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Venezuela’s Mining Arc boom sweeps up Indigenous people and cultures

  • In 2016, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared the opening of the Arco Minero, which sprawls in an east-to-west crescent across 112,000 square kilometers (43,243 square miles) mostly in Bolívar state, south of the Orinoco River and in the Venezuelan Amazon.
  • Indigenous communities within the Arco Minero were given no say in the development of mining in their region or near their territories, a clear violation of the International Labour Organization’s 169 Convention, an agreement to which Venezuela is a party.
  • Mining is not only spreading in Bolivar’s Mining Arc, where armed gangs and the military compete for gold, diamond and coltan claims, but also into Venezuela’s Amazonas state to the south. Indigenous men and women leave their ancestral communities and small farms to do backbreaking and dangerous work in the mines for little money.
  • Violence against, and conflicts with, indigenous communities can be expected to escalate as Venezuelan armed gangs and military organizations, and Colombian guerrilla groups continue to expand their presence in the region, and flex their muscles in the mining areas.
An illegal miner carries a traditional gold pan, called a “batea” in the Las Cristinas mine in Bolívar state. Photo by Jorge Benezra

This story is the second in a series of Mongabay articles about Venezuela’s Arco Minero, produced in partnership with InfoAmazonia which has launched an in-depth multimedia platform called Digging into the Mining Arc, exclusively highlighting Venezuela’s mining boom. The three Mongabay stories by Bram Ebus can be found here, here and here. A fourth story, by Mongabay Editor Glenn Scherer, summarizing the series, can be found here.

LAS CLARITAS, Venezuela – They gather in the hundreds, or maybe even thousands, in the early morning, their numbers perhaps tenfold the population of the town itself. Groups of miners, carrying pickaxes and gold pans, meet along the chaotic roads to catch rides by any mode of transport possible, headed to the illegal gold mines that lie outside the village.

Some of these artisanal miners, maneuvering around honking cars and children hawking contraband fuel, come in desperation from Venezuela’s urban centers. But among the dirt-poor miners in their ragged clothes and muddy boots, many indigenous faces also stand out.

The nation’s failed petro-economy, disastrous governmental policies and a nonexistent job market have brought them all to Las Claritas and its surrounding mines to eke out a hardscrabble living and to feed their hungry families.

This remote settlement has been transformed by the sudden rush to extract and process minerals. New arrivals find not a quiet rainforest locale, but a criminal underworld with numerous brothels, gang-controlled mines and an ongoing malaria epidemic.

Opportunities are few here, and risk to life and limb are many.

Men working a clandestine gold mine in a deforested area on the banks of the Cuyiní River, Bolívar state. Photo by Jorge Benezra

Mining a lure to the indigenous rural poor

Las Claritas lies in the middle of Bolívar state, and is part of a vast region targeted in 2016 by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for massive mining operations as part of the Arco Minero. That endeavor, at the moment, is largely controlled not by transnational mining companies joined in state-corporate ventures – as promoted and promised by Maduro – but rather by illegal armed groups called pranes.

The Arco Minero sprawls in an east-to-west crescent across 112,000 square kilometers (43,243 square miles) mostly in Bolívar state, south of the Orinoco River and in the Venezuelan Amazon.

Four sections of Bolívar are included in Maduro’s decreed mining zone, all of which overlap with legally protected environmental preserves and indigenous territories. Large-scale mining here could threaten Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Imataca Forest Reserve, La Paragua and El Caura reserves, Cerro Guanay Natural Monument and the Caroní River watershed.

Environmentalists are especially concerned. “It means the elimination of the Orinoco [River watershed] and its ecosystems,” says Alexander Luzardo who has a doctorate in environmental rights, and who wrote the environmental protection legislation included in Venezuela’s current constitution. The Orinoco is the world’s third largest river by volume, with its waters not only important to the region’s biodiversity, but to the many indigenous communities that base their lives around the river and its hundreds of tributaries.

There are 198 indigenous communities in Bolívar state. And their people, mostly small scale farmers, have been drawn to give up their traditional ways of life to enter the Mining Arc – largely prompted by Venezuela’s astonishing inflation rate (likely to exceed 2,700 percent for 2017), as well as by the rapidly escalating local cost of living which came along with the mining bonanza. Men, of course, work the gold, coltan and diamond claims, but indigenous women also toil in the mines and around them, preparing and selling food, cleaning accommodations and working as prostitutes.

