Gold mining in Venezuela: a “perfect storm” of illegality, deforestation and mafias

  • The first scientific studies found large amounts of mercury in the blood, hair and tissue of settlers in riverside communities.
  • Mining in Venezuela dates back to 1829, when almost 486 kilograms of gold were extracted. Mercury has been used to extract it ever since.
  • Late last year President Nicolás Maduro, pressured by environmental groups, approved the Mining Development Plan 2016-2018, which handed over mining activities to the state.
Inmensas lagunas artificiales donde se mezcla mercurio, gasolina y lodo donde antes hubo un tupido bosque amazónico. Foto cortesía de Ana Gisela Pérez.
Immense artificial lakes where mercury, oil, and mud are mixed together where there was once a dense Amazonian forest. Photo by Ana Gisela Pérez.

The Nineties were a decade that stood out for Venezuelans, because they discovered that the were garimpeiros in the south of the country. These traditional miners from Brazil, drawn by the gold rush, had crossed the wide Amazonian border between the two countries digging ditches in the middle of the rainforest in order to extract the precious metal.

These illicit activities affected the fragile equilibrium of the Amazonian ecosystem, the health and way of life of the local indigenous and Creole peoples and even threatened the South American country’s hydro-electric potential. That was when the Venezuelan armed forces counted up to one-thousand of these illegal explorers searching for gold, and expelled at least half of them.

The ever increasing presence of the garimpeiros also propelled licensed foreign companies to make changes to the gold extraction procedures until they too were forced to leave the country from 2008 onwards. That was due to a change in the mining policies that the government called “renationalization.”

Investigators and activists have pointed out that these government changes created a “perfect storm” in which tens of thousands of traditional miners throughout Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana have been causing environmental destruction by means of hydraulic ground erosion, deforestation, and the indiscriminate and inappropriate use of mercury, which is used to extract the gold from the sediment. This has come together with mafias, guerrillas, corruption, prostitution, human trafficking, slavery, child labor and tens of thousands of cases of malaria each year.

One example of this perfect storm in the Venezuelan Amazonia took place when the Canadian firm Crystallex –which operated in Las Cristinas’ gold deposit in the Bolívar State– had its license removed. Their 2003 report had found reserves of more than 16 million ounces of gold with a lifespan of 34 years. Back then, it was worth 325 dollars per ounce. In 2011, the license was passed on to two Russian firms managed by a state company. By then, gold was seven times more valuable, exceeding $2,000 per ounce.

The documentary “Amazonas Clandestino – La Mafia del Oro en Venezuela” shows how, until today, the military has been collecting bribes from traditional miners in order to enter the deposits while prison mafias commanded by pranes (prisoners who form groups in prisons) control the mines.

The same documentary showed how river water was used to perforate the ground in previously deforested areas by means of powerful hydraulic bombs and hoses. Deep ditches, or bullas measuring several feet, are opened in this way. The mud is taken to wooden scaffolds and metal meshes where bigger nuggets of gold appear after precipitation and mercury application; the remaining mud is then filtered and washed to extract gold dust too.

Important amounts of the mineral have scarcely stopped appearing before the miners abandon a site and move on to another place, leaving behind them an immense pool of mud, human fluids, mercury and diesel oil in the middle of the rainforest. 

Asi quedan las minas después de abandonadas, convirtiéndose en perfectos criaderos de mosquitos anofelinos que pueden transmitir parásito de la malaria. Foto cortesía de Ana Gisela Pérez.
This is how mines end up after they’re abandoned, turning into perfect breeding areas for mosquitoes that can transfer the malaria parasite. Photo courtesy of Ana Gisela Pérez.

Mercury everywhere

Luis Jiménez, director of the conservation nonprofit PhyNatura, worked for 12 years in gold mining for a variety of companies including Crystallex. “It used to be called responsible mining,” he explains. They used to be able to recover 99.9 percent of mercury through a closed circuit system that didn’t only reduce extraction costs but also environmental impacts. On the other hand, Jiménez says that for an artisanal miner, a mercury loss of 40 percent “is considered very good” since it doesn’t required retortas, a technology that keeps the harmful vapors from getting out into the atmosphere and into humans’ lungs.

