On March 4, a cohort of armed men stood waiting on the road to Tumeremo, a small town in the Venezuelan state of Bolívar. Since early morning they searched those who were travelling the road, stopping those headed towards Atenas, a gold mine adjacent to the town. At night, when the hostages numbered six hundred or so, they were grouped together and interrogated. The armed men asked them their names and a few other questions, and then fired at will. Twenty-eight of the hostages are missing, and seventeen bodies have been found.
Tumeremo is located near Canaima National Park, one of the country’s natural jewels. Over the past decade, thousands of people have flocked to the town, albeit for reasons quite different from tourism. This region of Venezuela, known as Guyana, has some of the largest gold, coltan, and diamond deposits in the world. Due to surging mineral prices and the country’s severe economic crisis, illegal mining has become an extremely profitable endeavor – not only for the poor and unemployed, but also for armed groups, ranging from Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries to Venezuelan gangs and army defectors. Since these armed groups now control mining operations, violence has become standard operating procedure in the region. In fact, witnesses claim that the Tumeremo massacre was devised by a local gang leader who wished to seize control of the Atenas mine.
But attacks against miners are not the only form of violence that has prevailed in Venezuelan Guyana since the expansion of illegal mining. The region has been beset by two other tragedies: ecocide and ethnocide. And just like the Tumeremo massacre, these tragedies will not be solved by the recent measures espoused by the Venezuelan government with respect to the mining industry; they’ll likely aggravate them.
Six days after the Tumeremo massacre, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro announced the creation of a new state company that will control the exploration, exploitation and commercialization of the country’s minerals and hydrocarbons. The company, named Caminpeg, will report directly to the Defense Ministry, which will also appoint its president and board. Moreover, two weeks after the creation of Campinpeg, Maduro signed a decree to accelerate the quantification of mineral reserves in the Arco Minero del Orinoco, a vast area north of the Bolívar State representing over 12% of Venezuelan territory. The decree granted exploration rights to more than 150 companies from 35 countries, including China, Russia and Nigeria. This decision, made public shortly after the price of the Venezuelan oil barrel fell to $22, reflects the government’s desperate attempts to remain afloat in the midst of a ravaging political and economic crisis.
The Venezuelan government claims that the creation of Cominpeg and the arrival of foreign companies will regularize mineral exploitation in Venezuelan Guyana. Yet these measures fall short of ensuring such stability on two fronts: First, they fail to address state complicity in illegal mining in the region; second, they do not allow for democratic oversight of mining operations since they were not reached constitutionally. Therefore, the government’s recent ventures will likely address neither the violence nor the social and environmental consequences of illegal mining, and may even end up aggravating them.
The massacre in Tumeremo has brought to light the involvement of the country’s military and politicians in the illegal mining industry. According to survivors, men dressed in intelligence service and investigative police force apparel were among their kidnappers. Furthermore, the National Guard first denied the events, refusing to go to the scene even after receiving complaints. The initial reaction of the Venezuelan state apparatus makes matters even more suspicious: the governor of Bolívar denied the disappearances, denouncing them as a “mediatic show” put together by the opposition, and state media tried to cover up the situation by ridiculing the families of the missing miners, who had taken to the streets to protest the government’s unresponsiveness.
Beyond witnesses’ allegations and the suspicious behavior of state actors, the occurrence of an incident of such magnitude alone demonstrates the power that irregular armed groups hold in Venezuelan Guyana. And such a hold on power would be impossible without a degree of negligence, compliance or collaboration on the state’s part, especially because the Tumeremo massacre happened in the context of severe militarization and police control, since the town is in a government-designated Security Zone. Furthermore, the execution of miners is not the only instance suggesting state tolerance for irregular armed groups. Indigenous organizations in the state of Amazonas have repeatedly denounced the presence of the FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group with ties to the Chávez government, in their territories without receiving any response from state authorities. According to the ex-governor of Bolívar, army officers tolerate the presence of such groups because they benefit from illegal mining through extortion – a scheme politicans are aware of and complicit in.
