Arc of Desperation

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

photo of a hand, small gold nuggetphoto Bram EbusIn 2016, hoping the prevent the economic crisis now plaguing the country, President Nicolás Maduro opened up a vast swath of Venezuela’s Amazon rainforest to large-scale mining projects.

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. Mostly in their twenties, these youth belong to local gangs, called pranes, which control the region’s illegal gold mining operations.

Towards the end of the morning, older gang members begin arriving in big Toyota trucks. They carry plastic bags full of cash, and walkie-talkies to communicate with their counterparts at the mines, and send the younger motorbike riders off on various errands.

Before they got into organized crime, many of these men had their boots in the mud of Bolívar, digging for the world’s most sought-after metal among the hundreds of small-scale mines scattered in the jungles around Las Claritas. About 90 percent of Venezuela’s gold production comes from these small, open-pit, alluvial, and tunnel-mining projects that are causing deforestation and mercury pollution in a region known for its lush forests, wide rivers, and Indigenous tribes.

The pranes have only been in control of the illegal mines for a few years – they began taking over around 2011 after Venezuela nationalized much of its mining industry but didn’t set up legal gold mining operations. The past few years have seen a rapid increase in the number of gangs operating in the area. (The term pran describes prisoners who run criminal networks – both inside and outside the penitentiaries.) In the absence of any strong crackdown from the government – the Venezuelan military is reportedly clandestinely involved in the illegal gold industry, supporting the gangs in return for a slice of their profits – the pranes have largely become an unchallenged authority in the region, meting out “justice” by their own measure. Miners pay extortion money, known as a “vaccine,” to the pranes in exchange for being allowed to work; mothers carry their sick children to them and request money to buy scarce medical supplies; and arguing neighbors seek their counsel to settle disputes.

The Orinoco Mining Arc comprises 12.2 percent of Venezuela’s territory.

However, rival gangs’ bloody battles for control over the mines has turned Bolívar into one of the most dangerous states in the country. Bullet-riddled bodies of miners have become an unsettlingly common sight. Into this world, where violent killings and corrupt politics are part of daily life, the Venezuelan government is seeking to bring multinational mining corporations – a move that many fear could further undermine the environmental integrity of this remote region and exacerbate the human rights abuses heaped upon its people.

Venezuela is suffering through the worst economic crisis in its history. The country’s oil-reliant economy (it has one of the world’s largest oil reserves) has been in a downward spiral since 2014 when global crude prices started crashing. Mismanagement and widespread corruption – billions of dollars in revenue generated by oil and gas exploitations have been siphoned away by the country’s elites – have resulted in rising unemployment, widespread hunger, and political unrest. The country’s inflation rate rose beyond 400 percent in April, and a wave of anti-government protests has left at least 130 people dead. By late July, economists were predicting that the country’s runaway “hyperinflation” rate would continue to rise, further devaluing the badly weakened national currency, the Bolívar. Amid this turmoil, on July 30, the government rigged a referendum to install a new Constitutional Assembly that will rewrite the constitution and cement President Nicolás Maduro’s hold on power.

It was in an effort to stave off this freefall that Maduro signed an executive order in early 2016 turning a vast, 43,183-square-mile swath of pristine wilderness in the upper reaches of the Amazon rainforest into a “Special Economic Zone” devoted to large-scale mining projects run by national and multinational corporations. He then invited 150 companies from 35 countries to explore the region for minerals. “This is a magnificent source of wealth that will begin substituting petroleum as our only source of foreign earnings,” he announced. By August 2016, Maduro claimed to have signed $10 billion in contracts with several multinational mining companies, but so far he has offered no documented proof of these agreements.

Dubbed “Arco Minero del Orinoco,” or the Orinoco Mining Arc, by former president Hugo Chávez, the swath of land – which lies south of the Orinoco Oil Belt – comprises 12.2 percent of the country’s territory. It includes parts of the Amazonas and Delta Amacuro states, and northern Bolívar – the country’s illegal gold mining hotspot, where Las Claritas is located. According to government estimates, the entire Arco Minero region contains some 7,000 tons of gold, which if certified would make Venezuela’s gold deposits second only to Australia’s. Similarly, it estimates the region has $100 billion in coltan reserves (the metallic ore is widely used in electronic devices), as well as three billion carats in diamonds, and at least 300,000 metric tons of rare earth elements. None of these estimates, however, have been independently verified.

