Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Belt: The Economy, Environment and Violence

Carlos Egaña explores the political, economic and environmental concerns surrounding Venezuela's controversial Orinoco Mining Belt project.


In February, the climate in Caracas is no worse than what the mining communities in the south of Guayana must endure. Nonetheless, there were drops of sweat breaking out across the faces of the representatives of one hundred and fifty national and international businesses in the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV).  

Eulogio del Pino, the President of PDVSA and Nelson Merentes, his counterpart in the BCV (Central Bank of Venezuela), were presenting a project on gold, diamond, iron and coltan open-pit mining. The Orinoco Mining Belt. A project which, just taking into account the gold reserves of the area, represents more than 200 billion dollars. The fever for gold showed its initial symptoms in that meeting, which was sealed with Decree No. 2248 signed by Nicolas Maduro, President of the Republic.  

The Orinoco Mining Arc is made up of almost 112 thousand square kilometres and extends mostly across the north of Bolivar state, although it also touches on parts of the Amazonas and Delta Amacuro states. It cuts through jungles such as Imataca, La Paragua and El Caura, which together make up more than 8 million hectares, as well as through the catchment areas for the Orinoco and Caroni rivers. The hydro-electric dams of the Caroni river, which generate the lion’s share of the electricity consumed in Venezuela, are also located within this zone. These sources of water and plant-life, that provide mechanisms which regulate the environment and the generation of energy, could be seriously affected by such an extensive mining project. That’s why, amongst other reasons, in the six months designated by article 10 in the decree as a planning stage for the new mining project to be carried out, negative reactions to the project have prevailed, even if they have not caused huge shock waves. 

At the end of the month of February, Victor Alvarez, who was Minister of Basic Industries and Mining between 2005 and 2006, wrote that “due to the collapse of oil prices, the government of Venezuela has declared an intensive search for foreign currency to compensate for the disaster in oil income”. He also stated that through decrees such as this “the principle beneficiaries are usually transnational business authorised for exploitation, whilst the social and environmental costs are usually transferred over to society”. From here on, the Platform to Annul the Orinoco Mining Belt has been formed, which has brought a demand before the Supreme Court of Justice to achieve its objective. Similarly, the National Assembly made a resolution refusing to acknowledge the project in June. However, the immense amount of news on the recall referendum appear to have drowned out this peculiar debate. 

Although Alvarez’s words are an adequate summary of this situation, there are nuances that we cannot ignore. This policy could be a deepening of the “magical state” (Coronil) that has conjured illusions of progress rooted in petroleum extraction, but in this case in mining, something which the country is in great part accustomed to. But the range of consequences of the Mining Belt decree, its antecedents and what is happening right now in that area, escape the normality with which (oil) rentierism has been carried out for these two centuries. There are reasons why those who have immersed themselves in this debate believe that these factors amount to a great tragedy.

An aerial photo of a mine near Angel Falls in Guayana, Venezuela (AirPano). 

“The environment… of the future world” 

According to Juan Carlos Sánchez, a member of the Inter-governmental Group of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) who was awarded in 2007 with the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the environmental consequences that the Mining Belt Decree would have is the massive deforestation necessary for excavation. This would affect climate change, given that “deforestation suppresses the photosynthesis processes that absorb C02 from the atmosphere and at the same time emits C02 which is the principal greenhouse effect causing gas”. Furthermore, without the forests that cover the region, the evapotranspiration of the woods would be eliminated, a phenomenon which consists of sending great quantities of water vapour out into the atmosphere, which is what causes rain. “In other words, deforestation tends to increase the problem of drought,” says Sánchez.

Ana Elisa Osorio, ex minister for the environment (2000-2005), adds that stripping the forests from the area “could lead to a process which turns the south into a desert”. After all, the vegetative layer of the area is unrecoverable. “What will be left is the limestone below. In other words, nothing more will grow there again. At least for hundreds of years”. 

The aquatic systems of the Mining Belt are also in danger. Osorio confirms that the mega mining project “isn’t just about excavation, deforestation, or levelling the entire vegetative layer of the ground surface, which by the way is quite fragile in Guayana, but also about the fact that this ground will be mobilised, washed or filtrated with cyanide. And cyanide, as we know, is a totally toxic element. These filtrated waters, that mix of water with cyanide, theoretically will be placed in some waterproofed lagoons to contain them. But there are experiences, not so far away in Argentina, where there was a leak in one of those lagoons affecting eight rivers. So, just imagine that there is a leak or perforation and that liquid makes its way into the Orinoco River, towards the Caroni River, towards the Cuchivero River, which are the water reserves of our country. Seventy per cent of our water reserves are South of the Orinoco”. 

