Digging Into the Mining Arc

,

InfoAmazonia, El Callao, Venezuela

For three months reporter Bram Ebus travelled Venezuela’s disputed mining areas where he was confronted with illegal armed groups, indigenous communities repressed by Colombian guerrillas and enclaves of informal miners tormented by malaria. An illegal detention by the National Guard almost prematurely ended this investigation.

In this journey, we talked to miners, companies, academics, indigenous, politicians and activists and gathered exclusive material on Latin America’s most underreported natural resources conflict.

With muddy hands, a miner throws mineral-rich rocks into a spinning mechanical mill that crushes the stones to be processed with mercury. At a small distance, a few soldiers hang around. The military escorted us during our visit to the green hills next to El Callao, one of many heavily contested mining hotspots in Venezuela. “A shootout or a massacre could happen any moment, all days were like this,” another miner enthusiastically tells about the violent behaviour applied by armed groups that fought for access to this very mine.

The gold that is extracted will end up on the world market in the form of jewellery, locked up in a bank or used in electronics, but few people will know about its origin. “They work commando style,” the miner continues about the nightly shootouts in the hills surrounding the village where bullets are shot at every visible headlight as a curfew is imposed by active gangs. Most of the miners do not want to be named as they fear repercussions from armed actors in the region.

The Venezuelan military also participates in the violence and is often involved in mining through associated gangs and its own operations. Venezuela’s armed forces gained power during the presidency of the late Hugo Chávez. Clíver Alcalá Cordones, a Chávez loyalist who retired in 2013, was a Major General that held command in the mining regions. At a meeting in a hotel lobby in Bogotá, Colombia, he explains that Maduro is increasingly handing over power to the military and government sectors that now partake in what is called “disaster and pillage”.

A road trip to the south of Venezuela, near many illegal gold mines, gives the impression that the region is well controlled. While driving on the main roads, we are interrupted every 30 minutes at checkpoints by armed National Guardsmen, who are charged with maintaining internal public order—but when approaching the mines, it is the military that runs the show.

It does not really matter if the gold has a legal or an illegal origin, whether it is mined by companies or gangs. Four areas in Bolívar state, decreed in 2016 as an immense mining zone and branded the Arco Minero del Orinoco (Spanish for “Orinoco Mining Arc”), represent a dark symbiosis of both worlds.

What matters most, is the impact that the Arco Minero creates on the region. The four areas overlap many legally-protected environmental and indigenous territories, which will likely lead to their destruction. Miners risk their health and lives as working conditions are unsafe and mining areas violently disputed. Damage to the environment is of no concern to the enclaves of subsistence miners and the brutal forces that control them. Moreover, the environment is considered inconsequential by the government that created the legal framework that sanctions all the extraction activities.

Alexander Luzardo, a former senator with a doctorate in political and environmental law, has been personally involved in Venezuela’s environmental legislation. He wrote the environmental standards for the current constitution, in place since 1999. With these standards he underlined how important it is for Venezuela to protectenvironmentally vital regions. However, in 2016, he saw his decrees violated by the Arco Minero. “The Arco Minero is illegal. It denies the existence and creation of protected areas by decree,” Luzardo says in an interview at a small coffee shop on the campus of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), in Caracas, where he currently teaches.

The professor has a very grim prediction for the country. “This is the easiest road for environmental destruction in Venezuela. The big contribution from Venezuela to the destruction of the planet,” Luzardo says. The professor adds that Venezuela had made some impressive progress in terms of environmental protection and fears that the Arco Minero will undo it all: “This project is the worst answer to the crisis and the denial of the whole environmental project.”

Not much is known about mining in a country that has built its entire economy on its nationalized oil industry. Now the government is tapping into another finite resource, because Venezuela not only possesses the world’s largest oil supplies, but also claims to have the second biggest gold reserve. If Venezuela is able to certify the deposits, it would undoubtedly be welcome news during the country’s darkest hour.

The country has already found itself in financial and political turmoil, but current levels of hyperinflation and shortages in basic products are driving the economy towards rock bottom. The government needs concrete solutions, hence the announcement that a significant part of the country will be opened for a new motor of economic development: mining.

The billions of dollars generated by oil and gas exploitations financed President Chávez’s social programs from 1999 until his death in 2013. Unfortunately these revenues dried up after structural self-enrichment by the country’s elites and declining oil prices after 2014.

“It is a desperate move by the Maduro government to raise cash,” says David Smilde, sociology professor at Tulane University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There is a very real danger that it will lead to ecologically destructive mining operations in a territory with incredible biodiversity and protected indigenous populations.” He is convinced that Venezuela will destroy an important resource, in terms of watersheds and potential tourism, for short term gains.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

Economies that are merely based on what is hidden in the ground do not necessarily mean trouble, financially speaking. “I actually have a somewhat different view from many scholars and think a rentier economy is not the basic problem, bad policies are,” says Smilde. “I think Venezuela’s current problems have less to do with the decline of the oil price and more to do with unsustainable economic policies. Remember that the 2014 cycle of protest was in part motivated by scarcities, inflation and unemployment, and that oil was almost $100 a barrel. The model was already unsustainable, the drop in oil prices has just hastened its decline.”

While international creditors desperately try to get their money back from Venezuela, which is on the verge of a default, there is somebody who is happy with the Arco Minero. It’s President Maduro. With a curious smile under his characteristic moustache, he shows a gold ingot to the Venezuelan press. The gold belongs to one of the first batches coming from the Arco Minero, an area of no less than 112 thousand square kilometres bordering the southern side of the Orinoco River, the main source of water for Venezuela and the third most important in Latin America. 

In August 2016 Maduro officially announced: “The Arco Minero is now a reality”. According to the government, 150 companies from 35 countries were willing to invest in mining, but after the big announcement, concrete mining projects remain absent.

