Crisis, Sanctions & Environment: A Conversation with Liliana Buitrago & Emiliano Terán (Part I)

Researchers from the Venezuelan Political Ecology Observatory explain the grave consequences of the country’s growing mining industry.
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In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro began talking about “ecological mining” as a mechanism to overcome Venezuela’s crisis. Since then, there has been a government decree opening a huge area of Amazonian Venezuela to mining, the so-called Orinoco Mining Arc. It goes along with a plan encouraging mineral extraction all around the country. Liliana Buitrago and Emiliano Terán, researchers at the Political Ecology Observatory, explain how the expansion of the mining frontiers impacts Venezuela’s society, environment, and economy.

Overcoming rentierism based on natural resources is part of the official discourse today. On the one hand, there has been a sharp drop in oil production because of sanctions and mismanagement. On the other, there is now further exploitation of natural resources through mining. From your efforts to monitor resource extraction at the Political Ecology Observatory, what can you tell us about this situation?

Buitrago: Venezuela suffers from a global disease: dependence on fossil fuels. However, in our case, the dependence is even greater because oil has been our economy’s main engine for almost a hundred years.

When that model collapsed due to falling oil prices, mismanagement of the company [PDVSA], sanctions, and other factors, the government did not manage to overcome its dependence on extractivism. Instead, the economy was redirected towards the expansion of extractivist frontiers.

Venezuela’s long-standing reliance on [oil and mining] rents has prevented the development of less dependent, more viable economic alternatives. While the crisis could have led to the development of more sustainable ways of life, instead we turned to what is probably the most destructive form of accumulation: mining. As it turns out, the extractivist model of accumulation – so deeply rooted in our society – hinders the ability to conceive another solution.

In fact, it is important to highlight that while the Bolivarian Process brought profound changes in our society, overcoming extractivism was never an objective.

Today, when faced with the perfect storm of sanctions and poorly maintained oil infrastructure, the government turns to a solution that is destined to deepen our current crisis. It is the “easy,” short-term solution: mining gold and rare metals can offer a quick if limited way out (compared to oil revenues)… However, the model is based on dispossession of the commons, rapid environmental degradation, imposing a new territorial organization outside of the current constitutional framework, displacing people, and erasing non-occidental ways of life.

In other words, the new forms of extractivism sweep away alternative cultures and install a culture of death.


While it is true that mining devastates nature, it is also true that US-led sanctions have brought grave problems, and the country needs resources. These are exceptional circumstances, aren’t they?

Buitrago: That is true. We could say the expansion of the mining frontiers has the sanctions as one of its roots. However, Decree 2248, opening a huge chunk of the Venezuelan Amazonian territory to mining exploitation, dates back to 2016, whereas the economic sanctions only began in 2017.

Nonetheless, sanctions are coercive and should be considered as one of the factors that got us to where we are: Venezuela needs food, medicines, inputs to maintain industries and infrastructures, etc. The traditional economic pathways are now closed. However, is the deepening of a model in crisis the best option?

The extractivist imaginary is linked to a colonial or colonized concept that puts “development” before life. Land is considered a resource to be exploited and not a common good. The colonial imaginary also conceives the Earth’s resources as infinite. However, global warming and the environmental crisis show that that is not the case.

The contradiction between the modern conception of “development” and life is evident.

In Venezuela, the developmental discourse has intensified with the expansion of the mining frontiers. They say: “We are advancing, we are developing, we are overcoming rentierism” and, “Now we are going to diversify the economy with the mining engine.” That is the discourse… In the meantime, rentierism is alive and well, and our economy plunges even more deeply into a model of accumulation that was already in crisis.

Finally, I should add that gold mining in the so-called “Orinoco Mining Arc” is nothing new. Prior to 2016, there was a network of illegal mining there, and many mechanisms were already in place. What the decree did was expand the scale of mining.

So, again, while Venezuela’s crisis brought a widening of the extractivist frontiers, there also was an ideological and material substrate in place. The sanctions were just one spark in a very dry prairie.

Five years ago the government promoted Decree 2248, the legislation that expands the extractivist frontiers in Venezuela. What can you tell us about this decree?