The area slated for mining holds seven natural monuments and five national parks. The most significant of these is Canaima National Park – a 12,000-square-mile unesco World Heritage site known for its unique topography of flat-topped mountain formations known as tepuis. One third of the plants here are found nowhere else on the planet. Canaima harbors nearly half of the neotropical migratory birds that winter in South America, as well as an astounding array of wild animals, including jaguars, giant anteaters, ocelots, and giant armadillos. The park also hosts the highest waterfall in the world, Salto Ángel, which is more than 15 times higher than Niagara Falls.

The transformation of this largely wild landscape into a massive mining sacrifice-zone filled with megaprojects would mean the destruction of thousands of acres of dense jungle. Beyond the potential impacts on the forest and its wildlife are serious threats to the country’s water supply – the southern reaches of Arco Minero hold 70 percent of the country’s freshwater sources.

In the Amazon and Orinoco region, as with most of the tropical forests of the world, soils are extremely thick and rich, says Ándres Ángel, scientific advisor of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. “If they are looking for columbite-tantalite (coltan) or other rare earths, they are generally found in these soils, which means you have to remove them in order to extract these minerals. That breaks up the integrity of the hydrological cycle, which in turn might destroy fragile ecological cycles or ecosystems downstream, favor floods, etc.” Ángel explains in an email interview.

“You won’t form those rocks again in millions of years in the case of the Orinoco basin. And the soils will take tens of thousands [of years to recover]. So all the benefits and ecosystem services they provide – such as hydrological regulation, shelter for plant and animal life, flood regulation, cultural and spiritual benefits, etc. – are lost forever.”

photo of a man standing on the edge of a pit minephoto Wilmer GonzalezInformal mines have already caused significant damage to fragile forest ecosystems within the Orinoco Mining Arc. The arrival of large, corporate-run mines will only amplify the human and environmental toll of resource extraction in the region.

The fertile jungles of Bolívar are not only important troves of biodiversity, they have been a homeland for Indigenous peoples for millennia – a remote sanctuary filled with native food sources and medicinal plants. The Arco Minero mining footprint overlaps the legal territories of at least 11 ethnic communities in government-protected environmental zones. The government did not conduct obligatory environmental impact assessments for the mining proposal, nor have officials consulted Indigenous communities in the mining regions – a clear violation the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 (an international law meant to protect the land rights of Indigenous communities).

Small-scale gold mining operations have already taken a toll on native populations. Large tracts of land have been deforested, and the mercury that is used in the small-scale mining process has contaminated the soil and water, causing severe health risks. If the large-scale mining projects advanced by the government come to pass, the Indigenous people that live in the area will likely be displaced entirely. The fact that many Indigenous people are miners themselves, however, puts these tribes in an even more precarious position.

Though the work provides much-needed pay, it weakens the Indigenous identity, says Brian Clark, a leader of the Indigenous Arawacos community in Jobochirima, a village near Las Claritas. When Indigenous miners engage in activities that contaminate the land and water and “bring the world out of balance,” their strong bond with the Earth is severed, he says. But options are few in these poverty-racked communities suddenly thrust into the chaos of a mining boom. “There really is no alternative,” Clark says, noting that the majority of the 380 Arawacos tribe members who live in Las Claritas work in the mines. “Mining moves fast here, as does the cost of living, which became very high. This is affecting the community in such a way that everybody prefers to dedicate themselves to mining.”

The interests of multinational corporations have also increased the value of lands slated for the Arco Minero project. This, in turn, has led to an influx of speculators in the past year. “From the first rumors of the project, there has been an invasion,” Clark says. “Non-Indigenous persons come and buy land to sell to people who are not from here.” He fears that the state and corporate pressures on their lands may soon become too much to bear.

To get a better look at the human and environmental impacts of mining – costs that stand to get significantly worse if the Arco Minero project goes ahead – I traveled 125 miles north of Las Claritas, to the village of El Callao, which also lies within the Orinoco Mining Arc. On this gloomy day in June, the central square of El Callao is teeming with miners who pan for gold in the Yuruari River. Most are simply biding their time, looking for a few dollars’ worth of gold flecks in the riverbed until the weather breaks. Heavy rainstorms have made the underground mines where they normally work too dangerous to enter. The mines in Callao are makeshift projects, hand-dug tunnels to access the best gold veins. Many are death-traps, especially in the rainy season. Jesús Brito is among one of the many miners who have come from distant towns to risk their lives in these deep, dark shafts.

photo of a barefoot man in short pants sitting on a makeshift rope elevator about to descend into a mineshaftphoto Bram EbusFranco León prepares to descend into a mine in El Callao, which lies within the Orinoco Mining Arc. Tens of thousands of informal miners have come to the region looking for work.

