- In Southern Venezuela, Brazilian gold miners known as garimpeiros exploit Venezuelan Indigenous lands, leaving behind mass environmental destruction.
- Deforestation, sedimentation and contamination of water, soil and air are among the environmental consequences of garimpeiro-style mining.
- Skyrocketing gold prices and Venezuela’s political and economic crisis have fueled the gold rush in Venezuela; Brazilian garimpeiros and Venezuelans from the cities have flocked to the mines, where they face limited accountability as they dig for gold.
- There are ways to recover some of the nature degraded by gold mining, but this requires investments, the right expertise and careful planning. It’s not happening today.
SANTA ELENA DE UAIRÉN, Venezuela — Standing at the brink of a man-made canyon, Jhonny Pereira, a Brazilian-born mining boss, looks down at a dozen gold miners as they plough through piles of soil and rocks. They’re toiling in the Parkupi mine, in southern Venezuela, about 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) from the border with Brazil. “There are more people here now,” he tells me, almost yelling to cover the rumbling of machines that use high-pressure water jets to dislodge rock and move gravel. “You know, it’s out of necessity; people here are starving,” he says. He is one of thousands of Brazilian wildcat miners, locally known as garimpeiros, who have migrated to Venezuela in search of gold.
Pereira and other garimpeiros know their mining activities destroy these pristine lands. He laments the destruction they’re causing and has made some meager attempts to restore lands. Yet, such efforts are limited, and these territories are remain scarred, while Indigenous people witness their lands being exploited and feel trapped in a place of little opportunity.
Since the collapse of Venezuela’s economy — reduced by roughly three-quarters between 2014 and 2021 — the country has increasingly relied on Brazil for imports of food, medicine, fuel, machinery and other basic supplies to keep their local population and the mines alive. Venezuelan bolivares are useless. Here, everything is paid in Brazilian reais or in gold.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people struggled to access food and medicine, supplies still reached the mines, says a merchant, known in the mining community as “El Burro” (the donkey). He buys mining machinery and mercury from Brazil to resell at higher prices in the Venezuelan mines. “This is from Brazil,” El Burro says, handing me a water bottle with mercury, laughing as he sees my hand drop quickly, taken aback by the weight of this silver liquid. He pours some of it on the table then confidently plays with it with his bare hands to show me how the heavy metal collects in small clumps.
The Parkupi mine’s large tawny crater sits under clear blue skies. Close by, the green of the dense jungle is glimmering. Around the crater, there are a few broken tree trunks and tall wooden structures that connect to the mines through long sluices, which transfer a mix of mud, gold and mercury to downward-sloping rugs that trap the flowing gold and mercury. The engines used by the machines at the bottom of the mine, originally intended for cargo trucks, are characteristic of garimpeiro-style hydraulic mining.
Some call this small-scale artisanal gold mining. Artisanal mining is “characterized by human work … through simple, portable manual equipment with rudimentary extraction and processing techniques, and it can only be exercised by people of Venezuelan nationality,” reads Article 82 of Venezuela’s mining law. “This is one of the terms that’s been misused the most when it comes to mining,” says José Rafael Lozada, professor of ecology at the University of the Andes in Venezuela. Lozada says there’s nothing artisanal about mining in Parkupi, where gold extraction uses heavy motors, water jets and mercury. “People misuse the term out of ignorance or for political purposes,” Lozada says.
A track record of destruction
In 2016, as the oil industry declined and he scrambled to boost state income, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro created the Orinoco Mining Arc, dedicating an area larger than Cuba for industrial-scale mining.
The Parkupi mine is located right outside the southern part of the Orinoco Mining Arc, in Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region. Like many other mines on Indigenous lands, it existed prior to the creation of the mining arc but has expanded in recent years due to rising gold prices, lack of opportunity elsewhere in the country and limited law enforcement.
The Gran Sabana is part of the Guiana Shield, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, known for its tepuyes, large tabletop mountains that are among the planet’s oldest geological formations, and home to an estimated 9,800 species. The Icabarú River, which flows through the forest near the Parkupi mine, is one of the most important tributaries to the Caroní River. Together with the Paragua River, Caroní supplies the reservoirs of Venezuela’s major hydroelectric dams, which generate at least 72% of the country’s electricity.
“All of this territory is of vital importance not only for the Guayana region [in eastern Venezuela], but also for the continent and the entire planet,” says Américo de Grazia, former deputy member of the Venezuelan National Assembly for Bolívar state and a strong opponent of the Venezuelan government’s mining policies.
Yet, these territories are under constant threat from gold miners.
“They deforest, displace Indigenous people, poison their waters, contaminate the fish in the rivers and lakes with mercury and cyanide, and they kill the flora, the wild fauna, the soil. They damage everything in a way that’s practically irreversible,” de Grazia says.