“We should dedicate more time to things that are not related to mining, but you see that members of the community spend the whole year in the mines,” says Brian Clark. He is an indigenous leader in Jobochirima, a community in the proximity of Las Claritas. Jobochirima has seen a major drain of farmers away from croplands into illegal mines.

Importantly, indigenous communities within the Arco Minero have been given no say in the development of mining in their region. They’ve not been consulted or given the right to free, prior and informed consent for mining projects that impact their territories, as required by the International Labour Organization’s 169 Convention, an agreement to which Venezuela is a party.

“The biggest danger is that the [government will] appropriate the indigenous leadership,” Luzardo says. “This is like [what was] done in the [20th Century] African conquest with the local elites; like Mugabe, this is Mugabismo!” in Zimbabwe, according to Luzardo, the state “domesticated indigenous leaders” in order to clear the way for legal and illegal mining projects. Likewise in Venezuela, when indigenous leaders don’t work with the state, there is always the threat of coercion, as provided by a range of military forces which are omnipresent in the Mining Arc today.

“The presence of the army here is not for the people. It’s for their [the state’s and military’s] own benefit,” says Clark.

The military, he explains, is heavily involved in overseeing many mines, and it also does most of the work involved in smuggling Venezuelan gold abroad. This state of affairs can lead to some strange scenes in and around Las Claritas, where armed gangs coexist with the army (which patrols in its military vehicles), and the National Guard and intelligence services (which staff the region’s many roadblocks). Guns are everywhere, and violence always a risk.

Miners open up a new tunnel at an illegal mine in the proximity of Tumeremo, Bolívar state. Photo by Jorge Benezra
Miners take a break during a day of backbreaking work. The Las Cristinas mine, Bolívar state. Photo by Jorge Benezra

Beyond the Arco Minero

At the southwest edge of the Arco Minero, near the border between Bolívar state and Amazonas state, lies Ikabarú. The indigenous inhabited areas around the town are full of illegal gold mines. In September 2017, Lisa Henrito, chief of indigenous security there watched as indigenous lands were invaded by armed illegal prospectors. She was forced to activate the local indigenous defense network to forcefully displace 170 miners.

Henrito acknowledges that state military forces are often complicit in illegal mining projects in her region, with officers bribed to look the other way when heavy equipment moves in. “The National Guard and the army say nothing while big machines and helicopters are passing by. Nobody [from the government] is guarding this zone.”

She says, to her great sorrow, many indigenous people are blinded by the fast money to be made from mining gold and diamonds, and so, participate in illegal mining projects. “Machines are bought in the name of the indigenous, and [the local people] are put to work. These machines, in reality, are bought by different [wealthy] Brazilian or Venezuelan persons.”

An indigenous community in the Parguaza region of Bolívar state, an area that boasts one the world’s most promising coltan deposits, a conflict mineral used widely in electronics products such as cell phones and computers. Photo by Bram Ebus
An indigenous child getting tested for malaria. The infectious disease is epidemic in the mining regions of Venezuela. Photo by Bram Ebus

Like Bolívar, Venezuela’s Amazonas state, is plagued by illegal mining. A variety of sources within a local indigenous community confirmed to Mongabay that illegal mining has spread over the entire state, with the legally protected Yapacana National Park ravaged by numerous illegal gold mines.

Mining is also severely impacting Amazonas’ indigenous people. In fact, 54 percent of the state’s inhabitants are indigenous, the highest percentage of any Venezuelan state.

“It’s not far off [from being] an ethnocide,” says Liborio Guarulla, outgoing governor of Amazonas state and indigenous himself. Ethnocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a culture or ethnic group, usually accomplished by outside forces. According to the political leader, 20 indigenous communities are already being negatively impacted by mining in his state, but the mining bonanza there is just beginning.

