Caracas, July 7, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) have launched a large-scale operation to clear out the Yapacana National Park, in Amazonas state, from illegal mining and other criminal activities.
According to official reports, almost 2,000 miners have been evicted since last month from the Yapacana area under “Operation Autana 2023.” On Monday, the armed forces seized equipment and material such as engines, fuel, 195 motor pumps, 18 electric generators, and destroyed 130 improvised housing and storage structures.
“They [the illegal miners] have been evicted voluntarily and their wellbeing attended to. They understood that nothing will prevail over environmental rights,” FANB General Domingo Hernández Lárez told the press.
On June 30, 800 illegal miners were evicted from the “Mina Nueva” sector where the FANB dismantled four camps with mining equipment, mercury, and explosives. Only a week prior, another camp was destroyed near the area containing almost three kilos of liquid mercury and 292,000 Colombian pesos. Authorities also arrested 25-year-old Wilfredo Alexánder Yaramare Esteves over alleged links to criminal organizations based in Inírida, Colombia.
“Operation Autana 2023” was launched following Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s order to root out illegal mining from national parks in the Venezuelan Amazon region, which expands across the Amazonas, Bolívar, and Delta Amacuro states, south of the country.
“For some time we have been carrying out a tremendous battle to protect our national parks, where illegal miners from Venezuela, but also Brazil, Colombia, and Asia have caused great destruction. We cannot allow this to continue,” said Maduro on June 19 during his weekly television program.
According to authorities, some 10,000 illegal miners are currently operating in the Amazonas state. This is largely the result of an internal migration process amidst the country’s economic crisis which has seen thousands of Venezuelans travel to the resource-rich Orinoco Mining Arc, located in the Amazon region, to work in illegal mines, mostly gold extraction.
In 2016, the Orinoco Mining Arc was declared a Special Economic Zone by the Venezuelan government in order to carry out mega-mining projects frequently in alliances with foreign firms that are given sizable tax breaks and other privileges. The Maduro administration has sought alternative income sources to offset the decline of the oil industry under market volatility and wide-reaching US sanctions.
However, under the special economic status, the Amazon territory has become vastly deregulated, allowing illegal mining to proliferate. Over the years, the government has launched several operations to end these pratices but indigenous communities and environmental organizations have denounced that illegal mining has continued mostly undisturbed despite the armed forces’ permanent presence.
On Monday, amidst the evictions in the Yapacana park, indigenous leader Nancy Herrera publicly denounced General José Ramón Maita, commander of the Amazonas military zone (ZODI), for owning machines that operate in illegal mines. She later requested protection from the Venezuelan state.
In another video, Herrera explained that many indigenous communities have left their homes to work in the Yapacana mines alongside people from across the country. “The majority here are Venezuelans who are calming their hunger in this territory, so how is it possible that we are being called delinquents, criminals, and foreigners?” she asked.
Indigenous Pemón leader Lisa Lynn Henrito likewise said that several military officers have been involved in illegal mining activities. She demanded the Venezuelan state resolve the conflict under mutual agreement and guarantee their right to life.
“With so many illegal activities in our territory under the permissive eye of the military, we have two options, either we move out so as not to participate in these activities or become part of the imposed system,” Henrito stated in a video posted by NGO SOS Orinoco.
The Venezuelan Amazon region is home to several Indigenous peoples and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the country and the world. The 3,200 square kilometer Yapacana Park was declared a protected area in 1978 due to its valuable vegetation and resources.
According to NGO Amazon Conservation, Illegal gold mining has cleared over 750 hectares of rainforest between 2021 and 2022, in the southwestern part of the national park. Satellite images have likewise shown the presence of approximately 4,100 illegal camps and 3,800 pieces of machinery, including excavators and bulldozers.
Other consequences of illegal mining in Yapacana and across the Venezuelan Amazon have been water contamination with mercury and an increase in malaria cases that have mostly affected surrounding indigenous communities.
The Venezuelan government has announced a reforestation program to be implemented in Yapakana after dismantling the illegal mining camps. In early August, Caracas is set to participate in a regional summit held in Belem, Brazil, to discuss the renewal of the Amazon Treaty with the countries that share the Amazon territory.