The danger isn’t just limited to the possibility that they get polluted. Beyond that it’s possible that the thousands of people who live near to the Orinoco, to the Caura, could die in terrible situations because of an accident such as that in the Soviet Union in 86. Sedimentation of the Caroni river would affect the entire country. 

Sánchez indicates that “the movements of the earth mean that a lot of it is dragged away and ends up in nearby rivers, which significantly increases their turbulence and amount of sediment” and that “mining activity consumes great quantities of water, whether that’s for transporting the minerals, the chemical processes of separation, the suppression of dust clouds and washing machinery”. This will mean a reduction in the flow of rivers such as the Caroni and the immediate consumption of their waters. It will contribute to a reduction in their capacity for water storage, and consequently, their ability to generate electricity in dams such as the Guri. This is without even mentioning the climatic consequences that would result from the elimination of forests. 

Having a little less electricity, perhaps would be the cost that we would be willing to pay for a little more money. But let’s go back to the bloody image described in the previous paragraph. Let’s focus on what could happen to the people who live there. Or rather, what is already happening to the people who live there? What is going on with indigenous communities? 

“Life is inviolable”

The creation of the Anonymous Military Company for Mining, Oil and Gas Industries (CAMIMPEG) in January this year and the massacre in Tumeremo, denounced at the beginning of March, are the two apparently unlinked events which converge in Decree Number 2248. The first authorises a new military company to carry out mining in the south of the country alongside the state business Minerven. Any other mining activities are considered illegal, although this has not prevented a de facto mining situation from developing over the years in the Mining Belt. A situation which has witnessed the involvement of “pranes” (prison mafia bosses) such as El Topo, El Capitán, El Juancho, El Sapito, El Ciego, backed by the Armed Forces and the government of Bolivar state, according to the testimony put forward in a report by superintendent José Gregorio Lezama, head of the Anti-Kidnapping Special Command for the Bolivar state police, today detained by the Bolivarian Special Intelligence Services (SEBIN). A situation in which massacres such as that of Tumeremo have been able to occur. 

Américo de Grazia, a legislator for the National Assembly for Bolivar state, is probably the most suitable person to talk about the issue. It is he who has led the charges for the political opposition on the disappearance of twenty eight miners on March 4th; and he hasn’t just limited these to Tumeremo. 

“The massacres are not a recent event; the massacres have a starting date in Guayana. They are well know, and there are public and press records: September 26th 2008 was the massacre of Paragua,” he says, adding that since eight citizens were killed by army officials on that date, the modus operandi has changed. 

“It’s no longer the army which is permanently demanding a protection payoff, or the armed forces, or the national guard, or the airforce. We are talking about gold mafias who are smuggling the gold through illicit routes in Venezuela, the prison mafia bosses have started to take control of it, criminals, organised criminal gangs, they convert each of the mines into a detention centre. And if the miners don’t fulfil the quota or pay the fee they have to pay, then they’ll be killed and eliminated from the business. There is a link between the Mining Belt and the massacre of Tumeremo. There have been 28 massacres before Tumeremo. What is novel or different about Tumeremo to the rest of the massacres? It’s that this massacre had family, faces, names and surnames, mourners. They took action, they closed down the roads. The governor Francisco Rangel Gomez denied it, the fact there was a massacre. He called it virtual and said there was a campaign (against him) because they wanted local governor positions. He managed to systematically deny that there was a massacre for four days. And the population didn’t act in a passive way, they closed the roads for five days to demand justice for their families”. 

The presence of Rangel Gómez – a Division General and former head of the Venezuelan Guayana Corporation – at the helm of Bolivar state today disturbs Grazia particularly given these events. He says they have given police credentials to the mafia bosses previously mentioned. According to the report by superintendent Lezama, they were given on the orders of General Julio César Fuentes Manzulli, commissioner general for the governor in the southern zone.  

“How is the governor going to excuse himself over a complaint such as this one|, he asks, adding that the massacres carried out by the same mafia bosses didn’t stop with Tumeremo. He alleges that between the 8,9, and 10th of July, four more massacres have been reported: two in Sifontes, one in El Manteco and another in Alto Caura. The four locations are all in the same area: the Mining Belt. 

The approval of Decree no. 2248 “is a policy in which the military have a protagonistic role,” he says, stating that these events “make the state responsible for cleaning up the terrain, cleaning up areas to hand them over to the thirty three countries that want to compete for mining concessions, handing over to them our wealth”. 

Aerial photo of a mine near to Angel Falls in Guayana, Venezuela (AirPano).