Terán: The territory covered by the Orinoco Mining Arc is a polygon of almost 112 thousand square kilometers. It is approximately the size of Cuba and it is larger than Portugal. The project has enormous dimensions.

It focuses on the mining of gold, diamonds, and coltan, but also bauxite and iron, and other minerals in the northern strip of the Venezuelan Amazon. The northern border is the Orinoco River, and it reaches the Cuyuní River basin in the east, where the largest concentrations of gold are located. Then, from the Cuyuní River, going west, it includes the Caroní River basin, the Caura River, and the north of the Cedeño municipality, where the main concentrations of coltan and diamonds are found.

However, the polygon is artificial because the area of influence of the Mining Arc extends practically throughout the entire Venezuelan Amazon, which covers nearly half of the national territory. In fact, Icabarú, right on the border with Brazil, is a zone of influence of the Mining Arc because important concentrations of gold and mining are found there.

One of the keys to understanding the Mining Arc is a particular configuration of governance. The decree declares the Orinoco Mining Arc to be a “special economic zone” – a zone of extreme deregulation like those promoted by China. In formal terms, the territory is under military control and under a special legal regime [the Venezuelan Constitution does not fully apply].

In addition to traditional mining corporations and small mining groups, one of the key actors in the extractivist business is a company associated with the military.

The Orinoco Mining Arc is an enclave economy under a regime outside of constitutional rule, like earlier enclaves that characterized Latin America in the past. Rather than a territory for the rule of the Bolivarian Republic, the Mining Arc is a deterritorialized space that offers little or nothing to the country’s development.

Finally, it should be noted that the Mining Arc is a disputed territory, an area crossed by multiple conflicts for the control of its natural resources. Therefore, the logic of governance is marked by violence and displacement.

Situations like this also occur in some African countries. There, as in Venezuela’s Mining Arc, governance is plural and contested, with the participation of sectors linked to illicit operations and war economies. In the Venezuelan case, these forces often come into conflict with indigenous communities.


What is the environmental impact of the Orinoco Mining Arc?

Terán: The Mining Arc is a hybrid project: a proposal that brings together local and national ventures alongside international corporations. At the moment, however, it is characterized by the growth of informal and illicit mining rather than more formal interests.

The impact of hybrid mining on the Amazonian ecosystem is huge today, but it is also a self-expanding project. As it evolves, such mining will leave ever-greater marks on the local ecosystem.

Right now, deforestation is already visible. If we look at satellite photos, we can see huge brown deforestation patches, especially along the riverbanks. In addition to that, the alluvial techniques used in riverbed gold mining also lead to a rapid loss of biodiversity.

To all this, we must add the contamination of water with mercury and other chemicals. This has an impact on all forms of life right now, and it will leave a mark on future generations, since these are bioaccumulative contaminants.

We must also consider the impact on the soil. Venezuela’s soil in the Amazonian region is quite delicate: contrary to what one may think, it is somewhat poor and its capacity to recover is very slow. Therefore, removing topsoil entails a very slow process of recovery.

Finally, we must talk about diseases in the region. These are a socio-environmental byproduct of mining. In addition to the diseases produced by exposure to mercury, there is a malaria epidemic underway in the active mining areas. The numbers of infected people are very high.

The Mining Arc is presented as an economic engine to counter the sanctions and the blockade. Arguably, however, because the Caroní River basin is involved, it impacts the country’s capacity to generate hydroelectric power, which in turn hurts industrial and domestic power. Do you think that is the case?

Terán: The impact on electricity generation is one of many socio-economic impacts. Mining in the Caroní basin impacts the Guri Dam [which supplies over 70 percent of Venezuela’s electricity], which in turn influences the distribution of electricity for most of the country. Alluvial gold mining on the banks of the Caroní reduces the river’s flow, which impedes hydroelectric power generation. Additionally, sediment from mining tends to clog the turbines. This is serious stuff, because it reduces hydroelectric generation at a time when thermoelectric plants – the other power source in Venezuela – have stopped operating due to the fuel crisis.