The encampment where Brito and his team of six miners work is comprised of a small tent, a few hammocks, and an improvised kitchen. It’s been raining steadily all morning and the drops patter on a small plastic tarp that functions as a ceiling. Brito drags his pickaxe through the mud and tries to carve out little zigzag canals in order to guide the rainwater out of the camp. He explains how a friend from a nearby mine died the previous night when a tunnel collapsed on him during a period of heavy rainfall. “He was hacking away when a pillar came down and everything fell on top of him,” Brito says. A few hours after the cave-in that killed his friend, news spread that four more men had died in a tunnel collapse at a mine on the other side of the village.

Brito’s brother-in-law, Franco León, tells of 24-hour shifts in the mines. Like many miners here in El Callao, the 26-year-old León suffers from malaria. Stagnant pools in the mine pits are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and medicines are scarce. Still, León’s shivering body and aching joints do not prevent him from entering the tunnel.

At around 10 a.m., León decides it is time to go down. He sits on a wooden stick with a rope in the middle that he keeps between his legs. As he readies himself, Brito slowly turns the wheel. Léon descends into the narrow, vertical shaft. After dropping more than 100 feet into the mine, he jumps off, entering a horizontal tunnel. His headlight illuminates a narrow, dark shaft before him.

Brito and Léon, like many of the men in El Callao, are looking to escape the ravages of Venezuela’s economic freefall. Brito’s family lives in Maturín, a day’s drive away. He and his mates explain that they saw few possibilities to make a living during the current crisis. Hyperinflation and lack of job opportunities are day-to-day realities throughout Venezuela. “I’m working here to bring the potatoes home,” Brito says of the dangerous, back-breaking work. He sends most of the money he makes to his extended family in Maturín, about 220 miles from El Callao.

While the mines do provide a source of income to the more than 150,000 informal miners flocking to the region today, they have already caused significant environmental damage to the fragile forest ecosystem. And the influx of large, corporate-run mines will only make a bad situation worse.

“Mines [in the Arco Minero] will be open-pit projects that produce a huge impact, says Juan Carlos Sánchez, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and an expert with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “There is a high probability that the waters will acidify because these terrains contain iron sulfide, that when contacted with water and air will become sulfuric acid. When these waters return to nature, which will happen in large quantities, it will eliminate a fair share of the fauna.”

The environmental damage in such a scenario could be permanent, he says. “Mining will produce an [immediate] benefit,” but once the mining stops the region will be left without clean water and forests, he noted. “You will lose everything.”

According to a report by the Amazon environmental information network raisg, (Red Amazónica De Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada), Venezuela is the only country where Amazon rainforest deforestation rates increased between 2000 and 2013. It’s not just deforestation that’s impacting the region, but also the contamination of waterways and the destruction of river beds in the Orinoco Belt, which is proceeding at an unprecedented pace, says Phillip Gunson, Venezuela representative of the International Crisis Group, an organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts across the world.

“The state cannot or will not regulate mining.”

Employing hydraulic mining techniques similar to those used in the California gold fields during the mid-1800s, miners clear out patches of forest and pump river water through powerful hoses to open up deep ditches in the mud. They treat mud from these ditches with mercury, which binds with the gold. Once they have picked the area clean of what can be easily extracted, they move on to the next spot, leaving behind a muddy mess contaminated with toxic mercury residues and diesel oil that harm both wildlife and humans.

A 2013 study by Red ara – a network of Venezuelan environmental groups – found high levels of mercury contamination in the Yé’kuana and Sanema Indigenous communities in the region. The study reported that about 92 percent of the women surveyed had mercury levels above the 2-milligrams-per-kilo limit established by the World Health Organization, and 37 percent of those women faced childbirth complications related to mercury exposure. (Exposure to mercury is known to cause congenital problems in humans.)