Locals depend on the Parguaza River for many uses, including swimming and bathing. Mining, however, commonly contaminates streams with mercury and other toxins, making them useless for drinking water, crop irrigation and recreation. Photo by Bram Ebus
A young girl walks beside the Parguaza River. While indigenous men mostly work as miners, indigenous women are also an integral part of mining activities, working as miners, doing laundry, serving as cooks, maids and prostitutes. Photo by Bram Ebus

Though Amazonas is not yet officially listed on President Maduro’s national mining agenda, and though it lies outside the Arco Minero, the state has already been occupied by an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 illegal miners, according to Guarulla. That number is increasing as small-scale illegal miners are pushed out of neighboring Bolívar, where larger companies and the military are jockeying to occupy mineral rich areas, taking them over from illegal artisanal miners. “Many persons from Bolívar that are displaced by companies are coming here, because there is no control,” Guarulla explains.

The 1989 Decree 269 – declared by then President Carlos Andrés Pérez – prohibited mining in Amazonas, but many fear now that the Arco Minero will eventually be officially extended into the state. “Without a doubt,” answers Guarulla, when asked about that possibility. Mining “has become a big business [in Amazonas] because the national government generated an amount of control directly by themselves.”

That concern is shared by Héctor Escandell García, a geologist who works for the Amazonas vicariate (which has a human rights office to protect indigenous communities), and who is a former director of the Ministry of Environment in Amazonas. García suspects that the central government will justify large-scale commercial mining as an acceptable alternative to illegal mining, which the government will blame for past and current environmental degradation.

However, Escandell argues that the social and environmental degradation of small-scale illegal mining merely clears the way for more destructive mega-mining projects. “Clean up the terrain, cut trees, cleanse the population: the indigenous and farmers will be displaced or integrated,” he says. “Then you’ve formed the conditions [for large-scale mining].”

Gold miners work an illegal claim. Mining is highly destructive of the environment, denuding the landscape and poisoning waterways. Photo by Wilmer González

Enter the guerrillas

The proximity of the Mining Arc and Amazonas state to the nation of Colombia only complicates matters. Guarrulla reveals that there are currently thousands of Colombian guerrilla fighters in his state. The presence of these Colombian ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas and FARC dissident groups, also extends into Bolívar state, where the rebels are not only interested in mining gold, but also in digging for a dull-colored metallic ore, coltan, that is then smuggled to Colombia. Coltan, a conflict mineral ubiquitous in the developed world’s computers and other electronic devices, is a popular money-maker for rebel militias in the Mining Arc, the Congo, and the world over.

An indigenous source from the Parguaza area, in Bolívar bordering with Amazonas, who prefers to remain anonymous due to security risks, said that, as of September, coltan sold for between 80,000-100,000 bolívares (about US$2) per kilo to the guerrillas. Indigenous mediators function as go-to persons for the Colombian guerrillas, referred to as compradores – buyers.

Indigenous populations are not, however, on good terms with the guerrillas. The Colombian guerrilla fighters have, according to Mongabay’s source, repeatedly threatened the indigenous group to keep the price of coltan low, and they even killed two indigenous people in the area three years ago.

A man looks on from above as miners work an illegal mine. Photo by Wilmer González

New violence against, and conflicts with, indigenous communities can be expected as Venezuelan armed gangs and military organizations, and Colombian guerrilla groups continue to expand their presence, compete, and flex their muscles in the mining areas, say local experts.

“What was the plan?” asks Luzardo rhetorically, and then answers: it has long been the national government’s intention to absorb indigenous communities and cultures into the for-profit and often illegal mining operations. Integrate “the indigenous and make them miners. Penetrate and use vulnerable populations [necessitating that] they convert themselves as agents of destruction in their own territories,” he states.

In Las Claritas, across the east-west sweep of the Mining Arc, and on beyond Bolívar, south into Amazonas state, one can see the unfolding evidence of this alleged “plan,” as Venezuela’s native inhabitants are inexorably drawn away from plows and crops, to pickaxes and gold claims, and on into an industrialized underworld that will likely prove anathema to their traditions and customs.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to requests for comments on the articles presented in this Mongabay series.

This Mongabay series 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. An InfoAmazonia multimedia platform called Digging into the Mining Arc features in-depth stories on the topic.

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The Parguaza region in Bolívar state is known for its mineral wealth, much of it largely unexplored. Photo by Bram Ebus