Venezuelan Government Moves to Halt Illegal Gold Mining, Protect Rivers

The Venezuelan government launched a massive operation to put a stop to illegal mining and deforestation along the Caura river, located in the remote south eastern part of Bolivar state over the weekend.

By Kiraz Janicke - Venezuelanalysis.com

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Environmental damage caused by deforestation & mining along the Caura River
Environmental damage caused by deforestation & mining along the Caura river (Rafael Millan)
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Caracas, April 27, 2010 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government launched a massive operation to put a stop to illegal mining and deforestation along the Caura river, located in the remote south eastern part of Bolivar state over the weekend.

“We cannot continue to allow the illegal exploitation of gold in the state of Bolivar. It’s a crime that national and transnational capitalist mafias are committing against the environment, for this reason we need to stop it,” said president Hugo Chavez.

During his weekly television show, Hello President, on Sunday Chavez announced that a governmental commission headed by vice-president Elias Jaua, had visited Bolivar on Saturday, to implement Plan Caura, to stop rampant illegal mining in the state.

“Mining is an activity that you can’t hide, it can’t be erradicated completely, but it can’t be an irrational economic activity, and it must be within the legal parameters and controlled strictly by the Venezuelan state,” Jaua told a press conference.

Jaua, who was accompanied by Environment Minister, Alejandro Hitcher, Justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, the Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, Defence Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa, and the governor of Bolivar, Francisco Rangel Gómez, said troops had been mobilised to the region to close down the illegal operations.

Mata Figueroa said that during the visit that the environmental destruction caused by the “indiscriminant use of mercury” and deforestation was clearly visible along 6 kilometers of the Caura river.

“We have deployed more than 3,000 men in the Caura, there have been some arrests, but we have to look for the bosses because what we found there were slaves,” the defence minister said.

One of the arrestees was also connected to a child prostitution ring, authorities said.

“If we have to put Defense Ministry offices there [along the Caura]” to stop the illegal mining “we’ll do it” Chavez said.

Jaua assured that further measures would also be taken to stop illegal mining along the Caroní and Cuyuní rivers, among others, in Bolivar state, and in the state of Amazonas.

The Caroní River is the second largest river in Venezuela after the Orinoco and is one of the principle sources of water for the Guri hydroelectric dam which provides nearly 70% of Venezuela’s electricity.

The Cuyuní River runs through the eastern region of Bolivar state, and in parts serves as the border with neighbouring Guyana.

In order to stop illegal mining the government has developed an “intregral plan” that involves short, medium and longterm strategies, but “it is no easy task” as it is a “structural problem” Jaua argued.

According to Central Bank figures (BCV) illegal mining accounts for 60% of the total gold production in the country.

In addition to closing down illegal mining operations that smuggle resources out of the country, the government is considering revoking mining concessions of national and multinational companies that destroy the environment and exploit workers, Chavez said.

“They take the gold and diamonds out of the country, without paying taxes. They contaminate the water, the land. The workers there are slaves. If we are going exploit these minerals all of this will have to be nationalized, recuperated and the concessions that damage the environment will have to be ended,” he added.

The Chavez government has nationalised companies and concessions in the metals, cement, electricity and oil sectors, among others, in the framework of reversing the neoliberal privatisation policies of previous governments, recuperating sovereign control over the economy and pushing forward with the project of building “Socialism of the 21st Century.”

In October, Gold Reserve Inc., a Washington-based company solicited international arbitration against the Venezuelan government’s expropriation of gold mining projects. The company claimed it had invested US$ 300 million in the projects.

Jaua said that Chavez has instructed the Ministry of Basic Industry and Mines to create a national mining company, which will allow the state to regulate the industry together with small and medium mining companies that are legally established.

In reference to the alleged involvement of some indigneous communities in illegal mining activities Jaua said, “The behaviour of one group does not signify that the indigenous peoples support this, on the contrary, they have repeatedly expressed to us their rejection of the destruction of the forests and rivers.”

In the case of the Caura River, Jaua said there was a special collaboration between the government and the Yekuana people.

“They have been defenders against the illegal extraction of gold. Just like the rest of the indigenous people in Bolivar who reject the damage and abuse generated by mining,” he declared.

Environmental groups who have been campaigning against what they describe as “ecocide” in the region have welcomed the government measure.

Nalúa Silva, a spokesperson for the Institute of Anthropological and Ecological Investigation from the National Experimental University of Guayana (UNEG) said, “It’s necessary to support this effort by the Venezuelan state to erradicate illegal mining that destroys the environment along the Cauara, Paragua, Caroní and Yuruaní rivers.”

Silva explained that up until 2006 the area had been relatively untouched, but over the past few years had seen “a massive mobilization of illegal miners who destroy the soil and the water in the search for alluvial gold and diamonds.”

She also defended the right of the Yekuana and Sanema indigenous peoples of the region to confront the invasion of illegal miners in their ancestral lands and the emphasised the need to strengthen protection of these communities.

In this sense she urged the government to speed up the process of land demarcation and the handover of indigenous land titles saying, “More than five thousand members of the Yekuana and Sanema communities will benefit from this regulation.”