Indigenous Venezuelans Decry Illegal Mining on Army’s Watch

Caracas, Venezuela (PanAm) – On Monday, June 1, members of Venezuela’s indigenous Pemon people blocked the landing strip in the Canaima National Park, southern Bolívar State, to protest the government’s failure to respond to illegal mining in their ancestral lands. The demonstration lasted three days.

Caracas, Venezuela.  Image Source: Julio César Mesa

Caracas, Venezuela.
Image Source: Julio César Mesa

The problem centers on Bolívar and the neighboring State of Amazonas, home to the majority of Venezuela’s natural riches and minimal state presence. The area has become a no-man’s land, and an area of profiteering for many. The two regions between them comprise more than a third of Venezuela’s territory, but are home to a population of barely two million people.

The Venezuelan government, however, can hardly claim that the indigenous protest took it by surprise. Between January and April of this year alone, the Vice Presidency of the Republic issued at least nine alerts about the presence of unlicensed miners in the area, exploiting reserves of gold, diamonds, coltan, and other high-value minerals.

In documents written up by the office of Vice President Jorge Arreaza, communities in the area are reported to have warned the authorities that outsiders continue to indiscriminately extract gold and diamonds from the earth of Bolívar State. They also alleged that members of the National Guard, far from preventing the interlopers, are complicit in the illegal activity.

“Illegal mining in Bolívar is nothing new,” says Venezuelan journalist Valentina Quintero.

“In October 2014, we were here because the Pemon were protesting that they couldn’t practice small-scale mining, because the National Guard restricted their access to fuel. They do mining and they don’t hide it, but outside of Canaima. The protest now is because the intruders are damaging the national park,” she explains.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López responded to the protest, denying that illegal mining is being practised within the Canaima National Park, despite former Tourism Minister Andrés Izarra publicly denouncing the activity in recent months, and publishing photos showing the damage caused to the reserve’s soil.

“The defense minister claims that they threw out the miners in an operation in December. But it’s an illusion to think that this is going to eradicate the problem in a single day, and that the miners are going to abandon the area, when there’s no permanent guard,” adds Quintero, a passionate advocate for Venezuela’s tourism industry.

Padrino López’s claim was also rebutted rebutted by Bolívar Governor Francisco Rangel Gómez, Indigenous People’s Minister Aloha Núñez, and current Tourism Minister Marlenis Contreras, who immediately responded that the illegal extraction of mineral resources from the region is still ongoing.

Diamond Drain

Another document written by National Guard officials in early 2015 specifies that Venezuela is losing up to US$2 million a month through illegal diamond mining in Bolívar State.

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The report suggests that miners are extracting up to 4,000 carats of diamonds a month in sectors ranging from Los Caribes to Urimán. The illegal operators principally come from Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana.

In the same text, National Guard officials note that the majority of the diamonds mined and trafficked in Venezuela are white, eight-sided diamonds, which are usually obscured by other substances upon being taken out of the ground. However, after cleaning and polishing, they fetch huge prices on the international market.

“Illegal mining has escaped from the hands of the authorities and the indigenous peoples. The reaction of the indigenous people is because now they’re beginning to see miners’ boats on the river, illegal deforestation, and unnatural coloration of the river. This affects all of us, so we’re supporting the Pemon’s cause, because this will also greatly affect the flow of tourists visiting us,” says Raúl Caldera, manager at the Waku Lodge.

Caldera emphasizes that the Venezuelan government has been warned on repeated occasions about the dangers of severe environmental degradation in Canaima, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, which is home to the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls.

Another report written in November 2014 by the Vice President’s Office reports that illegal diamond mining in Venezuela has been ongoing since 2011. In one table, the authorities signal that legal exploitation went from 7,730 carats in 2009, to barely 2,099 carats in 2010. From then on, levels of diamond extraction have not been measured.

The same is taking place with gold. The document, written between November 8 and 13, 2014, notes that Venezuela went from producing 12.2 tons of gold in 2009 to only extracting a ton of the metal in 2014.

The nine alerts issued by Arreaza’s office in 2015 clearly say that the illegal traffic of these resources is being carried out by land, air, and on the region’s rivers, despite the control of fuel in the region being entirely in soldiers’ hands.

“There the camps and the indigenous population have to justify before the authorities all the fuel they use, certifying every movement, every journey, every trip, because they control all of that. So how are those practicing illegal mining there obtaining fuel? Only the authorities can answer that, because what’s more, there’s no way to way to reach these areas they’re damaging without using the Campo Carrao airstrip,” Quintero tells the PanAm Post.

The national park’s indigenous peoples are complaining that the illegal miners are flying out from the La Paragua base itself, where the military control the distribution of fuel for the entire region, the journalist explains. The environmental damage, and the resulting impact on the tourism industry, could further exacerbate the hard times faced by residents due to national economic turmoil.

“In this part of Venezuela scarcity is much worse, costs have gone up hugely, and these people suffer from all of these problems. But tourism, the region’s principal economic activity, has also been affected, because people are afraid to venture to get to know this area due to insecurity,” Quintero adds.

Cross-Border Concern

In April 2015, the PanAmPost reported on the exploitation of Coltan reserves in Amazonas state by members of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla. Amazonas Governor Liborio Guaruya admitted to the problem, and argued that he had reported to the National Assembly that the military officials tasked with guarding the area were complicit.

A National Guard report dated January 2015 explains that the guerrilla extract the valuable metal for sale, in order to fund their illegal cross-border activities.

Written by Thabata Molina for PanAmPost.