Gold, deforestation, and weapons

Gold, deforestation, and weapons

The gold rush has taken root in the Venezuelan Amazon, one of the lungs of the planet. Illegal mining has spread like foam through forested areas, with devastating environmental, social and cultural consequences. It is destroying forests, polluting land and rivers, displacing indigenous communities from their lands and spreading diseases that had recently been eradicated in the country. A human and environmental catastrophe that threatens to turn into a veritable ecocide, according to environmentalists.

Illegal mining is not a new phenomenon in the Venezuelan jungle. Until recently, it was done manually. It was another way of life for some indigenous communities, like farming and trading in traditional products. But everything started to go wrong as the Caribbean country’s economy has been in a state of limbo since 2013, the result of disastrous government management, falling oil prices and harsh sanctions imposed by the United States. To deal with the disaster, President Nicolás Maduro launched a massive campaign to conquer the rich mining deposits hidden deep in the jungle. It was necessary to diversify the economy, which was overly dependent on oil.

In 2016, he launched the so-called “Arc Miner de l’Orinoco” (AMO) strategic plan. The megaproject affects the states of Amazonas, Bolívar and the Amacuro Delta. A strip of ideal locations and great biodiversity, home to more than 40 indigenous villages. Located south of the Orinoco River, it crosses the country from east to west and covers almost 112,000 square kilometers – an area slightly larger than the island of Cuba – rich in gold, coltan, bauxite and diamonds, among other sought-after minerals.

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Without consulting citizens

The AMO covers 12.2% of the national territory. As Maduro said at the time, the government would replace the “polluting illegal mining chaos” with “a new productive and environmental chaos.” The president stopped working, without having previously conducted studies on social and environmental impact or consulted indigenous communities, as required by the constitution. Years passed and the situation got worse.

Today, AMO is a lawless zone. The public deposits, run by senior military leaders, coexist with countless illegal mines controlled by drug traffickers, ELN rebels and FARC dissidents, who impose a strict social order and survive on the smuggling of minerals that leave the country by land, river and clandestine flights. “These irregular armed groups maintain tacit alliances with local authorities and corrupt sectors of the security forces,” says Bram Ibos, a conflict and environment expert at the International Crisis Group. “It is inconceivable that these illegal extractive activities have been carried out for all these years without the complicity and acquiescence of the Caracas government.”

The launch of Amo had an immediate ripple effect, as many Venezuelans from different parts of the country, affected by the crisis, moved south to escape extreme poverty. The Creoles (as they are called in the region) who were turned into miners live in poor conditions in unsanitary camps and work alongside many indigenous people in an atmosphere of extortion and violence. Over the years, dozens of them have died in mine collapses or have been killed, as have indigenous leaders who defend their land and people. Forced prostitution and the recruitment of minors to work in mining are prevalent, causing high school dropouts in the region.

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open pit mines

Miners work in harsh conditions in vertical shaft and open-pit mines, the most numerous and most environmentally damaging mines where forests must be cleared and vast cuts made in the ground. They are crammed into large pits where lakes of stagnant water form, and are exposed to diseases such as malaria, which is ravaging the region. In Bolivar state alone, nearly 80,000 cases were detected last year.

Deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and pollution of river water by mining deposits impregnated with mercury, a highly toxic metal used to extract gold, are affecting nature and the health of its inhabitants and settlers. A disaster that includes natural parks outside the International Maritime Organization, such as Canaima, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The price of gold has been on the rise since the financial crisis of 2008, and it is expected to continue rising. That’s bad news for the Amazon, but good news for many investors who keep in mind the famous phrase of banker John Pierpont Morgan: “Only gold is money, everything else is debt.” Residents of Venezuela’s largest nature reserve have another phrase of their own: “The thirst for gold will leave us without water.”

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