The confluence of inefficient management and corruption, joined later by sanctions, has exacerbated the crisis of the oil-rentier and dependent model of growth. Diversifying the economy with more mining does not solve this crisis. Instead, everything points to a larger crisis looming in the future, since mining ventures are much more devastating in environmental terms than oil ones.

Moreover, under the current scheme, mining revenues are minuscule when compared to oil revenues. In reality, the state hardly benefits. Instead, this is a bonanza restricted to a few groups in Venezuela and some international interest groups.

We have been talking about how impaired electric power generation, because of mining, affects the whole country. Are there other ways that mining has an impact on the country outside of the precise areas defined by the Mining Arc?

Terán: Mining, like oil, is a form of accumulation that depresses and marginalizes other economic sectors: economic activity migrates towards this form of rapid accumulation.

With the oil boom in Venezuela [in the 1970s], the countryside and farming was abandoned: campesinos and fishermen migrated to the city to capture a bit of the oil rent. Today what is happening is the opposite: people are migrating from the cities to the mines in the hope of finding a source of income in a society where there are very few alternatives.

In the Amazon, there is potential for less devastating forms of development: tourism used to be an important income source for indigenous communities in what is now the Mining Arc. However, it has plunged in recent years with the upsurge in mining. Also, ways of life that are less harmful – such as the cultivation of fish varieties that only exist in that area or agroecological farming – are now cornered.

What we know today as the Venezuelan Amazon has had its own economic dynamics and its own forms of sustainability for millennia. These forms of life can still be found, but they could be disappearing. The Venezuelan Amazon is a common good that should be preserved. Since the area north of the Orinoco has already been deforested and the western plains are basically savannahs, the Amazon is the last frontier.

This has to be considered with all its implications: not only is the economy of life linked to ecology, but if the ecological means for life are undermined, no economy will survive the devastation. It would be an economy of death, in any case.


You have talked about the diffuse and contested governance in the Orinoco Mining Arc. Who are the different actors operating there?

Buitrago: When the Mining Arc decree was signed in 2016, there was a moment of transparency. We learned through public media channels that Gold Reserve, Glencore, and other mining corporations had interests in the project. However, unlike the oil business, mining is generally shady: “briefcase companies” that operate like mafias and a lot of opacity are the norm. In fact, many of the companies operating in the Mining Arc do not have offices, and it’s very difficult to investigate them. In other cases, they are small consortiums or “start-ups” linked to transnationals, but the links between them are difficult to decipher.

What differentiates Venezuela from other countries is an overt link between mining interests and the military. In 2016 the government created CAMIMPEG, a military company linked to mining and oil management and exploitation whose president is, by decree, the Minister of Defense.

Participation is by the military not the state. This is striking because Decree 2248 establishes a special regime in the Mining Arc that limits the right to protest, which is guaranteed in the Constitution, and the military is supposed to be the regulatory force on the ground. Meanwhile, it has particular interests as a player in the game!

So those are some of the actors on the terrain. However, as you said, there is a very diffuse power structure that makes governance in the territories violent, not only because mining is violent in itself – a particularly brutal business – but also because it is an unconsolidated project.

There are disputes and conflicts between state actors and mafias. All are fighting to consolidate their control of the resources. In fact, there is a de facto power in the Mining Arc called “El Sindicato” [The Union] which brings together several interest groups and forces into a “government,” with sectors of the national armed forces having their share. Other interest groups involved include small miners and the transnational corporations, and illegal groups. To a great degree, “El Sindicato” is what manages the mining business and arbitrates the conflicts that emerge around it.

Finally, whenever there is an expansion of mining frontiers, it always comes with violent, deeply patriarchal, and masculinized forms of organization. In Venezuela, the first to be affected by this expansion were women, especially indigenous women. In addition, machista violence, prostitution, and human trafficking are becoming recurrent features of the social landscape.

A friend of mine whose “comadre” [the godmother of a child and a very good friend] went to the mine told me with sadness and resignation: “Who knows if I’ll ever see her again!”

[Part II of the interview will include a discussion about the impact of mining on indigenous communities, the environmental problems caused by the poor maintenance of the oil infrastructure, and the environmentalist struggles underway.]