The guerrillas after coltan

Farmers report that their lands have been taken over by armed groups operating south of Caicara del Orinoco in Bolívar state. By Francisco Olivares

Also called "blue gold," coltan is used in everything from smart phones to smart bombs (Handout photo)
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Saturday February 14, 2015  12:00 AM
Armed groups from Colombia have taken over several productive farms south of Caicara del Orinoco, Bolívar State (south). According to reports from farmers in the area, these groups are set to control the smuggling of coltan ore, a mineral known as "the blue gold of the 21st century," with high demand in the international market. This situation has forced families who for years had been engaged in raising different breeds of cattle and in ecotourism in this region of Bolívar state to flee their land due to threats by these armed groups and the wave of insecurity that has gripped the region.

According to lawyer and farmer Álvaro Rotondaro Gómez, owner and partner of farms Los Espejos and La Mulera, located 180 kilometers south of Caicara del Orinoco, about 300 armed men have been spotted in the area. He is quite certain that these men are Colombian rebels from the FARC, an organization that has been very active in the area in recent years.

Rotondaro says that this situation began seven years ago, when small groups made up of 3 to 4 armed individuals started to arrive in the area. Their presence became increasingly noticeable, particularly last year, when they virtually took control of the region. This has blighted the farmers' lives barring them from their farms to engage in production activities. "For security reasons I had to move my entire family away," says Rotondaro. The situation worsened in 2014 when the number of irregulars increased. That is when it dawned on them that the guerrillas were there to control the black market trade of coltan ore, which is abundant in this region.

Rotondaro notes that the main sites of this strategic mineral extraction in the area are located near the rivers Suapure, Guainiamito, Caño Santo, Pista Larga, Guadajé and San Juan de Manapiare.

Native young Piaroa Indians are used, and the ore is transported by motorbike to the centers where buyers lie in wait, including Puerto Carreño, a Colombian town across the border with Amazonas state.

Rotondaro says that coltan exploitation has halted economic activity in his two farms, as well as tourism. Los Espejos is an estate of 3,000 hectares devoted to breeding Brahman cattle and raising sheep, while La Mulera, with 8,500 hectares, specialized in raising buffaloes. From the production of both farms almost nothing remains, as staff members are unable to come to work.

It is worth noting however that, compared to those in the llanos (plains), farms in Bolívar state are generally smaller and have fewer cattle due to land conditions, so they specialize on raising high quality breeds of livestock. This activity is combined with ecotourism given the beauty of the region. Both activities are often developed in harmony with the local Piaroa Indian community.

Mining in that area is causing serious damage to the environment and diverting the activities of the indigenous communities.

According to Rotondaro, complaints made to Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and other state agencies have not proven effectual in bringing protection to farmers and to the Piaroa Indian community itself, which is also affected by the presence of the guerrilla. "There is collusion between armed groups and those with responsibility in safeguarding the region," Rotondaro says.

Coltan ore

As we published in March 2012 in a Dossier entitled "Venezuela emerges as new source of ‘conflict' minerals," for Venezuelans, coltan ore went from being virtually unknown to a household name thanks to an announcement by then-President Hugo Chavez, "A strategic mineral called coltan has appeared now, and we have militarized the zone because smugglers were sneaking it into Colombia," said Chávez on October 15, 2009.

As it seems, the warning of the late president have fallen on deaf ears. Today, coltan ore contraband is an illegal business spanning across Bolívar and Amazonas States, the first link of a smuggling chain that starts at ore deposits in both States, sustains an underground economy –including players in the drug world– in bordering countries like Colombia and Brazil, and, after being "laundered" by traders in far-off countries like South Korea, ends up in an array of devices like electronic brains, gaming consoles, cell phones and guided missiles.

Venezuelan coltan is offered for sale in websites like Tradeboss.com, alongside gold, diamonds and aluminum from Bolívar and Amazonas states.

