The Open Veins of Venezuela

Gold mining and logging are destroying huge parts of the Imataca forest reserve in Eastern Venezuela. Critics say the mining and logging activities are illegal and profits mainly flow to multinational companies abroad. It all has to do with Decree 3,110, which President Chavez issued half a year ago.
Mine in the Imataca forest preserve
Credit: Jeroen Kuiper

Las Claritas, Bolivar state – A thin layer of orange-red dust is covering the wooden shacks and rusty cars along the dirt track through the jungle just northwest of Las Claritas, a booming mining town in southern Venezuela. It’s the sort of town you expect when you think of gold mining: messy, hot, dusty, unregulated. “Be careful here at night, there’s a lot of drunks”, according to Manuel and José, two mineros who take me into their 26 year old American car to see the gold mines.

The mines are not far away. Just a few kilometres from Las Claritas, through Ciudad Dorada (Gold City, where many of the mineros live) behind a huge billboard which advertises support by the Bolivarian government for the cooperativas of mineros, the first huge mining hole in the earth appears. An area of maybe half a square mile has been cut clear for the miners. At the bottom of the mining area, at about 15 meters depth, machines are scraping off earth mixed with water, which is transported upwards to large transport bands, where the sludge is thrilled over the transport band. The gold, which is the heaviest material, stays on the band.

“The cooperatives are supported by the government”, says Manuel. Just twenty days ago he came from Caricuao, a poor neighbourhood in the southwest of Caracas, to try his luck at the goldmines. His colleague José has been here for almost twenty years already. “The cooperatives usually count between ten and 15 men”, according to him. “Each cooperative can get financial support of up to 140 Million Bolivares, in order to buy machines and other equipment.” According to José and Manuel, there are many illegal mineros here—they estimate at least some 15% of all the people around. “They come from Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, the Dominican Republic and even Portugal. But only people with a Venezuelan cedula [ID card] can participate in the cooperatives”. 

International mining companies earn well

Entrance to the Crystallex mine.
Credit: Jeroen Kuiper

Apart from the legal mining cooperatives and the illegal individual mineros, there’s a third category of miners in Las Claritas: the huge international companies which got concessions from the government. The most powerful one in Las Claritas is Crystallex, a Canadian-owned mining company. It’s not difficult to notice their land: a high fence surrounds their huge swath of land, and at the main gate, guards with helmets and riot sticks are keeping away unwanted persons, in front of a watch tower. “No pictures”, says one of them harshly, even on public soil outside of their territory. It’s clear: these mining companies are here for the money and not for anything else.

Another company is the US-based Hecla, which is the biggest gold producer in Venezuela. Hecla owns concessions in El Callao and El Dorado, a bit further up north in Bolivar state. A third mining company, Toronto-based Bolivar Gold, holds concessions in El Callao as well. Last month, the company announced the first extraction of gold at their Choco 10-field, which is supposed to hold ore reserves of 1,3 million ounces. And then there’s of course the Venezuelan, state-owned CVG, which has a gold mining division.  

The presence of mining companies like Crystallex and Hecla is a highly controversial issue among many NGOs and indigenous groups in Venezuela. The main reason for the controversy over their activities is the fact that the mining takes place in the Imataca Forest, a large forest reserve along the border with disputed Guyana. Though it doesn’t have the status of a national park, the area is under special administration. The Imataca forest reserve, which is bordered by the Orinoco delta in the north and the area of Las Claritas in the south, was created in 1963 and measures 3.8 million (!!!) hectares of land, which makes it roughly as big as The Netherlands. The area is rich in different wood arts, gold, diamonds, copper, bauxite, magnesium, water, genetic diversity, and energy.

Because the Imataca Forest has the status of a reserve since 1963, it was supposed to have a Management Plan since then, but until 1997, such a plan never existed. This means that all logging and mining before that year was carried out on the basis of improvisation.

Largest gold reserves in Latin America

Statue to the miners in the Imataca forest preserve.
Credit: Jeroen Kuiper

Although already in the eighties some twelve mining concessions were issued by the Venezuelan government in the Imataca Forest, there wasn’t much activity until recently, because of lack of infrastructure in the region. Logging companies preferred to focus on forests in the southwest of Venezuela. Since these forests have almost completely disappeared by now, logging companies started to focus more on Imataca, especially on the northern and eastern regions, for instance around Bochinche.

According to estimates, the Imataca Forest holds wood in store worth more than $6 billion. The value of the gold reserves in Imataca is even larger. The mines of Las Brisas and Las Cristinas, in the south of Imataca, are estimated to have roughly 21 million ounces of gold in store. Only the extraction of the gold in just these two mines would value more than $8 billion, depending on gold prices. The Imataca region probably holds the largest gold ore reserves in the whole of Latin America.

Caldera issued decree 1,850 in 1997

It could only come to the mining and logging activities in Imataca after Venezuela’s former President Rafael Caldera signed decree 1,850 in 1997, which allowed for the mining and the wood logging in several designated areas in the Imataca Forest Reserve. Decree 1,850 designated roughly 40% of the total surface of Imataca for logging and mining.

The decree was also linked to a Convention between Brazil and Venezuela, which regulated the construction of an electricity power line from the Guri lake, with a power station in Las Claritas for delivering electricity to operate the mines, towards Boa Vista in northern Brasil. Also, this electricity line was highly controversial among environmental NGOs, as the track runs through the Canaima National Park, but the power line has been in use for some years already by now.