It’s worth adding to this the deaths of so many due to malaria whilst searching for gold, the result of a situation which has managed to dodge the law and the preparations for a mega-project, as well as the worries of the indigenous communities that live in the Orinoco Mining Belt. 

The Regional Organisation for the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazonas (ORPIA) which includes, amongst others, the Baniva, Piaroa and Jivi communities and the Kuyujani organisation, made up of the Pemon, Yek’wana and Sanema peoples, have opposed the Mining Belt being carried out without consultation. An extensive accumulation of mercury in the hair tissue of the last two peoples has been discovered as a result of mining in the river Caura. Ana Elisa Osorio is of the opinion that large scale mining “would lead to prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction and all the ill that this supposed type of development involves” for these communities. Emiliano Terán Mantovani, an investigator at the Romulo Gallegos Centre of Latin American Studies (CELARG) says that “on top of the environmental consequences that they are already suffering, this crossing of the extractive border will be a death sentence for many of these peoples. The only way you can justify this is through colonial reasoning. In the name of what do we have to sacrifice these indigenous peoples? And why them? Nobody wants to be sacrificed. And even less so if you’re not consulted, as the law stipulates. We cannot keep maintaining this racist pattern of burdening others with the environmental damage of our way of life”. 

Article 25 of Decree No.2248 indicates that “no particular interest, neither (those of) trade associations, trade unions, associations or groups, or their rules, will prevail over the general interest of completing the objective contained in the present decree”. In this way those who “carry out or promote physical actions tending towards the hampering of the total or partial operations in the Economic Development Zone created by this decree will be sanctioned according to the applicable juridic order”. 

It is worth asking then, if all of the protests that the mining or indigenous communities in the region can organise are considered to be “particular interests” in the face of mining activities. If those who practice artesanal mining in the region are suppressed by paramilitary groups, will they be repressed with still more violence when the state, that should be there to protect them, begins exploitation first hand? 

“The harmonic development of the national economy”

As much as organisations such as PROVEA allege that, once it is put into place, the Mining Belt will violate many many human rights articles in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s Constitution, it isn’t that easy to find alternatives. 

Terán Mantovani states that “sustainable or ecological mining doesn’t exist. Not in the south, not in the north, not in the east or west of Venezuela, nor in other parts of Latin America or the world. Nor illegal mining, which at times is semi-industrial and which uses great quantities of mercury, and much less industrial mining, which operates within more formal frameworks, but which is geometrically more devastating than illegal (mining) in intensity and extension. 

The methods that they use to get, for example, a gram of gold are terrible in terms of the removal of the vegetive layer of the earth, the use of chemicals such as cyanide, the pollution of the water and the impact on communities, social relations and cultural and traditions”. 

Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, Coordinator for the Venezuelan Forum of Environmental Education adds that “as an economic activity, mining is the exploitation of resources  which, by their nature, are non-renewable and which will inevitably run out in a finite amount of time. That indicates that mining is never a sustainable economic activity in the long term, and it is limited to extracting the quantity of the mineral resource to be exploited as it currently exists in nature, to then go on to abandon the zone.”

In this way, not only will it produce often irreversible damage to the ecosystems where it is carried out, but it also has an expiration date. When the chicken that lays the golden eggs dies, it will leave the ground turned into a giant crater. 

But there are different opinions. Roland Denis, the former Vice-minister for Planning (2002-2003) says that he doesn’t agree with the way in which the problem is being approached. 

“Firstly, this isn’t a problem for tomorrow. It’s a bit like, ‘everything is pretty there, and they are going to arrive with their transnationals and put an end to the pretty environment of ours and I don’t know what else.’ That isn’t true. There are one hundred and fifty thousand miners working there. There is a real mining population. Twenty per cent of all of America’s gold is being produced there. That’s a de facto situation, ok? And to be able to confront it, you need to confront it with the workers. You can’t confront it from the offices of ecological groups in Caracas. Independently of whether you are right on the need to preserve the environment, that mining is a disaster, whatever you want, but that isn’t an argument in itself. The argument has to be based on what exists in reality. A reality which you have to exit. And you can’t simply criminalise mining, you have to find a solution to mining itself. That’s the heart of the matter! It’s not simply about saying no to the Mining Belt. Human beings have been miners since they were human, they were born opening up mines”. 

He also affirms that there is a “mythology on the indigenous question, when practically all indigenous communities are carrying out mining. This is the image of the good little indian, of the noble savage. That doesn’t work, you also have to talk to the indigenous communities”.  