There were a lot of press junkets and even a new Mining Ministry was created. A joint venture with Endiama, an Angolan public mining company, was signed to mine diamonds and a handshake with the Palestinian ambassador, revealed that two Palestinian corporations want to mine for coltan. The usual allies, China and Russia, both want a piece of Venezuela’s cake of minerals on their plate, mainly for debt management with both countries that facilitated loans. In total, Venezuela has a $150bn debt to pay to a long list of creditors.

The world’s biggest gold mining company, Barrick Gold, responded to our enquiry, explaining: “While Barrick did participate in a review of mining projects in the country, the company is not pursuing any projects or investments in Venezuela.” Maduro, however, claimed to have signed a contract with Barrick Gold in August 2016.

More than a year after Maduro’s announcements, talking about who really controls mining in the crisis-ridden country remains taboo. “Behind mining in Venezuela, there has always been the opacity of military factors”, says Américo de Grazia, who belongs to the political opposition and is a deputy in the government-sidelined parliament. De Grazia represents the state where most of the gold reserves are hidden, Bolívar, the state where most of the gold reserves are hidden. “[Illegal] mining has been criminalized for the public opinion, but their own clandestinity is allowed. Here the maximum operator [the ones in charge] are the public forces, and the practical operator [the executor] is organized crime,” he says.

Venezuela has an astonishing number of generals – about two thousand – and the armed forces rule the Arco Minero, which is underlined by De Grazia and Luzardo, who argue that military domination extends to most of the mining sector. They extort the gangs that operate the illegal mines and control the export routes. Mining is a cash machine that slowly is becoming institutionalized. Last year, the Anonymous Military Company of Mining, Petroleum and Gas Industries (Camimpeg) was created alongside a ‘Military Economic Zone’. Active or former military personnel are present in about 30 percent of the state companies with public boards of directors. Knowing that the Arco Minero will be exploited by joint ventures in which state companies will have a majority share, it is very likely the military remain in charge.

De Grazia says that generals are frequently changed, as are military personnel on the boards of companies: “Every military person that arrives wants to be rich overnight, which makes him more cruel, more violent and his norms will be more inhuman because he knows that the path to enriching himself is this, and that he has one or two months, maybe a year to do so.”

“When we destroyed some illegal mining activities, the miners complained about it, because they paid the military before,” says Alcalá, the retired general who held command in the mining regions. He mentions that many planes illegally export a majority of Venezuela’s gold to the Caribbean Islands. The military is involved: “They get [the plane] off the radar so they do not know where it is.”

Alcalá confirms that the army receives significant benefits from illegal mining, while the gangs that operate the mines, use violence to maintain control. “Since a year, there have been massacres executed by the army in some areas because there is gold.”

An analysis of press reports by the Observatory of Violence and Crime in Bolívar state shows that in the first ten months of 2017, at least 1,415 people have been murdered there, many of them in mining areas. An accurate estimate of people killed in clashes between violent gangs and shootouts with the army is impossible to obtain, as it is not unusual that migrant miners, who are not from the region themselves, end up in clandestine graves after being murdered in remote areas.

Although Venezuela’s uncontrolled mining conflict is nothing new, the real battle for access to mineral resources seems just to have begun. Legalised looting not only directly impacts Venezuela and its border areas, but also the global demand for minerals and the numerous international networks of resource traffickers abroad. Therefore, the damage that is done to one of the most important ecosystems, the Amazon, makes the Arco Minero an issue of international interest. 

Unrest in Venezuela’s cradle of gold mining

Venezuela does not have an elaborate mining history like its neighbours Colombia and Brazil, but if there is one place in the country that traditionally breathes mining, it is El Callao. The face of the village in Bolívar state changed forever when gold was discovered there in The face of the village in Bolívar state changed forever when gold was discovered in 1853 and it even became the world’s leading gold producer in 1885. Various foreign companies operated mines in the area, but it is Minerven, a company created in 1970 and nationalised four years later, that has exploited most gold coming from El Callao.

Local miners tell that working for Minerven used to mean status, and that employees would wear company shirts with honour, but things have changed in recent years. Minerven has fallen into decay. Production plants have been dismantled and the yearly production targets are not met, by far. Meanwhile, many armed groups have started to overtake the larger mines that surround the village. About one year ago, the Venezuelan army increased its presence the area – for its own gain, many say – and has not stopped fighting with gangs and killing their members ever since.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

Mining in El Callao belongs to the Arco Minero project. About four mixed companies claim to be part of it, but a visit to El Callao is more than enough to understand that illegal and legal mining go hand in hand.

Not only is most of the population directly or indirectly involved in the rudimentary extraction of gold, but mining and village life are intertwined. Wherever you are in El Callao, you probably will not have to walk more than a minute to find a gold merchant while it is a more difficult task to encounter a bakery or a supermarket.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

In the evenings, when most shops close up and when most miners dedicate themselves to their favourite activity – drinking – you will see people sweeping the floor in front of the gold shops, not only to clean, but to find gold. Flakes of gold can be accidently dropped by an uncareful salesman, and small shavings of gold get lost while burning the mercury amalgam, which is an activity that one prefers to do in front of the shop so that the toxic mercury fumes do not remain indoors.

In 2017, until mid-November the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) received 8.5kg of gold, all from Minerven. “El Callao is maintaining Venezuela,” comments the owner of a gold pawn shop on the central square of the village. However, according to various miners and Minerven personnel interviewed for this report, the gold does not originally come from Minerven, but from the small-scale, and illegal mines.

"We are authorized to buy from 17 or 18 associations of artisanal gold producers, but we know they buy from illegal miners."
— Minerven source

“I can’t affirm that Minerven buys from illegal mines, because on paper it is not like that,” a Minerven source says. “We are authorized to buy from 17 or 18 associations of artisanal gold producers, but we know they buy from illegal miners. That’s how it works now. Everyday people are looking to conduct business with us to become legal.”

