Riverine communities along Venezuela's Orinoco River that rely on fish as a major source of food and additional income are losing out to an upsurge of mining activity that is in some cases controlled by illegal armed cartels.
Among the armed cartels controlling illegal mines in the region of the world's third largest river are the ELN (National Liberation Army) and dissident sections of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces) from Colombia who are given succour and support by the Venezuelan military and national guard, researchers say.
A group of Venezuelan scientists and an investigative journalist told an audience of fellow scientists and journalists that whereas in 2016 the Venezuelan government created the Orinoco Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone, with the ostensible objective of inviting international companies to exploit and extract the country's gold reserves, much of the extraction now taking place is being done illegally and having a detrimental impact on the environment, including the marine ecosystem.
The scientists, who included Francoise Cavada, Jose R Ferrer Paris, Juan C Amilibia, Jose Lozada, and Vilisa Moron-Zambrano, were sharing some of the findings of their research at the inaugural Latin America and Caribbean Congress for Conservation Biology, held 25-27 July, at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
They pointed out that efforts to ensure accountability for the mining's environmental impact on the Orinoco River region, an ecosystem that is home to more than 1,000 fish species and is rich in diversity, have proved unsuccessful. There is no government institution in place to safeguard environmental laws and even environmental impact assessment reports cannot be accessed, they said.
Dutch investigative journalist Bram Ebus, whose investigation into the Orinoco Mining Arc activities is being funded by the Pulitzer Center, said the official government policy was meant to “put a legal jacket to illegal mining called Arco Minero...run by illegal armed troops and state forces.”
Ebus said that apart from the Colombian rebel groups, the Pranes and Sindicatos are also operating mines in Venezuela. The Pranes are drug lords who operate from within the prison system while the Sindicatos are construction unions. “They operate mines mostly toward the east of the country,” he told SeafoodSource. “They have some sort of responsibility to the army because they need to pay the army as well to operate illegal mines. The army has overarching control.”
Other impacts that are likely attributable to the illegal mining are increased levels of mercury being found in some species of freshwater fish, including catfish. Though use of mercury for mining is illegal in Venezuela it is nevertheless being widely used. The researchers advised that Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil should begin monitoring their seafood for mercury coming from Venezuela's Orinoco River region.
Besides the adverse impacts on their health, local communities are facing severe impacts socially.
Professor Antonio Machado, a biologist at the Universidad Central de Venezuela whose research into the evolution and ecology of fishes and conservation of the aquatic environment has brought him into regular contact with the communities, told SeafoodSource via email that villagers can do little about the situation. “These are very poor communities, easy to deceive and attracted by gold-rush and 'easy money' obtained through this activity.”
Likewise, across Venezuela's border in neighboring Guyana, a significant portion of the population depends on mining as their main source of income, even as the fish they eat is being depleted or contaminated with mercury.
Ravindra Mohandeo, a graduate of the University of Guyana, shared this information following a presentation at the LACCCB on the impact of mining on fish diversity and community structure in Guyana's Mazaruni district. Mohandeo told SeafoodSource that he chose to research the topic for his undergraduate thesis “because of the detrimental effects experienced from the mining operations conducted. The fish species diversity has been depleted significantly over the last decade, so it is of great concern to monitor and restore the environment and its biodiversity.”
“The residents in this area of study do not rely primarily on fishing as a source of income, since the majority of the local population depend on mining as the source of income generation. However, they do depend on food fishes to satisfy their diet,” he said.
The Venezuelan scientists are concerned that the fish stocks of neighboring countries will likely feel the impacts from these mining operations. But, “the lack of information hampers any prevention or mitigation effort by countries that might be already being affected, most likely Trinidad. We are trying to draw attention to this matter, as we do not have recent data to provide information for evidence-based decision making and will most probably not be able to obtain it inside Venezuela,” Cavada told SeafoodSource.