Crackdown on Illegal Miners in Venezuela Draws Blood

A brutal incident that left six miners dead triggered violent protests in southeastern mining areas, highlighted the difficulty of eradicating illegal mining in the Venezuelan Guayana region, and struck a heavy blow to the government's programme to encourage artisanal miners currently inflicting damage on the environment to become farmers, tour guides or forest workers.

CARACAS, Sep 26 (IPS) – Witnesses say six people were gunned down by Venezuelan army troops last weekend in illegal gold mines in the jungle region of La Paragua, some 600 kilometres southeast of the capital. But so far, authorities have acknowledged only four deaths.

The brutal incident triggered violent protests in southeastern mining areas, highlighted the difficulty of eradicating illegal mining in the Venezuelan Guayana region, and struck a heavy blow to the government’s programme to encourage artisanal miners currently inflicting damage on the environment to become farmers, tour guides or forest workers.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said in a news briefing Tuesday that the preliminary investigations indicate that the military was responsible for the killings, and said the soldiers involved would be brought to justice.

“We know at the very least there was an excessive use of firearms by a group of soldiers. This government is not covering up, nor will it cover up any abuse. This government respects human rights.”

On Saturday, Manuel Lizardi, a miner in Turumbán on the La Paragua river, arrived wounded to the hospital in the regional capital of Ciudad Bolívar, reporting that military troops descended on the “bulla” (rural mine) Friday and fired on miners. Four of his companions were killed, but he escaped after pretending to be dead.

Judicial police Saturday discovered the bodies of José Rondón and Ramón García, as well as Brazilians Livardo Sánchez and Yovanny Lima.

However, it is not yet clear as to how many people were at the bulla when the army arrived or how many people were killed.

Lizardi and Katiuska Sánchez, Livardo’s daughter, said that at least two indigenous people also died that day, but that their communities removed their bodies and refuse to come forward; other relatives say at least three more miners are missing.

Rumours spread like wildfire through this 50,000-hectare area where, according to mining union leaders, some 40,000 miners work. There was talk that another three Brazilians and several more indigenous people had been killed, which would bring the death toll to 12 people.

Local residents were also saying that the military had allegedly seized 10 kilograms of gold when they were destroying the miner’s equipment, materials and site in Turumbán.

General Francisco Enrich, commander of Theatre of Operations 5, which covers all of southeastern Venezuela, first reported the incident as “a dispute among miners over a gold bulla.” Defence Minister, General Raúl Baduel, later spoke of a gun battle between gold miners and soldiers.

According to Baduel, soldiers on board a helicopter spotted illegal mining operations in the area “and the aircraft barely had time to drop off the troops before it was forced to take off, after gunmen took cover in the surrounding jungle and began shooting at the troops. Weapons were seized at the site.”

However, Baduel ordered an investigation, turned over the soldiers involved in the Turumbán action to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and said that “The armed forces will not condone any illicit act.”

Marino Alvarado, coordinator of the local human rights group Provea, told IPS that “the Defence Ministry’s strong stance, willingness to cooperate and the fact that the case is being dealt with in the sphere of civil justice are very positive developments..”

Engineer Víctor Castillo, a resident of the riverside mining town of La Paragua, said the story he heard from Lizardi is that the soldiers landed and simply opened fire on the miners without saying a word. He also said some were shot again, after they were wounded and had fallen to their knees.

Javier Lezama, an advocate for the La Paragua miners, told IPS in a telephone interview that “it is hard to believe that a few miners who have maybe one or two hunting or homemade weapons would attack army troops that arrived in a helicopter gunship armed with rifles and other automatic weapons.”

On Sunday and Monday, hundreds of furious miners, their families and other local residents protested in the streets of La Paragua and Maripa, the municipal capital, whose mayor, Juan Carlos Figarella, was mentioned by Baduel as the person who made the complaint about the illegal mine.

An army guard post and Mayor Figarella’s house were overrun and torched, as were government trucks belonging to the Bolívar state government and the Environment Ministry. The road leading to the area was blocked for hours with burning tires and vehicles.

The governor of the state of Bolívar, Francisco Rangel, said he would take steps to guarantee public order and contain the violence, with army support.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office appointed three prosecutors to investigate the incident.

Opposition parties blasted the use of violence against the miners, and former leftist governor of Bolívar, Andrés Velásquez, said “even in the case of illegal mining, no one has the right to take the lives of miners.”

William Saúd, head of a mining union, said “the problem is that the government decided that the environment in the zone should be protected, and that we have to shift to different kinds of work. That’s fine. But where are the programmes, and until they’re implemented, how can miners make a living for their families?”

“There are about 40,000 of us in the area — we support about 200,000 people in Bolívar,” a state of 1.5 million inhabitants.

A local gold and diamond miner who gave his name as Manuel told IPS that on a really lucky day, a miner can earn up to 1,500 dollars, whereas government programmes offer a maximum of this amount as a loan for people to work for three months in agriculture, reforestation, crafts or tourism.

Much of the land in Venezuela’s southeastern Guayana region is under some kind of environmental protection. The measures were implemented to preserve the local fauna, flora and wilderness, as well as water sources, in particular the 90,000-square-kilometer watershed of the Caroní River.

The river feeds the Guri and other dams that together produce 12,500 megawatts per hour, which supplies 70 percent of the country’s electricity as well as energy exported to northern Brazil.

As of last August, the government banned all mining activity in the Caroní basin, whose largest tributary is the La Paragua River. In recent months it also set up a programme to relocate some of the miners to other regions of Bolívar and provide financial assistance to the rest to help them become farmers, reforestation workers, artisans, tourist guides or other kinds of service providers.

Before the current outbreak of violence, deputy minister of land use in the Environment Ministry, Nora Delgado, had reported that 1,954 miners in the Caroní basin had taken advantage of the programme to get started in “other activities compatible with the basin’s importance as a source of hydropower.”

According to the Ministry, the figure represents 24 percent of the population listed in census data as engaging in this activity; thus, the government expects to solve the problem by helping 6,000 more miners change occupations. There is clearly a major discrepancy between these figures and those of frontline union leaders and activists.

Confrontations between mining, energy and forestry activities and environmental conservation are breaking out all through southeastern Venezuela. The fate of future gold, diamond and logging concessions in that part of the country is up in the air; the government could award them to private companies or manage the ones in the easternmost area, on the border with Guyana.

A power line also cuts across the area, bringing up to 500 megawatt hours to northern Brazil. And in the future, if the project goes through, a pipeline will run through the region, to transport natural gas southwards from Venezuela’s Caribbean coast to Argentina and Uruguay.