Miners explain that only a minor portion of Venezuela’s gold production ends up at the BCV. Most of it is smuggled abroad by the army and organized crime. “Eight thousand kilos are nothing,” says retired general Clíver Alcalá Cordones. “It goes to Aruba and Curacao.” About 80 per cent of Venezuela’s gold illegally leaves the country by airplanes transporting contraband, according to Alcalá.

Since the 19th century, various international companies, from France, the United Kingdom, and Russia have entered the region to mine the rich gold veins that not only surround the village, but run right beneath it. Neighbourhoods around the centre slowly became mines

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

It is not uncommon for a house to have a few processing mills in its backyard close to various holes in the ground.These holes must not be mistaken for bad sewerage – they are mining tunnels that lead to various horizontal mining galleries.

“Confrontations have already been taking place for two years, these occur because there are many mining zones here,” says a local miner from El Callao. “Mining zones are big, there are neighbourhoods with mining. If one neighbourhood has too much gold, another neighbourhood wants to enter. Not to work, but to rob with weapons in their hands and to get rid of the people who have gold they want to take.”

Villages becomes mines, and mines become villages. Mining areas around El Callao are called Colombia, Peru and Chile, along with other names that were given by previously present foreign mining companies. At the moment, these mines are worked by illegal small-scale miners. They operate under pressure of the local gangs that collaborate with the army. Meanwhile, unknown intruders who have fought for years over the gold mines have already stained El Callao with blood.

“These gangs are called bases here in the municipality. Before, there were three gangs, now there is only one [in charge],” the miner from El Callao explains. Still, various areas are filled with reminiscences of former gangs. “Small bases are still active between the people.” According to the miner, the ones in El Perú are the most horrific. Violent encounters occur frequently. In September, before our visit to El Perú—in a sector under command by a gangster alias “el Toto” – eight people died in a confrontation with the army.

Our pick-up truck is driven by Minerven personnel and leaves El Callao to visit the mines, not the ones controlled by Minerven, but the illegal ones around the village. Here, mineral extraction plants based on the prohibited use of mercury produce gold to sell to the state company.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia 

“Come with us,” our driver shouts at the local army major, who already is waiting for us in a black jeep. He puts an armed soldier in the back of our truck and escorts us with his own transport. We pass various military checkpoints before entering El Perú. The area is completely militarized, but the danger comes from the hilltops where gangs might come down to take over one of the mines. This lurking danger became evident after six locals were killed in a gang shootout the night after our visit.

“If you behave well nothing will happen to you.” One miner, who operates a small gold-processing mill, explains that a ‘vaccine’— an extortion fee of four or five grams of gold per month for each mill—is paid to one of the gangs. With a calm expression on his face, he adds: “If not you will go up [into the hills] and they will turn on the chainsaw.” Horror stories about mass graves and dismemberment are common. Gangs are known to come down to the village and disappear with people in the surrounding hilltops. 

Many of them are migrant workers and came to the region as a result of the crisis and a lack of job opportunities elsewhere in the country. One of those workers crawls out of a makeshift tunnel, followed by his 15-year old nephew. “If I do not work in the mines, I do not have a way to maintain my family,” the former carpenter says.

Close to him rests Minorca Maurera, a 23-year single mom who worked in a bakery before she came to El Callao. “The minimum wage just doesn’t cut it for me. I’m a single mother of three children. I resigned [from the bakery] because of the low wage and came to this place. It is a bit tough, but I’ve been doing quite well. Independently, I can maintain my children now.”

Dusty, slum-like neighbourhoods with dispersed and small makeshift wooden shacks that just have a thin corrugated roof are filled with mining migrants, but also with El Callao natives. More than a century and a half of gold extraction has brought the local population anything but riches, which even makes a hardcore Chavist wary of the Arco Minero.

"The Arco Minero practically has functioned to cover up many things."
— Darwin Lizardi, local coordinator of the government party

“The Arco Minero, practically has functioned to cover up many things,” says Darwin Lizardi Tabor. The 28-year old is the local coordinator of the youth branch of the Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), the government party, and wears a red Minerven cap when we meet him. “The Arco Minero as such has not functioned, man. I will tell you that I’m a revolutionary Chavist, but you need to tell the things as they are. This is camouflage here. I don’t know why. Because in the end it’s hurting us as miners and the village.”

Lizardi is proudly El Callao-born, but times have changed. He explains that his mother grew up in quieter times. “This was when you could leave the door of your house open all night, nobody would enter.” Lizardi’s 66-year old mother now considers leaving the place they both carry in their heart.

Violence and poverty make El Callao a difficult place to live. “The miner is still the dirty one that walks on street. He earns 300 thousand bolívares, drinks a beer and the next day he has nothing and needs to find 0.3 or 0.4 grams of gold to bring food back to his home. A miner should not live like this if the Arco Minero really was functioning.”

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

We continue to speak in a bar closed to outsiders, as miners and alcohol can be a very explosive combination. Lizardi orders new beers as he continues his discourse about the lack of state infrastructure and medicines, all while the locals hand over their gold to the government. “Thanks to the miner, the one that goes down into a tunnel of 100-120 meters, thanks to this miner the state has four tons of gold.”

The Arco Minero has received a lot of criticism in the Venezuelan press, mainly because of its future environmental impact, gang involvement and its presence in indigenous territories. In October, the state’s Ministry of Information went on the counter-attack and published an article that accuses the press of criminalizing the small-scale miners and overlooking the fact that 250 thousand people directly or indirectly depend on the Arco Minero.

“All the gold would be invested in social work in the municipality of El Callao and now, not even an ambulance has arrived,” explains Lizardi, who says the people of El Callao have been promised a lot by the government. “Minerven already has the money from the state to buy the gold from the small miners. What Minerven practically does is to pick up the gold and bring it to the Central Venezuelan Bank. They are not assuming their role as a mining company because all their plants are halted.”

