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Illegal mining along the Orinoco River

Embajadores del Orinoco. June 2021

 The Orinoco River

It is one of the world’s longest rivers (2140 km). It begins between Venezuela and Brazil and ends in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is a source of great wealth:

    • Mineral: oil, gas, bauxite, coltan, iron, steel, gold, alluvial gold, diamond, copper, kaolin, dolomite, non-metallic minerals.
    • Ecological: It is home to over 100 species of animals, 300 species of birds, more than 1000 species of fish and 100’s of species of unique plant life.
    • Hydric: It has a very high flow rate (33000 m3/sec average). Used for agriculture, fishing and generation of hydro electrical power.
    • Transport: It is navigable in almost all its extension. In its lower channel reaches a width of up to 5 km and a depth of 100 m.
Map of Venezuela with the location of the Orinoco River.
Source: reference 1
Venezuela Mineral International Legal Certification.
Source: reference 2

History of gold exploitation in Venezuela

  • Late 1820’s: gold exploitation starts along the river.
  • 1829: The production of gold starts in Guayana.
  • 1866-1980: It was produced 192 M gr of gold from 10.4 M tons of processed mineral.
  • 2011: Nationalization of gold exploitation and related activities.
  • 2014 – 2018: Elimination/Replacement of the Ministry of the Environment by other 3 ministries, ending in the “Ministerio del Poder Popular para el Ecosocialismo”.
  • 2016: Orinoco Mining Arc (MA) was decreed for the purpose of promoting, deepening and facilitating all mining, especially gold, diamonds, coltan and “rare earths”. This has intensified dramatically the illegal mining activity in the area.

Map of the Orinoco Mining Arc (MA)

Source: reference 3

 

Population

More than 1,635,000 people inhabits in Orinoco Mining Arc , distributed among:

429 populated centers; where 90% of the population is in the municipal districts : Caroní, Heres, Piar, Cedeño, and Sifontes.

14 indigenous peoples, who belong to the Caribe; Yanomami and Saliva tribe: Akawayo, Arawak, Eñepa, Jivi, Kariña, Kurripako, Mapoyo, Pemón, Piapoko, Piaroa, Sáliva, Sanema, Warao and Ye’kwana.

Municipal districts in the State of Bolivar. Source: reference 4
Map of territories inhabited by indigenous peoples. Source: reference 5

 

Consequences:

Environmental Impact

Severe environmental impacts on terrestrial/aquatic ecosystems, biological diversity:

From 2002 to 2020, Venezuela lost 533kha of humid primary forest, making up 25% of its total tree cover loss in the same time period. Total area of humid primary forest in Venezuela decreased by 1.4% in this time period.

23 species of mammals that inhabit this region are threatened with extinction. Species like the Orinoco manatee (Trichechus manatus), the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), the major sucker bat (Thyroptera lavali) and the southern spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth) are almost exclusive inhabitants of the Amazon and Venezuelan Guiana, where the main threat is habitat loss.

 

Consequences:

Health Impact

Severe impact on the health and well-being of the area inhabitants, including indigenous and Criollos:

  • Malaria outbreak: between 2000 and 2018, there were 1.97 million cases reported – a 1260% increase, from 29,736 cases in 2000 to 404,924 in 2018.
  • Outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases: 1) Measles: from 0 cases in 2016 to, 7054 cases confirmed between 2017 and 2019 (including 84 deaths, from which 62 were from indigenous groups); 2) Diphtheria: from 2016 to 2020, there had been 1,790 cases confirmed, including 294 deaths.
  • HIV/AIDS: In 2017, at least 30% of the men population, in the Waraos indigenous community, were infected with HIV without receiving any type of treatment.
  • Mercury poisoning (more than 90% of mill workers have Hg levels in their urine above the alert level, 0.5 μg/g).