Coltan is a composite of metals, primarily columbite and tantalite, from which the elements niobium and tantalum (respectively the 41st and 73d elements of the periodic table of Mendeleev) are extracted. Both elements belong to the so-called "rare earth" metal ores. Tantalum enables the manufacture of extremely tiny capacitors for a variety of electronic devices ranging from cell phones to missiles.

In our journalistic piece we described how the buzz about coltan became noticeable in places like the town of Parguaza, on the banks of the Orinoco River in southern Venezuela.

In one of the mines looming amidst vast expanses of savannah in the Los Gallitos area, prospectors say quite categorically that foreigners cross into Venezuelan territory and haul off the minerals. "Colombians are the ones who move this stone here," said Flandes, a Parguaza miner who didn't want his full name used.

"As cars don't enter in this region, [foreign buyers] come with motorbikes and then go to the port of El Burro, where they take a motorboat that leaves them in Puerto Carreño," just a 15-minute trip across the Orinoco River from Venezuela," added Flandes. His father, also a miner, assists him in prospecting for the so-called "black pebbles."

The guerrilla presence

The presence of armed guerrillas in Bolivar and Amazonas States has been repeatedly denounced by indigenous organizations to government agencies and NGOs like the Venezuelan human rights groups Provea (the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights) and Laboratorio de Paz (Peace Laboratory).

According to a Provea report, indigenous chiefs, councilmen and the villagers of Eñepa and Jodi filed a complaint with the Ombudsman's Office on October 31, 2014 against the presence of FARC guerrillas in their territory, allegedly acting in connivance with Venezuelan authorities.

The detailed complaint handed to the authorities, a copy of which was sent to Provea, states that in early October, four armed individuals dressed in camouflage passed through the Maigualida sierra in Bolívar state.

On October 2, they visited the Eñepa and Jodi villages, and were later seen in Jkwiwi Jtaune, where they were questioned by the authorities about their presence there. 

The guerrillas said they were heading for the Caura river to meet with some fellow FARC rebels. They said they were there "by orders of the President," pursuing paramilitary groups. Eye witnesses claim that the four alleged guerrilla members were picked up by an Armed Forces plane and flown to Ciudad Bolívar, the state's capital city.

In their complaint -which was filed by 13 legitimate authorities of the Jodi and Eñepa peoples of San José de Kayamá-containing more than 200 signatures of local residents, the Indians stated: "We don't want this situation to be repeated. We also want to make clear to our fellow Venezuelans and to anyone that this is our ancestral land, our home, our life and culture; that is why we love it and always have cared for it. And we, the Eñepa and Jodi peoples, are willing to defend it even with our own lives. We, the Eñepa and Jodi peoples, are the first inhabitants of this land, the indigenous peoples; so help us care for it and defend it, we also are Venezuela."

In another complaint delivered to Provea on May 15, 2013, Piaroa Indians living in the Sipapo, Cuao, Autana, Guayapo and Mid Orinoco areas enclosed a letter addressed to the FARC expressing their strong opposition to their presence and movement within their territories. "We do not agree with the exploitation of minerals in our habitat and territory (...). We, the Uwottujä people, have traditionally and ancestrally been unarmed and peaceful. We are destined to live in peace and not to live with armed groups within our territories (...). We request you to look for alternative ways to return to your place of origin or country."

In June, Oipus, a Piaroa Indian organization, notified the Public Prosecution Service and the Ombudsman's Office of the situation, but these institutions have done nothing.  In December they went to the Attorney General's Office and the National Assembly to reiterate their complaint about the presence of illegal miners, mining transnational corporations, and FARC guerrillas in their territory.  They were promised a right to speak before the Venezuelan National Assembly's Indigenous Peoples Committee, but a date was not specified.

The governor of Venezuela's Amazonas State, Liborio Guarulla, puts the number of guerrillas in his state at 4,000. He also said that only five kilometers away from the state's capital Puerto Ayacucho, the guerrillas have held meetings to extort protection money, known as vacunas, or vaccinations, out of local businesspeople. "The guerrilla is in the center of Amazonas, in the mining areas and their presence constitutes a violation of sovereignty," he said.

Translated by Sancho Araujo