Having your income determined by luck and hard work instead of just working hours is an integral part of mining culture. “At the moment nobody receives a wage. You work to get the gold and the money is yours,” says Eduardo Gutiérrez, a 43-year old man from El Callao who works at one of the processing mills in El Perú.

Gutiérrez is satisfied with the price the state company Minerven pays for his gold and he hopes that the Arco Minero project will send him more resources and equipment, but he still lacks a safe working environment. Gutiérrez touches water mixed with mercury with his bare hands, as he scrapes a mass of gold amalgam from a plate. He then heats the residue with a gas burner to isolate the gold, but makes no effort to cover his face from the toxic mercury fumes.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

Neurological disorders, kidney, lung, and skin problems are most the common health consequences of mercury contamination, says Marianella Herrera, the director of the Venezuelan Health Observatory in Caracas. “One important problem is the exposure to mercury for pregnant woman in the first stages of life. Also, researchers have connected heavy metals exposure, such as mercury, to autism.”

A study carried out in various mining areas in Bolívar state found that only 32 per cent of the children had mercury levels below the safety limit in their blood.

Severe health problems, bloody gang battles and military controlled areas. Illegal gold mining in El Callao has contributed to unsafe and unhealthy circumstances, but the Arco Minero has a stake in it all. “All the gold that arrives at Minerven is legal, on paper, even if it’s illegal,” Lizardi explains.

The sector has been taken over by gangs and the army. Illegally mined gold is bought up by legal ‘mining’ companies that are actually not mining the gold themselves, which essentially means they function as a large gold pawn shop. “Here in El Callao we have too much gold, but we do not have the machines nor the resources necessary to really be able [to mine it all],” boasts Darwin.

The obscure symbiosis between legal and illegal mining is almost too obvious. On the other side of the village we are taken to a gang controlled mine called “Nacupay”. Before entering the area, we are told to “not take pictures of armed men,” nor of mercury-using mining machinery. Just before the entrance, a sign says MunSol – “Mining enterprise affiliated to the Bolivarian homeland in theArco Minero del Orinoco. Behind the sign we find dozens of informal miners working in the muddy open-air pits.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia 

We are only allowed to take pictures of miners working with washing boards, characteristic for artisanal mining operations, they don’t want us to show nor document the larger installations. We are still able to photograph the camps the miners live in, next to the mining pits filled with stagnant and contaminated water.

The situation in El Callao is not an exception. About 91 percent of the gold mined in Venezuela is reported to be illegal, according to a research by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Small batches of gold are turned into jewellery and then smuggled to, for example, the Caribbean Islands. Just as in different parts of Venezuela, the corrupt army transports larger batches to coastal routes, Colombia and Brazil.

Only a minor portion of the gold ends up in the hands of the state. This shows, as Lizardi mentioned before, how the Arco Minero so far functions as a facade. “I remember when Commander Chávez spoke about the Arco Minero [in 2011] and the Bolívar state should become a potency in Venezuela. We would not depend on petroleum!”, says the youngster, who has become disillusioned with the Arco Minero. “Here, things are happening and the Arco Minero has functioned to cover up corruption within the government.”

Amazonas and Western-Bolívar: in the guerrillas’ grip

The ones bearing the brunt of Venezuela’s mining bonanza are the native communities in Amazonas and Bolívar states that have been usurped in both legal and illegal mining economies. Colombian guerrilla groups – referred to by the locals as patagomas (rubber feet) – are expanding their mining operations in western Venezuela, and recently announced their first mining projects in indigenous territories.

In Puerto Ayacucho, Liborio Guarulla, who governed the state of Amazonas from 2001 to 2017 and a Baniva indigenous person, sits at his desk with a large painting of the South American freedom fighter Simón Bolívar behind his back. He explains: “The indigenous way of living has been affected by the presence of illegal armed groups and miners. They have been inserted in mining economies”.

The gravity of the situation becomes apparent after learning about groups of indigenous slaves who have numbers tattooed on their backs or shoulders in the Amazonas state. “When we received the denouncement that they killed some Yanomami [indigenous people], I went to the Alto Orinoco, which is an extensive municipality,” says the retired major general from the army, Clíver Alcalá Cordones. In 2012, the army began a three-week operation after receiving a complaint that Yanomami indigenous people were being killed around illegal mining projects. “I saw some Yanomami that were marked.”

Alcalá explains that various indigenous people had been branded by invading Brazilian miners, called garimpeiros, who enslaved them in the mines. “So, they can say ‘this indigenous is mine’.” Not only have the indigenous people been enslaved to work, but young indigenous girls have also been taken from their communities and forced into prostitution in and around the mines. “The ‘beautiful’ girls cannot leave anymore, they keep them there,” says Henelda Rodríguez, from the Organization for Amazon Indigenous Women Waanalera. “Girls that want to escape disappear.”

Amazonas is not officially part of the Arco Minero, but Guarulla fears it is only a matter of time before encroaching projects expand across the state border. More than half of Amazonas’ lands are under environmental protection, but have nevertheless been invaded by illegal mining and armed men.

About 25 percent of Venezuela’s lands belong to indigenous populations. The Arco Minero is inhabited by 198 indigenous communities, but most ancestral lands are neither recognized by legal boundaries nor given protection. The constitution has required legal protection of indigenous lands since 1999, but only 12.4 percent of their territories have been demarcated.

Indigenous communities that find themselves in the way of prospective mining projects, a sector branded as one of the motors of the national economy, are now an inconvenient obstacle—or worse, cheap labour.

"Practically, it's the guerrilla who exercises control here. The guerrilla with the help of the Venezuelan armed forces. They receive part of the share."
— Liborio Guarulla, ex-governor of Amazonas

Guarulla argues that his state has been overrun: “Practically, it's the guerrilla who exercises control here. The guerrilla with the help of the Venezuelan armed forces. They receive part of the share.” According to the former governor, the guerrilla forces buy off the army to act as an authority that controls mining operations “so that they can function in the zone.”

