Venezuela Combats Illegal Mining as Six Die in Gold Mine

As the Venezuelan government continues to implement Plan Caura, a project to fight illegal mining and its impact on the environment, unsafe working conditions, and resource theft, six illegal miners have died in a gold mine collapse and the government has opened an investigation.

Photo from CVG website

Mérida, August 26th 2010 ( – As the Venezuelan government continues to implement Plan Caura, a project to fight illegal mining and its impact on the environment, unsafe working conditions, and resource theft, six illegal miners have died in a gold mine collapse and the government has opened an investigation.

The six miners died and two were injured when the Tommy Gold Mine in El Callao, Bolivar state collapsed on Monday.

The only state-owned gold mining company, CVG Minerven, had been exploiting the mine but had abandoned it as the mineral had run out, AVN reported.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez requested an investigation into the incident, and Minister for Basic Industries and Mining, Jose Khan, is visiting the area in order to head up the investigation, AVN reported.

The illegal miners, of which over 80% are foreigners, coming from Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, and Caribbean islands, according to Minister for the Environment Alejandro Hitcher. They tend to be employed by both Venezuelans and foreigners who frequently offer gold itself as an incentive.

Henry Rangel, one of the Plan Caura coordinators, called the organised illegal mining a kind of corrupt “mafia” that runs a whole logistical chain.

“They enslave [the workers], they make them extract gold. With this illegally sold gold, they are doing two things: robbing the country, and destroying the environment; causing it to lose water and biodiversity,” said Hitcher.

Khan said such people need to carry out their activities in authorised zones and take the necessary safety measures.

Referring to the six deaths, he told press, “Even though in the morning workers from the company CVG Minerven and members of the Bolivarian National Guard asked over thirty miners to leave the zone, a small group returned to the area at night and started excavating. They used drills, which caused the collapse.”

The government has been working on grouping together the informal miners in the area to help protect both the miners and the ecosystem, Khan said.

Plan Caura

Plan Caura, which began in April this year, aims to eradicate illegal mining and the destruction of the ecosystems east of the Orinoco River. It covers a total area of 480,000 squared kilometres and three states; Bolivar, Amazonas, and Delta Amacuro. Just last month the plan entered its second phase and extended to El Callao, as well as to two other municipalities.

Vice-Minister for the Environment Jesus Cegarra said the areas covered by the plan were a priority for conversation as they included some of the “richest forest areas” of the planet, with “pristine vegetation.” He said illegal mining, such as the indiscriminate extraction of wood and the expansion of agriculture are among its main enemies.

The plan also aims to educate and change prejudices, and to reduce the use of chemicals to separate gold from other metals. Another objective is to relocate miners to other productive sectors. The plan involves the use of army soldiers, helicopters, and other military equipment to correct the general lack of control and to better regulate access to fuel used to operate the machinery.

Rangel said that by July they had recovered 29,000 hectares previously used to extract gold, diamonds, and coltan, and had prohibited 372 clandestine camps and machinery used for illegal mining, resulting in the dislocation of more than 9,000 people.

The government, in explaining the plan, has reiterated that it is going after the “bosses, not the slaves.” Hitcher said many of the illegal miners work for transnationals and Venezuelan “oligarchs.” He said the expensive equipment needed to extract the gold was proof of capital investment. “It is not safe for the [workers], it’s minimum investment with maximum profit,” Hitcher added.

Manuel Figuera, who works for another CVG division, ALCASA, criticised the government’s implementation of Plan Caura, suggesting it shouldn’t be “designed… in Caracas,” and needed to involve the inhabitants of Bolivar state.

Writing for Aporrea, he said the government wasn’t completely committed to protecting the environment because it had promised to renew some environmental permits in some zones.

On the other hand, regional newspaper, El Diario de Guayana reported that yesterday a group of 300 miners affected by the Plan Caura protested the Environment Ministry’s denial of permits for mining in five areas because it leaves them without work.

Venezuela has some of the largest gold deposits in South America, and the price of gold has been increasing, hitting a high of $1,265 per ounce in June, as the global economy remains unstable. Rusoro, a Russian-Canadian company, is the biggest gold mining company in Venezuela.

At the beginning of this month the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) increased export quotas for private gold mining companies, allowing them to export 50% of output, up from 30%, Reuters reported.

This follows protests in July, reported by Figuera, by transnational workers in El Callao and two other municipalities, demanding their own working groups in the BCV and the modification of export limits.

Figuera also claimed that such a measure would only benefit the transnationals. “These transnationals take advantage of the need of the working people for employment and use their capacity to mobilise to defend the interests of the employer,” he said.

The Venezuelan state-owned companies like CVG Minerven now have policies of “endogenous development,” where they promote participation and assist development of the communities where they are operating. In July this year for example, CVG Minerven handed out “social support” to three communal councils in El Callao, financing that came from the company’s social fund.

Local communal councils said they would use the funding to renovate some school rooms, fix public lighting, and renovate other school facilities.