However, decree 1,850 wasn’t carried out to its full extent because of massive objections against it by NGOs and indigenous groups in 1997. They asked for a nullification of the decree until research about the consequences of the decree had been done. This request for nullification was accepted by the Supreme Court at the time. A moratorium was thus ordered on the issuing of new mining concessions.

New Decree 3,110 in September 2004 by Chavez

The whole issue started to become very current again in September of last year, when the Chavez government approved decree number 3,110, which includes a new “Plan of Ordinance and Regulations of Use for the Imataca Forest.” The new decree ratifies de facto what had been planned by the Caldera government. The new Management Plan, by which decree 3,110 orients itself, explicitly states: “Mining concessions which have been obtained before to entry into power of this decree, localized in the zones where mining activities are permitted, can continue to be carried out.”

In the new decree, 12% of the surface of the Forest Reserve is now designated for mixed logging and mining use, while another 60% is destined for wood logging. In total this makes up an area of about 2.7 million hectares. The Chavez cabinet approved the decree on the September 7, 2004, just a few weeks after the referendum against Chavez, and the decree was published in the Official Gazette two weeks later.

“The new decree 3,110 is illegal,” according to Maria Eugenia Bustamante from the NGO Amigransa (Friends of the Gran Sabana). “The nullification of the former Decree 1,850 has never been lifted.” What makes the issue more complicated: with the new 1999 constitution, the Supreme Court of Justice, that had issued a moratorium on decree 1,850, was abolished and replaced by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

NGOs like Amigransa are very upset by the new decree because, according to them, Chavez had promised during the election campaign of 1999 not to touch the forest: “Our thesis is that the exploitation of the resources cannot go against the future life… if we have to cut the forest in order to get to the gold, then I will stay with the forest,” Chavez said, according to them, in 1997.

In June 1997, during a heated debate about decree 1,850, the current Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, said the following: “Who is going to pay for the ecocide of Imataca? The multinational companies want to misuse, not in their own countries where the rule of law exists but in backward countries… the presence of thousands of small miners in the Imataca Forest Reserve confirms the failure of the state… the protectors of the environment, who criticize the decree, are not dinosaurs. We should listen to them and that hasn’t been done so far.”

Venezuela is left with destroyed forests

According to Julio César Centeno, Professor at the Los Andes University in Mérida and Rapporteur to the Secretariat of the UNCED, the new Management Plan “Satisfies the aspirations of multinational gold and wood companies which have been destroying Venezuela’s forests over the last 40 years.”  According to him, “None of the concessionary companies that enriched themselves over the last 40 years on the basis of the natural wealth of all the Venezuelans has stayed in the country. Instead of that, they left by leaving behind destroyed forests, affected rivers, polluted water, erosion of the genetic patrimony, poverty, and social degradation. And all of this was allowed under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment and other government authorities.”

According to Centeno, four logging companies are currently active in the Imataca Forest on about 760.000 hectares, which makes about 20% of the whole area. “The lack of control and the corruption which have been characterising the Venezuelan Forest Service during the last decades have caused an indifferent attitude towards the logging, which is severely damaging the forests in major parts. The forests are exploited as if they were mines, destroying the most valuable parts. If these companies continue in this way, they will have destroyed a major part of the Imataca Forest within the next twenty years.”

Centeno adds that in some cases cyanide and mercury is used for the extraction of the gold, both highly toxic substances which cause enormous damage to people’s health, and which easily pollutes complete rivers. According to Centeno, the social and environmental costs will surpass the economic benefits by far. “The main beneficiaries will be the multinational companies. In the case of mining, the foreign companies will only pay 3 to 5% of the profit to Venezuela, whereas in the oil industry this percentage is at least 30%. In the case of logging, Venezuela is among the countries with the lowest taxes on logging activities in the world”. 

Indigenous peoples in the region are against logging and mining

Not only the environment us suffering from the mining and logging activities in Imataca. The inhabitants of the region suffer as well. The Imataca Forest is home to as many as 19 different indigenous people. The activities in their habitats seem to split the population in their opinion about it, though the majority of them (by now) seems to be against the mining activities.

“It’s a very delicate issue”, says Italo Pizarro as a start, a Pémon leader who comes from the surrounding area of San Rafael de Kaimoran, but spends half of his time in the office of the Indigenous Federation of Bolivar State (FIB – Federacion de Indigenas del Estado Bolivar) in Ciudad Bolivar. “The mining leads to confrontations between the criollos and the indigenas in the region. One of the main problems caused by the mining is the pollution of the water. We wash in the rivers, we cook with its water, we drink it. More and more of it gets polluted by illegal miners”.

According to Pizarro, who was elected as new head of the FIB just a month ago, the indigena communities in the Imataca region were consulted during the planning phase of the new Decree 3,110. “But it didn’t mean much. It was more a one-way approach: we were informed about what the government was planning, instead of them listening to us.” Although Pizarro knows that a lot of gold is lying under the surface in Bolivar state, he is not impressed by that. “What do we need it for? Our living, fishing and hunting habitats are destroyed. For me, mining is unsustainable per definition, no matter what others try to tell us. And where does the profit go? Some wood logging companies said they would invest 10% of their profit into health and education in our communities, but we didn’t see any of it yet.”

Coming soon: an interview with Venezuelan Minister of Environment Jacqueline Farias