The Amazonas state shares an extensive frontier with Colombia on the west and connects with Bolívar state on the east. According to Guarulla, there are about 4 to 4.5 thousand Colombian guerrillas present in Amazonas. Most of them belong to the National Liberation Army (ELN) or to Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident groups. Indigenous organizations think the number could be much higher.

When the FARC was still at arms, the ELN was Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, and now finds itself negotiating a peace deal with the Colombian government in Ecuador. Meanwhile, FARC has increased its presence in Venezuela. Here the Colombian guerrillas have been welcomed for over a decade. From 2002 on, FARC rebels began using Venezuela as both a safe haven and a new strategic area – to move fighters, weapons and kidnapping victims – as Colombia’s army stepped up efforts to combat the guerrillas within its national borders.

According to Alcalá, the former major general for the Venezuelan army, FARC dissident groups that did not want to participate in the peace process came to Venezuela. They are involved in illicit economies and launder drug money through illegal mining activities involving the local population. “Guerrilla forces the indigenous people to work in the mines,” Alcalá explains.

Both the FARC, when still an active guerrilla movement, and the ELN financed their operations with illegally mined minerals, among other illicit revenue streams. The guerrillas could not have chosen a better location, as the subsoil hides a variety of world’s most wanted minerals, such as gold, diamonds and coltan. Even uranium deposits have been reported and caught the attention of the Iranian government, although a leaked document downplayed the viability of its exploitation.

Coltan deposits are within easy reach when crossing the Venezuelan border from Colombia. Coltan ore consists of two minerals, columbite and tantalite — both are increasingly used in modern electronics.

Few countries possess deposits of coltan, but according to Roland Chavasse, director of the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre: “The Guiana shield is known to us to be very, very rich, possibly the richest, biggest ore body of coltan in the world,” he said. Yet, certified numbers on Venezuela’s coltan deposits are absent.

Coltan’s scarcity and demand characterizes the importance of the mineral. Most people the world over own modern electronic devices (laptops, tablets, cell phones) that contain coltan. Moreover, tantalum (the most important element of tantalite) is also used for new military applications such as anti-tank systems, smart bombs, drones and robots, making it a highly-prized strategic mineral. The U.S. Department of Defence recommended stockpiling coltan in 2015, elevating the mineral to a national security issue.

As far back as the 1970’s, studies done by the Geological Survey of Venezuela and the Ministry of Mines identified a vast tantalum reserve in Venezuela. One area, inhabited by the Piaroa indigenous people, was investigated in 1989 and 1990 and received special attention because of the attractive deposits. These deposits are located in the most western point of the Bolívar state, in the armpit of the Parguaza and the Orinoco river.

New visitors in coltan country

Puerto Ayacucho. It’s six in the morning and the heat already feels familiar, even before the sun has risen. Yonnier Rivera, our Cuban driver, arrives in time with his white pick-up truck and discusses the logistics of the day, as we wait for our other two travel companions: Noraima Ángel, a human rights coordinator from Puerto Ayacucho’s Vicarage, and Pedro Ortiz, an indigenous member of Red de Defensores y Defensoras Indígenas, a local indigenous protection network. The plan is to visit two small indigenous communities called Agua Mena and Tierra Blanca, in the neighbouring Bolívar state. The indigenous people live in the proximity of the Parguaza river that curls through – what we learn to be – “coltan country”.

The Parguaza is one of the hundreds of tributaries of the Orinoco, the fourth most voluminous river in the world. The region, also called Parguaza, has been targeted by both illegal and legal mining projects. The lands are inhabited by the Piaroa and Penare people, who traditionally depend on agriculture and fishery.

Our journey is interrupted several times by the Venezuelan National Guard. On one occasion, we are forced to open our bags for the armed men. Cars, trucks and buses passing through this region are subjected to frequent checks and are halted, on some occasions, every 20 kilometres. The soldiers check personal belongings, car seats, and even the insides of car doors, as they search for “contraband”.

These daily humiliations for Venezuelans on the road do not concern us too much as we are more worried about the guerrilla presence in the region. As we enter Bolívar state, leaving Amazonas in the north, our vehicle makes a curve to the east slowly entering the Parguaza region. As we drive along an area called Los Gallitos, Ortiz, from the local defence network, tells us that this is where the ELN guerrilla get their coltan.

Our first stop is Tierra Blanca. We were expecting to meet the Cacique, the indigenous authority in the region, but were instead met by the captain of Tierra Blanca. We later learn that the Cacique travelled to Caracas for a meeting in the Ministry of Mines.

We receive few answers, because the Cacique did not authorize his captain to speak with us. The indigenous people bring us to the Parguaza river. Children of local indigenous communities joyfully throw themselves in the water, and canoe around in the slow current. The slapping sound of wet clothing on stones is made by the indigenous women as they do the wash on the riverbanks. Few indigenous men are seen, as they hunt or work the land away from the village during the day. The equilibrium between nature and civilization is not yet irreversibly disturbed, but new players have entered the panorama.

In the community Agua Mena, close and similar to Tierra Blanca, the inhabitants are involved in the artisanal mining of coltan. Stones are recollected by an indigenous middleman, who subsequently sells to the guerrilla. The price is 80 to 100 thousand bolívares a kilo, which is less than one dollar. A fraction of what is offered on international markets for coltan, but none of the interviewed indigenous people were aware of usual going rates for coltan.

"We are the destroyers of the jungle."
— Juan López, indigenous from Agua Mena

The few dollars paid to the indigenous communities for opening up the earth and extracting minerals for financial gain contrasts with their ancestral beliefs. “We were recognized as protectors of the jungle. This is not what we are anymore. We are the destroyers of the jungle,” says Juan López, an indigenous person who currently works as a lawyer for the vicariate in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas.

Coltan rich territories are not only traversed by Colombian guerrillas. The Arco Minero decree enabled the formation of new companies that were hastily set up and share the same motive as the armed guerrillas operating export routes to Colombia.