 

Consequences:

Human Rights Violations by Criminal Activity

Human rights violations linked to illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon states have been extensively documented in numerous studies and official reports by Venezuelan and international NGOs and by the UN High Commissioner of Human rights.
Furthermore, beyond human rights violations, there is solid and abunadant evidence of Crimes Against Humanity committed in this region affecting, as it is often the case, the most vulnerable population and our indigenous communtities. This includes masacres (38 masacres reported between 2012 and 2020), extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances.
Below is just a list of a few sources in (English and Spanish) on this topic.

 

References

  • Río Orinoco | La guía de Geografía (laguia2000.com)
  • Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc: A literature review of Environmental Impacts (ijsrp.org)
  • Arco Minero del Orinoco (AMO): un modelo de minería responsable – Ministerio de Desarrollo Minero Ecológico
  • “Ciudad Bolívar, estado Bolívar-Venezuela”: Estado Bolívar: Venezuela (miguelhernandezestadobolivarvenezuela.blogspot.com)
  • Mapas para entender al Arco Minero del Orinoco (periodicoellibertario.blogspot.com)
  • RÍO ORINOCO: Ubicación, Longitud, Cuenca, y mucho más. (riosdelplaneta.com)
  • SOS Orinoco – Help save the Orinoco Region of Venezuela
  • Characterization-and-Analysis-of-Some-Key-Socio-Environmental-Variables-in-the-Orinoco-Mining-Arc.pdf (sosorinoco.org)
  • How did the Orinoco River Influence the Growth of South America | Actforlibraries.org
  • Animales en peligro de extinción en el Delta del Orinoco: El Manati (extincionorinoco.blogspot.com)
  • LA_GRAN_CUENCA_DEL_ORINOCO.pdf (unal.edu.co)
  • Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon | World Resources Institute (wri.org)
  • Malaria in Venezuela – Situation Report A Resurgent Epidemic in a Complex Humanitarian Emergency – SOS Orinoco
  • Pronunciamiento ante la grave epidemia de Malaria en Venezuela (ovsalud.org)
  • Malaria in Venezuela: changes in the complexity of infection reflects the increment in transmission intensity | Malaria Journal | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
  • Seis epidemias en Venezuela generan alarma (diariolasamericas.com)
  • Arco Minero Destroys Venezuelan Forests | Global Forest Watch Blog
  • 12 Animales en Peligro de Extinción en Venezuela【2020】 (animalespeligroextincion.org)
  • Clima21 – Ambiente y Derechos Humanos | El medio ambiente es el primer derecho de la humanidad (ddhhcambioclimatico.org)
  • UNEP – UN Environment Programme
  • Sobre el Arco Minero y los Pueblos Indígenas | Revista SIC – Centro Gumilla

A word of advice against financing Venezuelan environmental crimes, human rights violations, and crimes against indigenous communities.

Oslo, 15 July 2023

As an international platform denouncing illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon Rainforest and advocating for indigenous rights in this large area, we wish to warn the international community about providing financing, directly or indirectly, to the Venezuela Regime in connection with projects linked to stopping deforestation or protecting the Amazon.

If you (or any organization, government, fund, development agency or donor you know), are considering advancing funds to the Venezuelan Regime; please do not! This is part of a scam by the Venezuelan power elite to access cash from Amazon conservation projects while destroying exactly what they are allegedly protecting.

Anyone following up deforestation in the Amazon countries the last years knows that gold greed and mining of transition minerals are destroying the Venezuelan Amazon Rainforest, and that the Venezuelan State is the primary responsible for the destruction of this area.

Aware of their bad reputation as promoters and profiteers of the Amazon destruction, Venezuelan officials would not attempt to apply for funds individually or directly. Instead, they are now hiding behind other Amazon countries like Brazil and Colombia and using the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) to access international financing.

Brazil ́s president -Lula- is organizing a Summit of Amazon countries in Brazil (Belem) on 8 and 9 August aiming at discussing a unified approach to stop deforestation and attract foreign investments to meet that goal.

