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The Mining Arc and the environment

The 111,843 square kilometers in the Orinoco Mining Arc cover four areas: Guanay, La Paragua and Caura, the Caroní River watershed, and the Imataca Forest Reserve


08 de abril de 2016 23:59 PM

Actualizado el 11 de abril de 2016 16:47 PM


The Mining Arc and the environment

The so-called "Orinoco Mining Arc" is a decree intended to fostering the development of mining in a vast area covering 111,843 square kilometers (approximately 12% of the national territory), encompassing the north of Bolivar state and parts of the Amazonas and Delta Amacuro states, whereby mining concessions are to be granted to some 150 mining companies from around the world.

As former senator Alexander Luzardo -who authored the environmental provisions in the Constitution of 1999- explains, this is a vast area with a great biodiversity, covering protected forestry reserves established by decree. Such is the case with the Imataca Forest Reserve (with an area of 3,000,800 hectares); La Paragua and El Caura (with an area of 5,134,000 hectares); the Cerro Guanay Natural Monument, established by decree in 1991; and the Caroní River watershed (with an area of96,000 Km2), the largest fresh water body in Venezuela and the main source of hydroelectric power generation of the country, supplying 60% of the hydroelectric power that feeds the Guri dam and hydroelectric complex.

The Bolívar State Protection Zone, established by decree in 1975, is the largest in Venezuela, covering 7,262,000 hectares (80% of the State). Luzardo, a prominent sociologist and environmentalist, notes that establishing those zones was an important bequest by the democratic period, “without which there wouldn’t be a Guri Dam.”  This issue is taking on greater relevance in the wake of Corpoelec’s -a state-owned holding company created in 2007 to consolidate the power sector - announcing on March 28 that the water level of the Guri Dam had reached 244.89 meters above sea level (masl), placing the dam at 89 centimeters away from the verge of electrical collapse (244 masl).

Luzardo warns of an impending ecological catastrophe to be brought about by the decree on an area nearly the size of the State of Ohio (approximately 12% of Venezuela’s territory),which will adversely affect present and future generations. Hence he has no hesitation in referring to the decree as “an ecological crime” similar to that perpetrated by the former Soviet Union in the Aral Sea basin.

Indeed, in that textbook case, agricultural demands deprived this large Central Asian salt lake of enough water to sustain itself, as it was diverted to irrigate cotton and other export crops. The negative effects far outweighed the economic gains - the Aral has shrunk by more than 90% in the last 50 years; widespread environmental consequences include fisheries loss, water and soil contamination, and dangerous levels of polluted airborne sediments. 

The reasons for the decree

The Bolivarian Economic Agenda launched by the Venezuelan government, includes the development of 14 “engines” to bolster as many economic sectors. The Mining Engine is one of such plans. The so-called "Mining Arc," as defined in the Presidential decree No.2248, seeks to foster transition from the traditional rentier oil model and promote the development of legal, orderly mining in a region possessing approximately 200 million tons of bauxite and 44,000 tons of gold and diamond.

At the launching of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda, the governor of Bolivar state, Francisco Rangel Gómez, said that the Orinoco Mining Arc could place Venezuela as the world's second biggest gold reserve, and Bolivar state as an economic alternative different from oil. The event was attended by representatives of more than 150 companies from 35 foreign countries, who were interested in investing in Venezuela.

Venezuela's Central Bank President Nelson Merentes announced that in April a number of mining joint ventures would be entered into with Canadian, American and German firms to develop gold, copper, silver and coltan in the Orinoco Mining Arc, as part of the agreements signed by the Venezuelan State for the development and exploitation of minerals.

“Mining will have a positive impact on the Gross National Product,” Merentes said.

The decree will grant some facilities to these companies. Article 21 states that "the National Executive may grant total or partial income tax and VAT exemption to mining-related activities in order to promote the development of the Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone.”