By the end of 2016, the Empresa Mixta Minera Ecosocialista Parguaza was created with the initial goal of producing 20 tons a month, to be increased to 50 tons monthly. The company is a joint venture, owned by the public mining company Corporación Venezolana de Minería (CVM) and Corporación Faoz. The joint venture received a concession of 10,201 hectares that besides coltan contains gold, diamonds, quartz and other minerals. The company is constructing a coltan mine located close to the community Agua Mena.

It is about midday when we visit Agua Mena. After speaking with the whole community, there is still some time to present ourselves at the gate of the Empresa Mixta Minera Ecosocialista Parguaza, which is protected around the clock by the National Guard. Army personnel is also present on their terrain.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

We introduce ourselves around 1 PM in the afternoon and inquire about social investments in nearby indigenous communities. “You need a permission from the Ministry of Mines in Caracas to speak with us,” we are told by Luisa Herminia Alcalá Otero, the company representative who meets us and allow us to enter the company terrain.

Just as we thought that we would be shoved off with a reprimand for asking questions, it seems that our visit is an extended one.

It is the end of the afternoon, close to sunset, and we are unsure how long we will be held. Day laborers are lining up to hop on the bus that takes them back to their communities. Before they can leave, their bags are checked by the National Guard. As we are surrounded by armed National Guards, we can observe the workers, wearing ragged clothes, replica football shirts and muddy boots. Many indigenous people glimpse at us while they wait to have their bags inspected.

The workers do not seem very intimidated by the assault rifles of the National Guard and it is unclear if the armed men are present to prevent workers from stealing from the company, or to protect the project from the guerrillas. A National Guard who works in the mining camp comments that there is “mutual respect” when they encounter the guerrilla. “They do not mess with us, and we do not mess with them.” Meanwhile we are brought to the barracks of the National Guard and locked up with armed guards in front of the door.

At 1 AM in the morning it is still unclear what will happen with us while we are interviewed. We are not allowed to make any phone calls, but are told that we are under investigation. Our detention was completely illegal and improvised. Not only were we locked up in a mining company, we did we not receive the right to make a phone call or to speak with a lawyer. Amongst other omissions, we were also interviewed by a National Guard who did not have the authority to do so. According to the National Guard, their suspicion is either that our lead investigator is a foreign spy, or an investigator of the government-opposition.

As uncertainty surrounds us, we can tell from small interactions that the youngsters from the National Guard have problems understanding our detention, but they obey the orders of the company. At 3 AM in the morning we are commanded to get ready for transport. Two pick-up trucks transport the four of us, guarded by armed National Guards, to Caicara del Orinoco, seven hours further into coltan country.

We are surprisingly set free 24 hours after our detention. Two investigators of the military counterintelligence in Caicara del Orinoco subject us to an interrogation, but it seems that no alarms are set of. It comes to our attention that the church, the Dutch Embassy, media and civil society campaigned for our liberation. Astounded by the fact that we were just apprehended inside a mining company, while we only thought the guerrilla could give us trouble, it is hard to imagine how the company establishes a good relationship with its indigenous neighbours.

The Empresa Mixta Minera Ecosocialista Parguaza is not the only joint venture that operates in the area. The same municipality, Cedeño, counts with two other recently formed companies. Oro Azul, a joint venture between CVM and Supracal, received a concession with 8,159 hectares and Empresa Mixta Minera Metales del Sur, participated by the Canadian company Energold.

So far, the indigenous communities of the region have been promised a lot by the new companies: new housing, roads, electricity and pick-up trucks. Health workers have also been sent to the malaria-tormented communities. Various indigenous people are temporarily contracted for the minimum wage, which is not enough to feed a family in Venezuela and has been floating frequently. Currently, it is about 350 thousand bolívares, which would be about US$3,50 in the black-market rate. They work as private security personnel and construction workers, but do not possess fixed contracts.

Consulted local indigenous communities say they have never been told about the real implications of the project, and were manipulated with false development promises and wrong information.

The entrance of the guerrilla and the new companies in Parguaza are, according to Franklin Quiñones, a 28-year old Piaroa indigenous person from the region, owed to the Cacique. “The Cacique permitted the entrance of the guerrilla, and also the instalment of the [company] camp.” According to Quiñones and other anonymous sources, the Cacique has been bought and a minority of the indigenous leadership were given jobs or benefits by the company.

“You [the leaders] are puppets, you don't have the capacity to say this to the company,” says Quiñones, while adding: “They focus on individual gain, they are used”.

The indigenous youngster understands very well how the recently arrived companies apply strategies to divide and conquer the communities and how newly created frictions cause unrest. “When you install a company, here, this will be the end of our culture, the end of our customs. And so, a complete transculturalisation. So, there are many preoccupied communities that ask: ‘who will help us?’.”

Malaria is biting through Venezuela’s mining areas

A group of gun-strapped youngsters hang around in front of a cockfighting arena while locals pay them a visit to ask for small financial contributions, mediation to settle conflicts or just to socialize. In Las Claritas, Bolívar state, the armed gang that goes by the name of pranes not only controls daily life, but is also in charge of the extensive illegal gold mines around the village. Many of the locals who visit the cockfighting arena leave unattended, a sign on the wall says: “[Financial] Contributions suspended until further notice.”

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

We are also waiting around and hoping to hear from the pran, the one commanding all operations. He decides whether we can pay a visit to his mines. “Do you have some water for me?” One of the gang members asks us. “I have to keep drinking.” He has malaria; even gangsters are not spared from the epidemic and the lack of medicines that trouble Venezuela’s mining regions.

After a long wait, we are told we cannot visit the mines that day for a variety of unclear reasons. We decide to check out the local clinic in Las Claritas and inquire about malaria, but we are only allowed to ask questions and take photographs if we take one of the gang members with us in our car. The indifference the young gangster has for our work – “Are you guys ready? I’m hungry” – permits us to distance ourselves from him while he waits in a parking lot. We manage to speak with a few of the pale faced, shivering, miners who are hanging around in front of the local clinic. Most of them have had many relapses and are in need of antimalarial medicines. At the entrance of the clinic a sign reads: “There is no malaria treatment, until further notice.”