While we applaud a coordinated approach and closer collaboration with, and among, Amazon countries, we condemn the invitation extended by the government of Brazil to the Venezuelan Regime facilitating their access to international funds through ATCO and similar mechanisms.

Venezuela is trying to disguise its true intentions and has launched a campaign to greenwash its image pretending to be combating illegal mining. However, local environmental organizations and activists truly engaged in Amazon conservation are warning that this is just a charade to fool international donors.
The fact remains that the Venezuelan Regime is responsible for the current destruction of the Venezuelan Amazon Rainforest and for the human rights and indigenous rights violations, crimes against humanity and international organized crime activities in that area. Therefore, instead of inviting those responsible for this ecocide, Brazil and the other Amazon countries, and the international community, should create a common front to firmly demand Venezuela to stop illegal mining and to respect its international obligations.
Here is what you need to know:

Ilegal mining in Venezuela is promoted by the state and encouraged through a 2016 government Decree that declared a zone called Arco Minero del Orinoco open to wild exploitation of gold, diamonds, coltan and other minerals.

• Since then, the ecological devastation caused by illegal mining now extends across the whole Venezuelan Amazon Rainforest across 3 Venezuelan states that, combined, are larger in size that many EU countries.

• Venezuela today is the Amazon country with the fastest deforestation rate (https://americasquarterly.org/article/the-destruction-of-venezuelas-amazon-is-going-virtually-unnoticed/)

• The role of the State in this ecocide, and all its related criminal activities, is widely documented and has been denounced for years by many local and international organizations and activists, including our own platform.
You will find comprehensive and detailed Reports in this site: SOS Orinoco

• Wild illegal mining controlled by the Venezuelan military extends to indigenous lands violating basic human rights and individual and collective rights of our Indigenous people. Entire indigenous communities have been forced to leave their ancestral lands seeking refuge in other villages in Venezuela or in neighboring towns in Brazil and Colombia.

• Indigenous leaders and members of local communities who resist mining have disappeared or have been killed, tortured, mutilated while women and young girls are being forced into prostitution. The killing of indigenous territorial guardian Virgilio Trujillo and the massacre of Yanomanis in Parima B are tragic examples of these crimes and their impunity: Yanomami Indigenous People at Risk in Venezuela | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org);

• These crimes and violations have been documented by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights OHCHR | Venezuela: UN releases report on criminal control of mining area and wider justice issues and many other Reports and studies including this September 2022 Report by the UN Human Rights Councill Fact-Finding mission: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/ffmv/report-ffmv-september2022).

• Furthermore, this Report from Global Witness ranked Venezuela in the 7th place in the list of countries with the highest number of  environmental defenders killed in 2019: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/defending-tomorrow/

• Unsurprisingly, Venezuela is one of the only 3 countries in Latin America refusing to sign the Escazu Agreement. The agreement obliges States to recognize, protect and promote human rights defenders and to investigate and punish attacks, threats, or intimidations against them.

• The negative impacts transcend the Venezuelan borders and involve, among others, spread of diseases (such as malaria, where Venezuela accounted for 53% of the cases in the whole Americas region in 2019), contamination and health hazards related to the broad use of mercury, and a myriad of criminal activities such as human trafficking, child labor, prostitution, contraband, financing of terrorism, etc. This OECD Report provides a detailed overview of criminal activities linked to gold exploitation in the Venezuelan Rainforest and the networks and stakeholders facilitating and profiting from this: http://mneguidelines.oecd.org/gold-flows-from-venezuela-supporting-due-diligence.htm

• Venezuela uses mercury in its gold exploitation activities and refuses to ratify the Minamata Convention, a treaty aiming to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.

We cannot protect the Amazon and marginalized indigenous communities whose basic rights and lands are under attack, financing the attackers!

Please contact us if you have any questions and help us spread the word.

Kind regards,

Sonia Zapata
Chair and Founder
Embajadores del Orinoco