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New Reporting Platform Sheds Light on Venezuela’s Mining Crisis

South American country's dangerous bet on large-scale mining threatens pristine Amazon region

News outlets InfoAmazonia and el Correo del Caroni are launching a new interactive website with a series of articles on mining conflicts in Venezuela. The project, “Digging Deeper into the Mining Arc,” is sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Conflict Reporting.

Arc of Desperation

Venezuela’s decision to open up the Orinoco Belt to mining threatens the Amazon rainforest.

By Bram Ebus

At 10 a.m., young men on motorbikes start to arrive in front of a cockfighting arena in Las Claritas, a small village in the state of Bolívar in southeastern Venezuela. They mill around smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Their relaxed manner distracts one from the fact that nearly all of them are carrying weapons, handguns mainly, hidden under their t-shirts or tucked away in their sports pants.

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Venezuela is making a dangerous bet. The country where corruption is king seems to be going all-in on large-scale mining. The country’s 2016 “Mining Decree” opens up the  Arco Minero region – a 43,183-square-mile swath of pristine wilderness in the upper reaches of the Amazon full of the world's most wanted minerals – to multinational mining interest.

Mining in Latin America is often tied to social problems and damage to the environment. This won’t be different in Venezuela, where mining operations already ravish fragile ecosystems, including in the Amazon rainforest, and contaminate rivers, such as the Orinoco. The Arco Minero overlaps with Indigenous territories as well. At least 198 Indigenous communities are located in the region that is targeted for the exploitation of coltan, diamonds, bauxite, and gold.

Investing in mining may be the worst move crisis-ridden Venezuela could make. Mismanagement of the country’s mainly oil-based economy led to the current economic freefall. Venezuela does not produce enough food for its own population and the drugstores are currently as good as empty.

In 2017, the country saw:

  • An average of than 26.6 violent deaths per day (an average of 15 per day by police forces)
  • Inflation of 2,700 percent
  • Three-quarters of Venezuelans lost weight in the past year, an average of 20 pounds each
  • More than 300,000 new cases of malaria

Officially, the Venezuelan government claims to be organizing a state-corporate mining sector in which many multinationals will participate. On paper, a new Ministry, named (take a breath) Ministry of the Popular Power of Ecological Mining Development of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, oversees the operations. In reality, mining in Venezuela is controlled by violence and many miners have already fallen victim to an increasing number of territorial disputes.

“The Arco Minero as such has not functioned, man,” a young miner and government supporter in El Callao, Bolívar state, told me. “I will tell you that I’m a revolutionary Chavista, but you need to tell the things as they are. This is camouflage here.”

Venezuela’s Mining Arc is a dark symbiosis of legal and illegal mining. Gang and guerrilla-controlled mines overlap with ‘corporate’ operations managed by the Venezuelan army. Contraband networks lead to the Caribbean, Colombia, and Brazil. Expanding mining operations, laundering of drug money, (military run) companies linked to human rights abuses, could make the Arco Minero a problem of unknown proportions.

For more about the social and environmental impacts of mining, scroll through the photos below.

photo of a man holding a small bit of goldphoto by Bram EbusA gram to survive. Many gold miners are economic migrants who have traveled to Venezuela’s mining regions to support their families.

photo of a man panning for gold with a wooden bowlphoto by Bram EbusA clandestine miner poses for the camera while working in a mine controlled by an armed gang. At the entrance, a billboard for a state company suggests otherwise.

photo of men working a sluicephoto by Bram EbusMercury mixed waters let miners separate the gold from waste rocks, but cause severe health problems and contaminate the environment.

photo of guarded gates to a mine complexphoto by Bram EbusState mining company Minerven: “WELCOME – Proud to be miners!”

photo of bathers in a riverphoto by Bram EbusThe Parguaza river in Bolívar state. Water is very important for Indigenous communities in the region and contamination of nearby rivers can gravely impact their livelihoods. The Parguaza region possesses one of the most promising coltan deposits in Venezuela.

video by Bram Ebus

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