With the arrival of the 1992 Law on the Environment, which was revised in 2012, the mining companies that worked around the lower basin of Caroní River stopped using stainless steel plates that commonly used mercury for oil extraction. 

The expert points out that even just 0.01 percent of mercury contamination could have great consequences. “It wasn’t just a problem for the environment, but for workers, too. Those who worked in the circuit had six months’ vacation every year, even though they used protection fit for a nuclear facility. Those were what we used to call the best years for mining in Venezuela. There was a lot of regulation –a ton of laws so that mining could be done responsibly.”

Mercury is a bio-accumulative heavy metal, which means that once it enters the body, it doesn’t get ejected but is instead absorbed by human tissue. This happens equally with plants and animals as it goes up the food chain, all the way up to those at the very top: carnivorous predators, ruminants and algae eaters. Its presence in humans can cause congenital problems that can be passed on beyond two generations, like the Minamata Syndrome.

Jiménez confirms that by 1985, scientific research found that residents living by the river had a high mercury content in their blood, hair, and human tissues. Researcher Martiza Rojas f0und 24 studies carried out in Venezuela between 2004 and 2008, which find a tight connection between gold mining and mercury contamination in humans.

Mining in Venezuela dates back to 1829 when 486 kilograms of gold were extracted, according to The Venezuelan Gold Book. ”Since then, mercury has been used as a way to extract as much gold as possible. This is why the sediments of the entire Amazonian region, like those in the Caroní and Cuyuní rivers are contaminated,” explains Jiménez.

In the study “Mercury contamination in Venezuela’s Guayana region: a proposal for dialogue and action” published by the Venezuelan Environmental Organizations Network (Red ARA) in November, 2013, there is data pointing to gold mining in the basins of Cuyuní, Caroní and Caura rivers of Bolívar state, as well as in different areas of Amazonas state, where it has been banned by law since 1989.

2En estas bateas llega el ultimo lo do, del cual se puede separar oro en forma de polvillo, suelen hacerlo los niños. Foto cortesía de Ana Gisela Pérez.
An improvised system to separate gold from sediments in an illegal mining settlement in Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Ana Gisela Pérez.

Poisoning parks and indigenous peoples 

According to the 2013 study published by Red ARA, there are also gold mines in independent indigenous territories known as Áreas Bajo Régimen de Administración Especial (or ABRAES) found in Canaima National Park, Duida Marawaka, Yapacana, Parima Tapirapecó, La Neblina and in the Biosphere Reserve of Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare. The document shows worryingly high levels of mercury contamination in the Ye ́kuana and Sanema indigenous communities.

“Around 92% of women in the study show very high levels of mercury; higher than the two milligrams per kilo limit which was established by the World Health Organization.” Meanwhile, almost 37% of those women faced childbirth complications related to their exposure to mercury.

Among the most vulnerable groups, RED Ara points to indigenous communities with a fish-based diet, as well as small children and fetuses that could suffer malformations, neurological problems, and other developmental issues. Between 1987 and 2006, the study says, the highest doses of mercury in the world were found in mining communities in Venezuela.

A mining settlement next to an abandoned pit, now a mosquito breeding area. Photo courtesy of Ana Gisela Pérez.
A mining settlement next to an abandoned pit, now a mosquito breeding area. Photo courtesy of Ana Gisela Pérez.

Mining and human rights

Under pressure from environmental organizations, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro approved the Mining Development Plan 2016-2018 late last year, which would leave gold exploration and exploitation in the hands of the state.

Maduro described the plan as “an effort to start reducing illegal mining and give work to Venezuelan artisanal miners.” However, the initiative is expected to focus on legalizing artisanal mining and invite foreign inversion in the mining sector. “We are calling on foreign investors, because there are many opportunities for gold and diamond mining, as well as the mining of other metals,” said Maduro.

PhyNatura’s Luis Jiménez says a multidisciplinary approach is way overdue in Venezuela when it comes to mining. This would involve not just greater government participation and regulation, but a dialogue between conservation nonprofits, indigenous communities, universities, and society in general so that lasting solutions for the current “perfect storm” can be found. 

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