cleaned up the zone and people can work quietly now.”

For Álvarez, things might indeed be better, but not all miners in Bolívar have such a good relationship with the army. During a single week in September 2017, 30 miners were killed in clashes with state troops near the municipality of Tumeremo. In March of last year, 28 miners were massacred, also near Tumeremo, in an attack linked to government forces. Locals fear that these assaults could be a preamble to greater violence in the Arco Minero.

A makeshift installation made to separate gold from waste rock and sediments. Mercury use is inherent to this technique, and a toxic danger to miners. Photo by Bram Ebus

These attacks by Venezuelan military forces are not, according to Bolívar state deputy Américo de Grazia , conducted primarily to destroy organized criminal networks, but rather to eliminate gangs that are not doing business with the army and National Guard.

“The Arco Minero is a facade to continue with the fraud,” he says. “It’s an attempt to deepen the theft of minerals. Not only gold, but also diamonds, coltan and any product.”

According to de Grazia, most Venezuelan mining is accomplished by illegal armed groups, which control large numbers of small-scale miners. The deputy also says that the “legal” gold that the state companies claim to produce is not actually mined by them, but rather by illegal mines and miners. “There is an established culture for the robbery of minerals. The [government now] intends to capitalize on [this] through CAMIMPEG,” the military’s mining company.

As a result, confrontations between state forces and rival gangs have grown more frequent. The violence flares up particularly when there is a change in military leadership or when a criminal group loses its grip on its mines.

Small-scale miners in Bolívar state transport mineral ore to one of the nearby processing mills. They are rarely well rewarded for their grueling work yet suffer major risks to health and their lives. Photo by Bram Ebus

The military “wants to have their own operators, or pranes, so that they have better profits,” says de Grazia, adding that the officers in charge of mining areas are often rotated. “The pran is an agent of retention; when he doesn’t obey the general of the moment, he cannot operate. That’s why every military [leader] who arrives wants to get rich overnight, which makes him [potentially] crueler and more violent. This causes his norms to be more inhumane, because he knows that this is the way to enrich himself.”

Cliver Alcalá Cordones, a Major General who retired in 2013 and a Chávez loyalist who was in charge of the mining regions, affirms that the army is heavily involved in illegal mining. The military perpetrated massacres are, according to Alcalá Cordones, the result of “instructions of superior commanders to guarantee companies to not suffer from distubances, or to not pay a ‘vaccine’ [extortion money] or [just] because of business.”

Some mines are directly operated by the army, with a share of the output going to Venezuela’s central bank. “They give something to the state for legitimacy,” adds de Grazia. He describes the gold going to the government as a “tip.”

Today, it’s estimated that about 91 percent of Venezuela’s gold is produced illegally, but the criminal activities attached to it don’t end with the mining. Various persons involved in both legal and illegal Venezuelan mining operations confirm that most gold produced in the country is smuggled out through Colombia and the Caribbean islands, an operation often allegedly carried out by the Venezuelan army.

A makeshift installation made to separate gold from waste rock and sediments. Mercury use is inherent to this technique, and a toxic danger to miners. Photo by Bram Ebus
An amalgam formed with toxic mercury and gold. The amalgam is heated with a gas burner so the mercury vaporizes; in this way the gold is separated from waste. The process, often carried out without proper protection by small-scale miners, can lead easily to mercury poisoning, ultimately deadly. Photo by Bram Ebus

Under such corrupt conditions, it is hard to see how the Orinoco Mining Arc could end up being Venezuela’s economic salvation. It is far easier to imagine that a formula combining militarization and mining could end in the ruin of the nation’s portion of the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, while putting small-scale miners and indigenous and traditional communities at terrible risk.

The Venezuelan government and CAMIMPEG, the Military mining company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

This Mongabay story was produced in cooperation with a joint reporting project between InfoAmazonia and Correo del Caroni, made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. A multimedia platform called “Digging Deeper into the Mining Arc,” featuring this and other stories, will be coming online shortly.

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Franco León, a young miner who suffers from malaria, inspects an underground near El Callao. Photo by Bram Ebus