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Illegal mining along the Orinoco River

 

• 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.

Facts

Facts

The Orinoco river 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 of illegal mining

Consequences  of illegal mining:

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.

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).

 

Human Rights Violations and Crimes Agains Humanity

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.