An already intervened area

In 2010, while the country was undergoing extensive drought associated with the recurring weather phenomenon commonly known as El Niño, as is currently the case, El Universal interviewed Lelys Bravo, a researcher with the Simón Bolívar University and a member of a team of scientists who has delved into biodiversity in the Caroní watershed. She said that the intervention suffered by the Gran Sabana has altered the hydrological cycle of the watershed. According to Bravo, while El Niño has adversely affected climate and the rate of rains in the region, the most serious effects come from deforestation(turning the rainforest into savanna), mining (responsible for water contamination and increasing the sediment load of rivers) and frequent fires in the savanna. Bravo explained that the studies conducted by the team of scientists, headed by Eugenio Sanhueza, of the Venezuelan Scientific Research Institute (IVIC), had found that a burnt area in that region takes three to four years to recover.

Five years after the grave situation affecting the Caroní River watershed and the Guri Dam the root causes are still present. According to Luzardo, the government's encouraging the establishment of mining cooperatives has led to a significant increase in illegal mining throughout the Caroní river watershed, attracting an estimated 30,000 miners, mostly Brazilians, Colombians and Guyanese. Later on, in an effort to stem the tide of miners coming into the area attracted by gold and diamond rushes, efforts were made to find miners different jobs as part of a failed mining reconversion plan.

Luzardo notes that illegal mining has spread throughout the Caroní watershed and, as denounced by locals and environmentalists last year, it is wreaking havoc at the Canaima National Park. There is no doubt in his mind that the concessions granted under the so-called “Mining Arc” will further promote devastating gold rushes.

Chávez's environmental legacy

At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the late President Hugo Chávez blamed capitalism for climate change and said socialism was the only way to save the planet and reduce climate change.

“Let’s not change the climate, let’s change the system! And consequently we will begin to save the planet. Capitalism is a destructive development model that is putting an end to life; it threatens to put a definitive end to the human species,” Chávez said.

As a presidential hopeful in November 1998, a month before winning the election, Chávez vowed to save the Imataca Forest, to protect the Amazon and Guayana, lakes Maracaibo and Valencia, national parks, and the Orinoco River, and synthesized his proposal with the slogan: "For the right to clean water and clean air." As a result, many ecological groups in the country jumped on the Chávez bandwagon.

Other measures

Despite wording where terms such as "endogenous," "sustainable" or "eco-socialism" abound, expansion and populating policies for the Caroní watershed took root under the governments of Chavez and Maduro, Luzardo says. The mining decree on the Imataca Forest Reserve is a case in point.

Decree 1810 creating the Imataca Forest Reserve with the purpose of protecting humid tropical forest for the specific use of wood production was enacted under the Rafael Caldera administration. It sparked rejection from environmental and indigenous groups. Decree 3110, approved by the Chávez government in September 2004, allows  the intervention in 40% of the Imataca Forest Reserve and  permits  small-, medium- and large-scale mining, with large mining concessions being granted to consortia from international allies.

Equally noteworthy is the resumption of works on the power line connecting the Guri hydro-power plant in southeastern Venezuela with remote northern Brazil. The project has been opposed by local indigenous groups and by environmental groups in Venezuela, who warned that the power line would run through a unique, delicate ecosystem, including the Imataca Reserve and the Canaima National Park. It was inaugurated in August 2000 by then Brazilian President Jose Inázio Lula da Silva and his Venezuelan counterpart. Back then, facing resistance from indigenous groups, Chavez said: "The government should ensure the completion of the power line, despite the positions of some radical, anarchic indigenous groups, which do not represent the majority and are possibly being aided and abetted by strangers."

The initial project contemplated developing a transmission line from the Guri hydroelectric plant, on Venezuela's Caroni River, across the Brazilian border to Boa Vista and Manaus. But it was later scaled-back, bringing electricity to Boa Vista only. With 680 kilometers, the transmission line cost USD 400 million and supplies the Brazilian city with 230 kV, but it has dropped by 70% due to the crisis facing the Guri hydroelectric plant.

Twitter: folivares10

Translated by Sancho Araujo

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