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia 

Unfortunately, this honour belongs to the past. While Venezuela has shown that malaria can be successfully prevented and treated, few attempts have been made by the current government to counter the current epidemic.

“Watch out! There is a mosquito behind your back,” jokes a medical researcher at a different and unidentified clinic in Bolívar state. “But it could also be chikungunya.” He explains that the government completely lost control over epidemics.

The municipality Sifontes, in which mining towns like Las Claritas and Tumeremo are situated, has the highest malaria rate of the country. It's no coincidence that malaria is rampant in illegal mining areas as the disease is known to be related to deforestation. The researcher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear for reprisals, explains that deforested jungles and mining pits fill with stagnant water, creating the ideal conditions for an epidemic. The sun quickly heats up the water since there is no jungle cover to provide shade, which accelerates the development of the larvae.

Many illegal miners stay at makeshift mining campsand sometimes even sleep in hammocks right next to the mines. Their lack of prevention and close proximity to the mining lagoons, the breeding grounds for malaria mosquitos, makes them most vulnerable to infection.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia 

Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that leads to severe fevers, head and muscle aches and has a potentially deadly outcome. In the Bolívar state alone, home to 2.1 million people, roughly 206 thousand people were infected with malaria in the ten first months of 2017. Amazonas, a state with a population of 180 thousand, had 42 thousand cases of infection through September 2017, according to a doctor in a local health clinic. She also spoke with us on the condition of anonymity as fellow health workers have been fired for speaking to the press.

“If we don't get more medicines in time it will get out of hand. There are already 27 thousand more cases than last year,” the doctor explained when we visited him in November. Each day, about 150-200 people are tested in Puerto Ayacucho. Half of those people usually test positive. According to the doctor, even more testing facilities and medicine handouts are needed in the region, especially in remote areas.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia 

Jungle municipalities in Amazonas, like Río Negro and Manapiare, are plagued by illegal mining and malaria. It is now a public health crisis. Transport from the state-capital Puerto Ayacucho to this remote region can take five to ten days by boat. “There are no medicines in mining areas,” she says. People that obtain medicines sometimes resell it per dose, even if they have malaria themselves. A dose will not cure you though, you need to finish the whole treatment, but according to her, people are desperate for cash and abuse the ignorance of another.

In neighbouring Bolívar state, miners say medicines are sold on the black market at a rate of one or two grams of gold per dose.

In the past four years, the number of malaria patients has increased fifteenfold. In the last three years, the Ministry of Health failed to contain five epidemics: dengue, chikungunya, zika, diphtheria and malaria – and millions of Venezuelans were infected.

This government is so irresponsible that they are not even taking care of their malaria victims
— Carlos Chancellor, former mayor of Sifontes, Bolívar 

The former mayor of Sifontes, Carlos Chancellor, has had enough of the deficient government policies. “This government is so irresponsible that they are not even taking care of their malaria victims,” Chancellor grumbles. He was still in the office when we visited him, in November 2017, signing papers and meeting with two emotional parents who are pleading with the him to arrange an emergency visit with their son, who was recently arrested during an anti-government protest.

In his cramped office without windows in Tumeremo, the mayor tries to work under a flickering fluorescent tube. As people keep walking into his office, Chancellor says that about 80 thousand people are directly or indirectly involved in the many illegal mines of its municipality. "They are respectable people, workers," but he sees the sector and its collateral damage, like the malaria epidemic, as a big problem.

“Today I’ve been tested and I’m malaria free for the first time!” says a relieved Eduardo Rodríguez, in front of a clinic in Tumeremo, Bolívar. The illegal miner was tested seven times over the past 18 months and six times he had received a “positive” result.

Most miners lack the luck of Eduardo Rodríguez, so they suffer from continuous relapses, unable to combat the parasite. “I already had malaria for about 50 times,” says a miner in El Callao. “It was like I was urinating Coca-Cola.” His shaking body stands in front of a jungle shack, made from wooden poles and some plastic tarps that function as a roof. Just ten meters from his makeshift, miners are hosing down a muddy slope to further process the sediments for gold.

“The frontier between mosquito and men does not exist anymore,” explains a local medic. “Our people are trained and available to work on the problem,” he says, but absent medicines are the key problem.

Remote mining areas in Bolívar and Amazonas state experience similar problems. “Death presents itself because people live so far away,” the medic says. “First, they need to cross a river, then wait for a boat, then for a mule and then a Toyota jeep needs to transport them to us. This can take up to three or four days in which somebody’s health situation can get really complicated.”

To earn extra cash, this medic has also worked in the mines during time off from his day job. “With a lucky strike you can earn as much in two weeks as in six weeks in the hospital,” he grins, but this year he will probably not return to the mines. The violence and risk of malaria just became too much.

“There is an extraordinary increase in migrant miners from different states towards Amazonas and Bolívar, as well as collateral people like prostitutes, merchants, et cetera.” explains Dr Oscar Noya, director of the Centre of Malaria Studies and researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas.

The increase in cases has to do with the scarcity of antimalarials and aggravates the regional situation
— Dr Oscar Noya, Centre of Malaria Studies

“Relapses are not included in the statistics, so the actual number, associated with an increase in asymptomatic carriers, is the actual number and we estimate that cases in 2016 exceeded one million.”

Experts say that the worst days of the epidemic are yet to come. Migrating infected miners, with increased exposure to malaria, may help spread the disease. Health workers in the border zones of neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Colombia have been put on alert. In Colombia, of the 965 malaria-infected people who crossed the border in 2017, 92 per cent came from Venezuela. “Out of nothing, one case of malaria can cause an epidemic within six months," one of the health workers in Bolívar state said. 

