Orinoco Arc Drops 17 Tons of Gold into Venezuela’s Coffers as Ecologists Question the Project

Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc, which covers 12 percent of the national territory, may be good for state funding but it raises the hackles of environmentalists.

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An aerial photo of a mine near Angel Falls in Bolivar state, Venezuela. (AirPano)
An aerial photo of a mine near Angel Falls in Bolivar state, Venezuela. (AirPano)
By Cira Pascual Marquina
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Caracas, June 13, 2018 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s Ecological Mining Minister Victor Cano announced Monday that the Orinoco Mining Arc produced 17 tons of gold for the country’s central reserves last year. He also said that 300 agreements have been reached with small miners, aimed at regulating their activities.

According to Mining Vice Minister Franklin Ramirez, a further 24 tons of gold should accrue to the Central Bank’s reserves this year.

These officials’ announcements come approximately two years after the launching of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a vast expanse of land dedicated to mining in Venezuela’s Bolivar, Amazonas and Delta Amacuro states. Set in a world rich in natural wonders and resources, the new mining initiative continues to generate controversy.

The idea for a special mining zone south of Venezuela’s Orinoco river was originally conceived by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2011. Yet it was not until 2016 that the megaproject got fully underway due to the efforts of his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

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Map of the territory covered by the Orinoco Mining Belt. (Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)
Map of the territory covered by the Orinoco Mining Belt. (Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)

The Orinoco Mining Arc is huge, covering 12 percent of the national territory. The initiative provides a special legal jurisdiction that allows for open-pit mining in a landmass famous for its indigenous communities, spectacular high waterfalls and enormous table mountains (tepuis). According to newly approved laws, 55 percent of the profits, plus royalties and taxes, must go to the government.

Mining is not new to this territory, where small miners and some large firms have extracted coltan, gold and diamonds for decades. Since much of the mining lacked state regulation, this led to the presence of mafias, smuggling and illegal pit practices.

Although clamping down on illegal mining is an important achievement of the Orinoco Mining Arc, the initiative has been met with heavy criticism since its founding. Critics, who are just as often Chavista as opposition, have focused on how megamining damages the environment and harms the region’s indigenous communities, such as the Pemon and the Ye'kwana.

Government spokespeople claim that the Mining Arc will help diversify the country’s economy while providing a much-needed source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped nation. The project will also allegedly contribute to Venezuela’s social programs, with the state-destined profits being largely used for social spending.

They also claim that all agreements are being consulted with local communities and adhere to ecological norms, although critics are skeptical, pointing to a lack of transparency in the multi-million dollar dealings.

Multinational corporations known to be operating in the new zone include Italy’s Badeshi, Congo’s Afridian, Canada’s Gold Reserve and Barrick Gold, and China’s Shandong Gold and Yankuang Group. It is also believed that Russian, Dutch, Indian and South African companies may be involved.

On Earth Day last Saturday, a group of demonstrators met in front of the Venezuelan Supreme Court to protest the mining zone, which they say promotes forms of resource extraction that are unconstitutional. Among the protestors was acclaimed intellectual Edgardo Lander, who said the project “threatens an important part of the national territory” and “impacts the ecosystems of the global environment in the context of a profound global warming crisis.”

Also present was Chavez’s former Minister of Environment, Ana Elisa Osorio. A long-time opponent of the Orinoco Mining Arc, she warned that “it puts at risk the country’s most important water sources in an extreme way.”

Osorio also reminded those present that President Chavez once said he preferred for minerals to remain underground until technology becomes available that make their extraction ecologically sustainable.

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