Álvarez Iragorry maintains his distance and adds another element to the debate: “Industrialised mining is a capital intensive economic activity, that means that it depends more on capital investment than on other productive factors (labour, land etc.). In this sense, this type of industry tends to generate relatively little employment, and principally of professional work-hands. In this sense, I don’t think that it will absorb the thousands of people who currently make a living out of illegal mining. Furthermore, it’s one thing to be a waged labourer for a company and another to be an artisan miner. I don’t think that the people who are actually illegally exploiting the mines and living off the hope of happening on a find that makes them rich, want to be dependent on a boss. They will most probably continue as they are until the end of their productive life.” 

Terán Mantovani focusses on the rentier nature of the decree. In the ghost of the Great Venezuela, he places the magnifying glass on the role of the state from Gomez to Chavez. Both he and De Grazia believe that this has not been ideal for Venezuelan society. According to the CELARG researcher “a rentier economy tends to be capital and technology intensive, and capitalises more, in terms of percentage, on nature over labour. Look at our oil extractivist economy today: only 0.7% of the economically active population generate 96% of the country’s income from exportation. The rest of the population tends to be located in distributive sectors, in the sense of where the (oil) rent is distributed. Rentierism tends to alienate the population from the productive sector and encourage them to go into those distributive sectors, from shops with imported clothing to hair salons, warehouses, and even in the informal economy: street hawks or illegal activities using foreign currency”. 

Similarly, according to the legislator, this state model leads to “always falling into a repetitive vicious cycle of talking about the distribution of wealth, but talking very little about the production of wealth”. 

Demonstrate, pacifically and without weapons

For the moment, with no real possibility of proposing measures to substitute the Ming Belt decree, there have been two important actions taken with the intention of stopping it. One has been the official request to annul the decree presented to the Supreme Court of Justice by the Platform for the Nullification of the Mining Belt Decree, which has appealed to every available legal entity that has been violated as a result. Just as important or perhaps even more so for Terán Mantovani, who alongside Osorio has been an organiser behind the Platform, are the resources of the “environmental and student organisations, urban agriculture movements, different well known social collectives, artists and grassroots Chavista groups, and of course, the indigenous organisations in Bolivar and Amazonas state who keep declaring their opposition to the decree”. 

On the other hand, the National Assembly has decided not to recognise and to deny its authorisation to Decree no. 2248. Although de Grazia is conscious that “it would appear that the National Assembly’s action was innocuous,” he is convinced of its effectiveness, given that the failure to recognise the decree by the legislative branch would lead the transnational companies invited to explore Venezuelan subsoil to back out. The legislator uses the following example: “When Gold Reserve says to you: How can I sign an agreement and the National Assembly won’t guarantee it? Because you guys are in transit, what happens if the next president refuses to recognise the deal?”. He states that “this is already being discussed in the different embassies of the countries who are supposedly going to enter into contracts with us”. 

Osorio shares a certain skepticism with regards to the (National Assembly’s) stance and says: “I don’t know if the Assembly is doing this just to go against the government, but in any case, it’s the correct position at this moment”. 

Nonetheless, in spite of the impact that the Assembly’s action could have, on August 5th Nicolás Maduro broadcast on the radio and television the signing of mining agreements in the Mining Belt from the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV). As well as celebrating the contracts being signed for US$ 4.5 billion, the president emphasised that 60% of the profits would go towards the missions, that the use of mercury in the project would be forbidden, that the Armed Forces have made an effort to detain mining mafias, and that a project such as this one will halt dependency on oil. We will have to see whether or not the social investment that is being proposed will prevail over the discontent at probable electricity failure in the future.  

If, in contrast to what Osorio explained, the conditions of the ground in Guayana will allow for mining without toxic agents. If, in contrast to Grazia’s accusations, the armed forces will demonstrate convincing proof against a link between Rangel Gomez and the mafia bosses that have subjugated mining communities. And if, beginning to depend on other basic produce will be the solution to our dependence on oil.  

Drawing conclusions would seem too hasty. More than remaking reflections, we can ask ourselves a series of questions that will serve to prolong the beads of sweat as opposed to drying them up. How can the naturalist, pro-indigenous, ecologist discourse of the government be in agreement with a policy that is so ideologically distant? How deep are the links between the groups who are economically interested in Guayana and the transnationals that will carry out the mining in the Orinoco Belt? To what extent can an economic crisis justify a state policy which has irreversible consequences? Can Venezuela survive under a model that differs from extractivism? 

Only one thing is clear: when the magic is running out for the state, it turns to all kind of dirty tricks to maintain its beneficiaries under its spell. It’s a shame for the Magical State that it is sometimes caught in the act. 


Translated by Venezuelanalysis.