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Venezuela’s Mining Crisis Gains Regional Attention

Latin American section of Society for Conservation Biology urges protection of environment and human rights in Mining Arc

In 2016, the Venezuelan government issued a decree turning close to 112,000-square-kilometers of Amazon rainforest into a special mining district, called the Mining Arc (or Arco Minero in Spanish). President Nicolás Maduro promised the Mining Arc would bring economic prosperity and ‘ecologic mining development.’ But instead, it seems to be Latin America’s biggest mining conflict in the making, and uncontrolled mining in the region is wreaking havoc on vulnerable communities, degrading ecosystems, and harming the regions incredible biodiversity, which includes everything from jaguars and armadillos to some 850 distinct bird species.

photo of gold in handphoto by Bram EbusSince oil prices began to plummet several years ago, informal mining operations in Venezuela's biodiverse Orinoco Belt have grown in size.

Venezuela’s pillaging of its own resources, and corresponding environmental devastation, do not receive the attention they should. But for the first time, in July the Mining Arc made it into discussions on a major regional platform: the Congress of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Society for Conservation Biology (LACA-SCB), which is world's largest community of conservation professionals.

Arc of Desperation

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

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..

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During the event, held in Trinidad & Tobago, LACA-SCB agreed on a conference statement on the Mining Arc: The beginning of the statement reads:

"In the Venezuelan Guiana Shield and Amazon Basin, including all territories south of the Orinoco River and its delta, there occurs an area of critical regional importance to the conservation of biocultural diversity. Between 2000 and 2015, deforestation there has increased exponentially due in part to observable intensification of human activities in northern Bolivar state, a “hotspot” of precious metals and minerals including gold, diamonds, iron, and coltan, among others. Most of these activities are directly or indirectly related to an increase in informal gold mining practices, which affect protected areas and indigenous territories."

The full text can be consulted here.

So far, few attempts have been made to study current and future impacts of the Mining Arc, but the first indicators are alarming. Juan Carlos Amilibia, a biologist with the Central Venezuelan University, explains that the Venezuelan Amazon is increasingly deforested and mining is becoming one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. “The government should make efforts to control illegal mining where there was no deforestation before, instead of creating new mining and extraction zones,” he says.

The Mining Arc overlaps with national parks and various natural monuments. At least 198 Indigenous communities live in the decreed area, though obligatory consultations — mandated under both international and domestic law — have not been performed. According to Vilisa Morón, president of the Venezuelan Ecological Society, the tribes that live in the Mining Arc are extremely vulnerable to contamination caused by mining. For example: “About 92 percent of the Yek’wana female population have high indices of mercury in their body, which implies that 32 percent of these women could give birth to babies with neurological problems,” she says.

Speaking at the conference, Francoise Cavada-Blanco, a marine biologist from Simon Bolivar University, discussed how degradation within the Mining Arc could reach beyond Venezuela’s borders. Specifically, he says mercury contamination in the Orinoco River might affect coastal-marine systems of Trinidad & Tobago, a twin island country at a distance of only 15 kilometers from Venezuela. The Society of Conservation Biologists’ statement on the Mining Arc also acknowledges these spillover effects: “[T]hese impacts are likely to transcend Venezuela’s borders beyond the initial area of influence of the Orinoco River and affect the southeastern Caribbean, thus becoming a larger regional threat.

Investigating environmental conflicts in Venezuela is a luxury that many local residents and activists don’t have. They have more than enough work addressing issues related to political prisoners, grave human rights abuses, state crimes, medicine shortages, and much more. Academics and journalists interested in conducting fieldwork in the Mining Arc also increasingly face practical obstacles that impede access to the area.

Numerous check-points are set up in the Mining Arc by the notoriously corrupt and violent National Guard as well as the Venezuelan army, while illegal armed gangs and Colombian guerrilla groups crossing over into the region exercise control over mining operations. The involvement of armed groups and their display of violence in the region — massacres and shootouts occur frequently — make it nearly impossible to properly visit, study, and investigate the environmental impacts of mining operations. If this is not enough, fuel shortages and a lack of access to cash money make it hardly possible to move around in the Mining Arc, especially as gold is often used as currency in mining enclaves.

For all of these reasons, LACA-SCB is urging the national and international developers and stakeholders in the Mining Arc to reduce the harmful environment impacts of mining and secure human rights throughout the region, and is calling upon the scientific and academic community to conduct additional research on the impacts of extractive industries in the country.

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