A mining haven
Amid a wave of government raids on illegal mining sites, this area has been spared. Pereira tells Mongabay that his colleagues on the Brazilian side had to stop working due to Brazilian government raids launched by the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But they see these raids as temporary: “They’re waiting in their houses for 1-2 months until the government leaves them alone,” Pereira explains.
In December, the Venezuelan government also launched a military operation, known as Operation Roraima, saying it would put an end to illegal gold mining and criminal groups in defense of the environment. But in reality, according to the sources interviewed, Venezuelan government officials continue to profit from gold mining businesses, extorting them in exchange for allowing miners to operate, and in vast parts of the country, gold miners continue their activities undisturbed.
“There hasn’t been any [military] operations here. It’s calm here. With the little we have, we’re working with the CVM,” Pereira says. The CVM, a Spanish abbreviation for the Venezuelan Mining Corporation, is a state-owned company that has a quasi-monopoly on the exploration and extraction of gold in the country. Pereira operates in a permissive environment; he gets mining equipment from the CVM through middlemen, however, his operations have not been licensed by them yet. “So it’s not really legal here,” Pereira says.
“Operation Roraima didn’t reach the mines close to Santa Elena de Uairén because these mines are not among the most profitable,” de Grazia explains. “They have no ecological purpose,” he says about Operation Roraima and other military operations previously conducted by the Venezuelan government. Instead, it could be a way for the government to gain control of more mines without having to share the gains, he says.
A source of cultural clashes
Mines like Parkupi have become a cultural melting pot with Brazilian garimpeiros, Venezuelan creoles, Indigenous and mestizo miners working side by side.
Unlike in other parts of Venezuela, where armed guerrilla groups control mining activities and repress Indigenous people, here, Brazilian garimpeiros must collaborate with Indigenous leaders, who control all access to the mines. Their permission is needed in order to operate in these mines, according to Pereira and other local sources.
“Where’s the blood gold they’re all talking about?” Pereira asks jokingly. Despite cultural differences, violence is uncommon here and mostly takes the form of occasional fights when miners get drunk — despite some attempts to prohibit alcoholic beverages — an Indigenous mining boss who asks to remain anonymous tells me.
Traditionally, Brazilian garimpeiros and Indigenous people relate differently to minerals. “Indigenous people respect gold, diamonds and coltan; they respect it all because it has energy from Mother Nature; man lives with Nature,” says Pio Rossi, an Indigenous Pemón leader and environmentalist. But he regrets that minerals have increasingly become a source of division among Indigenous people: “We’re divided now. Those who are with ecology, and those who are with mining.”
This division is felt by other Indigenous people: “Today, there are two tendencies among Indigenous people in Venezuela. Those who are victims, and those who allow themselves to be seduced by the foreign factors to allow gold exploitation on their territories,” says Armando Obdola, director general at Kapé Kapé, a Venezuelan organization that defends Indigenous people’s rights.
The divide seems generational too. “Young people say yes to mining,” says Engracia Fernández, an Indigenous leader in San Antonio del Morichal, a Pemón community close to the Venezuelan-Brazilian border. “So much has changed with technology, many have stopped planting, we don’t do cassava [a starchy root, an essential ingredient in Indigenous diet in parts of Latin America] anymore. Now we buy. It’s consumption, above all else,” she says.
“There’s no respect for nature. It makes me sad. They break it all, the lake, the river, the jungle, everything. Everything is destroyed,” Rossi shakes his head as he talks about mining in his community.
“I speak up against mining every time I get the chance,” Rossi tells me. He dislikes other Indigenous leaders in his region, saying most of them are behind the destruction of their lands through mining. These leaders now distance themselves from him. “At local events, they never give me the microphone. They know I’ll keep speaking up,” he says. Rossi thinks it’s necessary to find alternative sources of income for his Indigenous community, saying there is potential for ecotourism in his region.
Meanwhile, Pereira acknowledges and regrets the damage he’s causing nature. “I didn’t want to be here … We know this is not good,” he says about his own work in the mines. But he’s not willing to safeguard the environment if it comes at a financial cost to him, and he has trouble imagining how to sustain himself if not through mining.
No restoration in sight
“Look over there, we used to collaborate with the kids from the school to plant trees. The sowing class,” Pereira points at a bunch of shorter trees, smiling. He says that more than a decade ago, he tried to do reforestation projects to make up for some of the damage caused by his mining activities, but stopped because materials were too expensive.
Pereira proudly explains that they have a system to catch mercury-filled smoke when they burn mixes of gold and mercury. “You see, with this device we catch the mercury so it doesn’t contaminate the environment and doesn’t go to waste.”