Scientists are only beginning to understand the impacts of mercury contamination on birds, fish, and other wildlife populations. But what they are finding is alarming – even low exposure levels can cause harm. In the case of vertebrates, chronic exposure can impair development and damage neurological and hormonal systems.

The Venezuelan government contends that the Arco Minero project will put an end to illegal mining and the ecological destruction it is wreaking on the region and replace the gangs running the mines with purportedly “law-abiding” corporations. It hopes the project will help regularize the sale and export of Venezuelan gold, much of which is being smuggled out of the country by the gangs and their networks, and will restrict mining operations to those areas already affected by illegal mining. It also says that the damaging practices common among the small-scale miners, such as the use of mercury, will be replaced by more modern, safer mining techniques. The government has even taken the step of setting up a mining audit and inspection office to “control the environmental, geological, social, and labor risk” in the Arco Minero, and has established a Ministry of Ecological Mining Development.

But critics say it is unlikely Venezuela has the institutional capacity to manage such a large, multinational mining sector. The country has little history of regulated mining, Phillip Gunson notes, and in spite of its gestures toward governance, doesn’t seem to have any real regulatory body up and running yet. (Its mining ministry, for instance, didn’t have an office or even a phone number as of June this year.) “The state cannot or will not regulate mining,” Gunson says, “and those in charge of applying the law (including the military) merely take advantage of the opportunity to make money for themselves.” Despite the grand announcements about Arco Minero, multinational mining companies do not seem to be blinded by Venezuela’s gold. So far, few of the major companies tapped to participate in the project – such as Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company – have actually confirmed their intent to do business in this politically unstable country. “We understand that a number of foreign mining companies have been given the opportunity to review information regarding mining projects in the country,” Andy Lloyd, Barrick Gold’s senior vice president of communications says. “We are now in the process of reviewing those opportunities.”

So far, the companies that have risked putting money on the table are mainly smaller, lesser-known enterprises, including ones based in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with dubious environmental and human rights records.

Americo De Grazia, deputy for the Bolívar state and a vocal critic of the government’s mining plans, says few groups would profit more from the Arco Minero project than the Venezuelan army. He points out that a newly created military mining company, camimpeg, will be involved in future mining projects. The Venezuelan government has granted the company the power to explore, produce, and sell oil and minerals and hold on to the profits from these sales – an arrangement that will only serve to strengthen the army’s political and economic clout.

photo of empty store shelvesphoto The Photographer, Wikimedia CommonsPresident Maduro has pushed the idea that mining can solve Venezuela’s economic crisis, which, among other things, has led to severe food shortages. Critics say it will only increase the country’s dependence on the export of its natural resources.

The idea pushed by Maduro that gold can solve the nation’s economic woes is a myth, De Grazia says. The strategy will only increase the country’s dependence on the export of its natural resources. It will not help Venezuela diversify its revenue stream. In terms of jobs, given that large-scale mining operations are characterized by automated, non-labor-intensive processes, they are unlikely to employ uneducated, small-scale miners like Brito and León.

By almost every measure – environmental, social, and economic – the Arco Minero is a desperate plan put forth by a crisis-ridden government seeking a new and immediate source of income. As De Grazia notes, even if the mining could be carried out in an environmentally sound and socially responsible way, the mass siphoning-off of the nation’s mineral wealth by foreign companies means that it is unlikely that large-scale mining would help revive Venezuela’s economy in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, armed gangs filling their pockets with illegal gold money are not going to be pleased with the arrival of international corporations that are sure to surround themselves with an army of private security personnel. The project will also pit the pranes against the army, which so far seem to have been tacit allies. Altogether it’s likely to create a situation that will lead to an escalation of violence in the Orinoco Belt.

There are sustainable alternatives to developing this biodiverse region, says Nobel laureate Juan Carlos Sánchez. These alternatives include eco-tourism, developing a fisheries industry, using the Amazon as a carbon sink, and maybe even selling water to Caribbean islands that lack access to clean drinking water, he suggests. But, Sánchez says, because of Venezuela’s strong historical connections with the oil sector, the country’s new elites can only think of investing in other extractive industries when under pressure to find new sources of income. Unfortunately, they fail to see that opening the door to the Arco Minero shuts another door – one that would allow Venezuela to capitalize on the region’s vast renewable natural resources.

Bram Ebus is a Dutch criminologist and investigative journalist with ample experience on socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America. He is based in Bogotá, Colombia.

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