The resulting surge in mineral extraction has generated severe environmental degradation. In Venezuela, territories that are rich in minerals tend to be rich in other natural resources also. Hence, many of them are protected by national parks or forestry reserves, which prohibit resource exploitation. But these protections are weakly enforced, so much of that natural wealth is threatened by illegal mining. Unlike licit mining operations, which tend to be more organized, illicit ones are highly inefficient and employ unnecessarily harmful technology. Extraction sites must be large and close to the surface for workers to be able to access the minerals, which requires the clearing of forests, and their location is based on instinct rather than on careful evaluation. Furthermore, mining often involves highly polluting substances such as mercury.
These activities have devastated nearly 200,000 hectares of land in Venezuelan Guyana, which will take 10,000 years to recover under ideal climate conditions. They have also poisoned the local fauna, and affected the country’s electricity generating capacity, as the sediment released from mines decreases the service life of turbines and water-holding capacity of hydroelectric plants – exceptionally bad news considering that Venezuela is going through an energy crisis so severe that the government has temporarily declared a two-day work week for public employees.
Still, the administration is an accomplice rather than a victim in this environmental tragedy. According to a deputy of the National Assembly’s environmental commission, the government has received countless complaints about the environmental and health problems associated with illegal mining, but has continuously ignored them. In fact, the Environmental Ministry doesn’t even have a defined policy with respect to the issue. And the recent measures taken by Maduro are bound to aggravate the situation, since they fail to protect the environment in the same way they fail to counter violence: by impeding democratic oversight of mining operations and by not addressing the root causes of the problem. Foreign companies were granted the right to explore mineral reserves in the Arco Minero del Orinoco without previous execution of environmental impact assessments, as mandated by Article 129 of the Venezuelan Constitution. And even though licit mining operations tend to be more efficient and use more advanced technology than illicit ones, they are nevertheless environmentally harmful. In addition, any benefit associated with more organized exploitation of mineral resources is outweighed by the fact that extractive operations could now extend to over 12 percent of Venezuela’s territory, including protected areas.
The social consequences of illegal mining are no less concerning. Among those most affected by the environmental degradation associated with mining are the indigenous groups that traditionally populate the areas where extraction takes place. Gold mining disproportionately affects their health, since they have to inhale the fumes generated by the ignition of mercury and eat animals that have accumulated it in their tissues. The Ye’kuana and Sanema peoples were found to have a concentration of mercury in their hair forty times higher than the maximum stipulated by the World Health Organization. This type of contamination increases the risks of suffering from kidney failure, arthritis, reproductive problems, memory loss and dementia, with the eventual possibility of death. And these effects are likely to last for generations, since 36.8 percent of females were found to have mercury levels so high that their children are likely to suffer from neurological disorders.
In addition to damaging the health of indigenous peoples, environmental degradation affects their lifestyle and undermines the practice of their traditions. Illegal mining has destroyed the environment they have taken care of for centuries and limited their ability to hunt, fish and practice ancestral forms of agriculture. Still, this is not the only threat they face. The violence associated with illegal mining has most directly plagued indigenous communities, dissolving their social structures and igniting ills such as alcoholism, drug addiction and forced prostitution. Indigenous activists claim they are forced to serve the miners as slaves and their children are forcefully recruited to work in the mines.
The government has abridged the rights of indigenous people not only by failing to demarcate the territories that belong to them as mandated by the Constitution, but also by ignoring the pleas of indigenous organizations that have been demanding justice for years. Furthermore, the recent measures espoused by the executive may aggravate their situation, since they were reached unconstitutionally and may weaken protection mechanisms. The government granted foreign companies the right to explore mineral resources in the territorites of indigenous groups without consulting them, violating Article 120 of the Venezuelan Constitution, Article 169 of the International Labor Organization, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Moreover, the Arco Minero del Orinoco will be a Special Economic Zone, which means that labor regulations in the area could be weakened to attract investment, and Article 25 of the decree abolishes the right to free association and establishes notions that could be interpreted as prohibiting workers’ the right to strike and peacefully protest.
The thirst for the mineral wealth of Venezuelan Guyana has ignited armed conflict and engendered environmental and ethnic tragedies. In all three dimensions the Venezuelan government has been complicit, and its most recent ventures, driven by that very thirst, are unlikely to remedy the harm done. On the contrary, they risk deepening the wounds and inflicting irreversible damage on the country’s environmental and social fabric. This is why the tragedy unfolding in Venezuelan Guyana merits the attention not only of the government, but of the opposition and of Venezuelan society at large.