Such processes are insufficient and large amounts of mercury still contaminate the soil, air and waterways, says Tina Oliveira-Miranda, biologist and one of the coordinators at Wataniba, a socio-environmental working group that promotes sustainable territorial management and continuously monitors the pressures and threats to the Venezuelan Amazon. SOS Orinoco estimates that 70% of the Caroní River, the second-largest waterway in Venezuela, could be polluted by mercury. However, mercury contamination is poorly monitored in Venezuela, where the government rarely authorizes sample testing and researchers lack resources. “There’s no major group investigating mercury here,” says Alejandro Álvarez, a biologist and the general coordinator of Clima21, a Venezuelan environmental rights group. Álvarez and his team have gathered information on mercury contamination from journalistic investigations and organizations like SOS Orinoco, and he is deeply concerned: “It’s very toxic for humans and for biological diversity,” he says.
At the Indigenous mining village, a schoolteacher tries to teach the kids about the harms of mining — but with limited effect. “They all stay here. They all end up in the mines,” she says. She doesn’t dare to drink water from the river, saying it is polluted with mercury, and instead collects rainwater in a big barrel.
“It will be very difficult to recover these ecosystems [mining areas in Gran Sabana] or get to something that resembles the original systems again,” says Oliveira-Miranda.
“Most of these areas can be recovered,” Lozada says in a more optimistic tone. But he admits that this can take decades.
Lozada shares his recipe to recover lands affected by garimpeiro-style mining. The first step is bioremediation, a process to remove pollutants like mercury by planting toxin-accumulating plants, such as Cecropia peltate, which is then removed to store the mercury elsewhere. Second, the land must be leveled out, meaning holes must be filled and the original landscape remade. Third, pioneer species, local and naturally occurring plants, must reforest the lands.
Brazilian, Indigenous and Venezuelan Creole miners have no plans to stop in their quest for gold. Experts say a lot more can be done to protect and recover these lands. But they disagree as to whether they can ever be fully repaired.
Pereira gets nostalgic as he thinks back. This mine used to be more profitable, but now he scrambles to make ends meet, as conditions have changed and it’s expensive to keep such remote mines running. “It’s been raining a lot, and now I’m just trying to pay off my debt on the machinery again,” Pereira says. He feels trapped in the gold mine. “They’ve said for years that mining will come to an end, but we’re still here. This won’t end,” he says. For Indigenous people, it’s even worse. “Most of them have never left these lands,” says the schoolteacher in the Indigenous village, now a mining community. Paying for a flight out of the mines is unthinkable for them, and today, kids grow up seeing no alternative to this mining that ravages their own lands. An Indigenous leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, says Indigenous people spend what they earn on overpriced food and clothes in the mines. “The Indigenous people have become slaves of the mines,” the leader says.
Cheatham, A., Roy, D., & Labrador, R. C. (2023). Venezuela: The Rise and Fall of a Petrostate. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations website: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis#:~:text=Spiraling%20economy.,of%206.5%20percent%20in%202023
Funk, V., Hallowell, T., Berry, P., Kelloff, C., & Alexander, S. N. (2007). Checklist of the plants of the Guiana shield: Venezuela: Amazonas, Bolivar, delta Amacuro; Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana. Retrieved from National Museum of Natural History website: https://naturalhistory.si.edu/sites/default/files/media/file/2007funk-et-alguianas-flora-checklist_0.pdf#:~:text=In%20the%20three%20Guianas%20there,overlap%20between%20the%20two%20areas
The Icabarú Mines in the Caroní River Basin: Incoherence, State-Sponsored Anarchy and Criminality. (2020). Retrieved from SOS Orinoco website: https://zx0e10.p3cdn1.secureserver.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Icabaru-Mines-in-Caroni-River-Basin-20200513.pdf
Current Gold Mining Situation in 2020 at Canaima National Park, A World Heritage Site in Venezuela: Update to the 2018 Report Submitted to UNESCO. (2020). Retrieved from SOS Orinoco website: https://sosorinoco.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Update-CanaimaNP-Report20200427.pdf
Situación de violación a los derechos humanos como consecuencia de la contaminación por mercurio utilizado en la explotación de oro en la región sur de Venezuela. (2021). Retrieved from Clima21 website: https://clima21.net/informes/situacion-de-violacion-a-los-derechos-humanos-como-consecuencia-de-la-contaminacion-por-mercurio-utilizado-en-la-explotacion-de-oro-en-la-region-sur-de-venezuela/
Banner image: The Parkupi mine is a hole of destruction in the midst of a jungle. The contrast between nature and this garimpeiro-style mining is clear-cut. Image by Mie Hoejris Dahl.
Venezuelan Amazon deforestation expands due to lawlessness, mining, fires: Reports
Venezuela’s Yapacana National Park suffering increasing mining deforestation: report
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.