- FRANCISCO OLIVARES
13 de mayo de 2016 23:59 PM
Flying over the northern part of Bolívar state (south Venezuela), southeastwards -in the direction of the mining areas located in Upata, El Callao, Tumeremo, El Dorado and, finally, Las Claritas, at kilometer 88- inspires a conflicting feeling. The natural beauty of the region contrasts with the progressive devastation across the forests caused by the humankind.
In leaving Ciudad Guayana, we can see the savannah, inhabited in the past few years by peasants coming from elsewhere in Venezuela. Columns of smoke flow out from the burning-off of scrubs in the plots of land that will be used for a smallholding or an improvised dwelling.
The draught of the last months has left a mark in those extensive areas; the atmosphere is loaded with the smoke of the burning-off. It is the haze, intensified by the effects of the rays of sunlight falling vertically on that region.
Going deeper into the Imataca Forest Reserve of 3,700,000 hectares, the greenery enhances the red color of the broken land, assaulted by hydraulic pumps, and the brownish color of the rivers impacted by uncontrolled mining that sweeps the vegetal surface to pick up the metallic sand containing gold, copper and silver, abundant in the area.
Cuyuní River, for instance, lacks aquatic fauna because of the high contamination level caused by mercury, cyanide and ferrous oxide, extremely harmful for both humans and animals.
It causes a sensation of a plague that eats the forest and the water bodies away, gradually leaving a dead land.
Last April 19, El Universal joined an expert team, backed by military officers, composed of ecologists, environmentalists, specialists in cutting-edge mining, oil and mining authorities, and representatives of the Ministry of Environment to define the status of the area impacted by illegal mining, particularly in Las Claritas, Sifontes municipality, Bolívar state.
As appears from official papers, the Venezuelan government intends to regulate exploitation in all those areas where illegal mining operates.
Back in 2008, illegal mining took over the area following a measure taken by late President Hugo Chávez, resulting in the eviction of major mining companies that used to operate as concessionaries.
Now, some 10,000 miners and cooperatives occupy approximately 50,000 hectares and engage in alluvial mining, with no control of the use of polluting materials, and illegal trade. Those groups go deeper into the Imataca jungle as the capacity of the exploited area narrows.
The Mining Arc
Last February 24, the Venezuelan government issued a decree on the establishment of the “strategic development zone” or “Mining Arc.” Moreover, the government announced that near 150 multinational companies would be waitlisted for concessions. The area of concern encompasses 111,843 square kilometers in the northern part of Bolívar state, covering four zones, from the border with Amazonas state through the west, at the border of Guyana. In the public opinion and according to some environmentalists, mining could strike the whole region. That, they fear, could inflict an ecological crime.
Nonetheless, a thorough review of the studies conducted by several authorities and ministerial agencies and retrieved by El Universal found that the area is yet to be included in the land and layout planning and only 12% out of the territory is set to be granted in form of concessions.
Based on the official papers, the government just intends to regulate exploitation in all those areas where illegal mining operates, attract world companies that use environmental-friendly, state-of-the-art technology, and recruit small-scale miners in controlled mining programs.
Concomitantly, the government targets at international certification of gold and diamonds. In this way, “rational exploitation will enter a legal circuit.” Notably, the government has acknowledged in such studies that most of the minerals are smuggled out and illegally traded abroad. Eventually, doré gold can be certified in Europe, Japan, China or Panama and sold in the world market. Authorities have conceded as well that organized crime in complicity with several public and private groups run the business.
The situation right now
As a result of the murder of miners in Tumeremo, authorities tracked several armed gangs that control the “mining bullas.”
Investigation agencies identified the connection of public servants and military officers with illegal mining and smuggling of minerals, a local top security authority told El Universal. Those mafias smuggle a significant volume of gold out the country by air or land. In this business chain, illegal miners are just the first link.
Numerous vans and four-wheel drive vehicles, in addition to satellite communication dishes, stand out in the small camps as evidence of the incredible operating capacity of mining organizations operating on site.
In order to counteract the influence of such organizations over the troops, the military contingents responsible for the custody of the “Strategic Region for Guayana Comprehensive Defense” have been replaced.
Carlos Chancellor, mayor of Sifontes municipality and very active in the complaints regarding the murder of the 17 miners, has lobbied for small-scale mining. In view of the decree on the establishment of the Mining Arc and related granting of concessions to major mining companies, he is afraid that 20,000 small-scale miners are at stake.
In Venezuela, there are not plants able to process gold with a certified quality.
Illegal and artisanal mining uses virtually manual stripping, including cyanide to remove copper from gold. This process has proven to affect 90% of the impacted land. To the contrary, depth-mining works at 800-1000 meters in depth, impacts only controlled areas and makes use of a mechanism to disintegrate cyanide in dedicated tanks.
Translated by Conchita Delgado