Gambling away the environment

Loud, vibrating sounds of generators accompany the back-breaking work of the illegal miners, just a kilometre outside of the village El Callao. Covered in mud, they sway around in the mining pits as they pan for gold, dig more holes, or use the noisy machines on the edges of the mining pit to fill large sacks with quantities of the gold-containing mud that will later be processed with mercury. At this exact spot, there used to be a forest, but many layers of vegetation have already been removed by mining.

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

If there is one reason to not proceed with the Arco Minero it is the environment, according to Edgar Yerena, a biologist of the Simón Bolívar University (USB), in Caracas. “It’s a very bad idea. It’s the worst idea. There is no worse use that you can think of, in my opinion, for theGuiana Shield.”

In Venezuela, the Guiana shield completely overlaps Bolívar state and also includes the states Amazonas and Delta Amacuro. The region is, according to environmental experts, of utmost importance for the generation of water and conservation of species, but should be avoided by mining. “From the ecological viewpoint [the area] functions as a different system than the rest of the country. It is very delicate because the generated soils are very lixiviated, and very washed. It has few nutrients, is very sandy and the environmental recuperation of any impact in the Guiana Shield is very slow if not irreversible,” explains Yerena.

Yerena’s observations are backed up by another Venezuelan environmental specialist. “The soils are very thin and when removed will be very difficult to restore,” says Juan Carlos Sánchez, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and an expert with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The laureate also warns that the forests of the Guiana shield function as a habitat for endemic species that will be severely impacted. There are 9,411 species of flora, of which 2,136 are endemic.

There is no possible coexistence between mining and forests in the Guiana Shield, says Sánchez. “All lands dedicated to mining, and in particular to surface mining, will be a terrain where forests are sacrificed because it requires the removal of large amounts of land. This sacrifice of the forests represents an irreparable loss of natural capital.”

Photo Credit: Bram Ebus/InfoAmazonia

These lush lands are declared as national parks, natural monuments, protected zones, woodlands and forest reserves. The Canaima National Park even has been recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site. All this does not seem to matter. These woodlands and forest reserves will suffer most from the immediate consequences of mineral extraction in the Arco Minero.

Additionally, the impact on water sources will be severe. Bolívar state basically functions as a water factory for the country and possesses the eleventh largest water reserve in the world. For example, the Caroní river basin generates hydropower to 65 percent of Venezuela’s territory which is created in the Guri dam, Venezuela’s most important energy supplier.

According to Yerena, “Mining damages the quality of the available water. The topic of hydroelectric potential in Guiana not only depends on the quantity of water, but also on the quality. It requires water with little sediment,” he explains while referring to the Caroní river that borders the mining region and increasingly becomes sedimented.

The Venezuelan state has a history of not knowing how to manage mining. Why would they know how to do so now?
— Edgar Yerena, biologist

The environmental impact might be irreversible. Experts explains that over the long term, the environmental damages might far outweigh the revenues of the mining sector. Yerena adds: “The Venezuelan state has a history of not knowing how to manage mining. Why would they know how to do so now?”.

Not knowing is also a problem for environmental justice movements that have little research and facts available to make an argument. “It’s complicated because until now, the defence is based on the concept of the project, and the form of how they are trying to implement the project,” explains Yerena.

“But there is still no environmental strategic evaluation. This is absent and should have provided public information so the academic and environmental sector could properly review. Until now, we only have fractionated, punctual unofficial information. There are no clear mechanisms to obtain official information for persons curious to know what is happening with the project.”

Two undebated risks of mining aredeforestationand mercury contamination.

“As I interpret it, according to Venezuela’s environmental norms, this should not have happened. This is constructed on a base of illegality in which the environmental evaluation study over the whole project has not been conducted,” Yerena says.

Alexander Luzardo, the former senator who wrote the environmental standards for Venezuela’s current constitution doubts that mining is worth the damage when envisioning economic benefits. There was never any certified proof that the country possesses amounts of gold and coltan as large as it claims to have.

Mining is linked to illicit businesses and financial illegal activities linked to money laundering.
— Alexander Luzardo, former senator

The professor says it might be a myth, a strategy to develop projects in order to launder money. “The creation of phantom companies, without any experience, without knowledge, they play the game of elevation [market speculation] and money laundering,” he says. “Mining is linked to illicit businesses and financial illegal activities linked to money laundering.” According to him, these companies will buy and trade the minerals from illegal mining, or try to speculate and sell their project to the highest bidder.

The government’s “good news show” about monstrous mineral deposits is, according to Luzardo, a misleading offer to the country. “It’s to give them the hope of a lottery,” he laughs. “It’s the mining lottery. Always betting on it all. ‘We’ve got the biggest reserves of the world’.” The distraction from the economic and political crisis ignores more important issues at stake. “It’s not about work, not about education, organization nor energetic diversification and not about assuming the great challenges,” he says ironically.

Its name, the Arco Minero, is also bothersome for Luzardo. He argues that the term ‘Mining Arc’ is linguistic reductionism. “You reduce everything to Arco Minero,” he explains. “Already with the name you give up the territory [to mining],” arguing that an Arc of Biodiversity would be a better fit and would do more justice to the, on paper, protected environmental areas.

There is hope though, according to Luzardo. The professor refers to a decision by the Venezuelan National Assembly that cancelled the Arco Minero Decree on the 14th of June 2016. “You cannot legalize an environmental crime,” he grunts, but the Assembly’s decision was not recognized by Venezuela’s Supreme Court that sidelined the National Assembly and all its decisions already from the 11th January 2017.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s political and economic crisis continues, driving more desperate and unemployed Venezuelans to the mining region. They continue to dig in the valuable muds of El Callao and many other areas in the south of the country. For now, the political opposition against the Arco Minero is left without legal weapons. Accelerated deforestation and an expanding mining frontier are the undeniable consequences of the crisis in the country, which seems far from over.