VENEZUELA The Treasure of Estado Bolivar

September 25, 2007

The states of Bolivar and Amazonas in southeast Venezuela had until recent years been all but ignored. Left to their own devices, freelance gold miners eked out a living from the thin, mineral-rich soil. Today this region, which encompasses half of the country's territory, has been catapulted into the center of a bitter debate between those who view mining as an important engine of economic growth and those who want to protect Venezuela's ecology and the homeland of its Amazonian Indians.

Steve Ellner teaches economic history at the Universidadde Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. He is co-editor, with Barry Carr, of the forthcoming
The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview).

The area's 20,000 freelance ers now find their livelihoods imperiled. Dismissed as inefficient by neoliberals in the government, and considered a threat to the rain-forest ecosystem by the nation's environmentalists, the independent miners have few defenders.
Whereas Amazonas has remained relatively untouched, gold mining in Bolivar dates back to 1800, though only recently has it become a problem. After 1960 when new roads increased access to the area, and more advanced mining methods replaced traditional panning techniques, mining began to seriously threaten the natural environment. The influx of miners to Bolivar during the economic crisis of the 1980s exacerbated this stress.

hoses--called chupadoras-to dig up the earth, creating craters of up to 25 feet in depth and a half an acre in area. Given the terrain's extreme susceptibility to erosion, and its lack of nutrients below a thin top layer, the soil and vegetation are destroyed in the process.
Then, in a rudimentary but deadly procedure, miners spread mercury on the gold-laden riverbeds they will pan. The mercury concentrates gold dust into nuggets. The miners then burn off the mercury, leaving nearly pure metal-and a noxious vapor in the air. The miners in Bolivar have so contaminated the principal rivers of the Orinoco basin with mercury that the water supply of the state's main industrial city, Ciudad

Guayana, is in jeopardy. A Central University of Venezuela (UCV) study found that mercury concentration in the Caroni River, the Orinoco's principal tributary, is 182 times greater than permissible levels and that 80% of the gold miners show symptoms of mercury poisoning.
The legal status of many of the gold miners is as precarious as the area's environmental equilibrium. Though the government proscribed all independent-or "spontaneous"-mining in February, 1977, freelance miners in Bolivar outnumber by an estimated three to one those who have permission to work the concessions. According to an official source, of the 18.3 tons of gold that were mined in 1989, only 3.9 tons were legally sold. The rest was smuggled out of the country. Large numbers of these independent prospectors are routinely harassed by the police when they encroach on tracts which the Ministry of Energy andMines (MEM) has granted to outside concessionaires.
Some independent miners have formed cooperatives in order to apply for concessions, but because they lack political ties to the MEM, their applications are almost always turned down. In fact, most concessions go not to miners, but to absentee concessionaires, who usually turn over their areas to subcontractors, often without the authorization of the MEM. These middlemen divide the gold on a 50-50 basis with the miners who work for them, after paying the absentee concessionaires their cut.
In an attempt to impose order on the region's mining activity and to halt environmental abuse, last year the government transferred authority from the MEM to the Corporaci6n Venezolana de Guayana (CVG), which is in charge of state-run heavy industry in Ciudad Guayana and its periphery. The CVG had denounced the MEM's environmental record, and criticized it for assigning only one agent to the region for every 3,000 miners during its time at the helm.

The Neoliberal Approach

At an "ecological cabinet meeting" in July, 1991 in Las Claritas, a major gold-mining area 200 miles southeast of Ciudad Guayana, the government outlawed the use of mercury along river shores. Subsequently, the CVG moved small miners out of Las Claritas and other important mining centers. These areas were then contracted out to foreign companies, sometimes in association with local business interests. Las Claritas was turned over to Canadian developers while Cyprus Minerals (one of the world's leading lead producers) took over the nearby La Camorra veins, which became the first privately owned gold mine in the country. Mitsubishi, in league with the "Mendoza Group"-a consortium of wealthy Venezuelan investors-and with the CVG' s iron company as a junior partner, received authorization to engage in both alluvial mining in the Cuyuni River basin (which enters the Caribbean in Guyana) and underground gold mining. Finally, the CVG plans to privatize the state gold company, Minerv6n, which operates the nation's largest gold mine in El Callao, a move opposed by the city's miners union.
The CVG' s promotion of multinational activity in the gold-mining region is part of the neoliberal economic policies pursued by President Carlos Andr6s P6rez. At first glance, the CVG' s approach seems reasonable. Freelance miners are unable to recover more than 30% of the alluvial gold in a given area because of the primitive technology they use. Further, their use of mercury and chupadoras truly represents a crime against nature. In justifying his policies, CVG Minister Leopoldo Sucre Figarella argues that the multinationals are "ecologically conscious" since they have reputations to protect and, when they break the law, they are easier to fine. The CVG requires the companies to pay a bond up front and prepare environmental feasibility studies before digging. In addition, Sucre Figarella claims, the phasing out of small-scale gold mining in Venezuela is part of a world-wide trend.
On closer examination, however, the CVG's strategy is fraught with problems. The consensus is that environment-friendly technology for alluvial mining in such fragile soil does not yet exist. The introduction of tractors by the multinationals to replace the chupadoras will only result in more extensive mining and greater destruction to the ecosystem. Although the mining companies typically return the removed earth to its original place and plant trees when the operation is finished, the soil's texture is irrevocably transformed in the process. In addition, much of the uprooted soil is washed into nearby rivers by torrential rain, common year-round in the region.
Stuck in the middle are the freelance miners, for whom neither the CVG nor environmentalists have much sympathy. "The social dimension of the situation of so many Venezuelan gold miners and their families cannot be ignored," says Alexander Luzardo, one of Venezuela's leading conservationists and a former congressman of the socialist Movimento Electoral del Pueblo (MEP). "We cannot simply oust these people lock, stock and barrel. But their activities should be closely monitored and limited, and they should be dislodged from the most delicate areas where the greatest damage is being done." The CVG has not heeded this advice. On the contrary, it has been insensitive to the needs of the miners who are being displaced. One case in point is Las Claritas, where 250 miners and their families were removed to the outskirts of nearby El Dorado to make way for the new concessionaires. These miners complain bitterly that the CVG has failed to deliver on its promise to provide decent housing, schools and other services.
Finally, the CVG has not eliminated some of the more glaring ecological atrocities for which it had denounced the MEM. The CVG granted permission to 63 barges to dredge for gold in the Caronf River, which disturbs the natural sedimentation. The silt, once released, flows downstream and clogs the CVG-run Guri Dam, the country's major source of hydroelectric power. Furthermore, since many operators rent expensive equipment and pay government levies on a monthly basis, they work the barges nearly 24 hours a day, thus increasing the likelihood of fuel spills.

Debate Over Amazonas

Many view the ecological disaster in Bolivar as an example of what to avoid in the more pristine rain forests of who argue that tapping the area's rich natural resources and establishing a military presence along Venezuela's extensive borders with Brazil and Co-lombia are a national imperative. They favor large-scale migration to the region, and are oblivious to environmental constraints. Hilari6n Cardozo, the president of the opposition social Christian party Copei, calls for the construction of a highway running parallel to the border. Cardozo's proposal is a throw-back to the early 1970s when the Copei government, headed by President Rafael Caldera, made plans for the Conquista al Sur, which included ambitious agricultural, mining, and even industrial projects in Amazonas.
Opposing calls for greater development of Amazonas is the nation's increasingly vocal environmental movement, comprised of over 100 groups. Not confined to a small intellectual elite, communities around environmental problems of local concern, and was instrumental in the creation in 1976 of a national Environment Ministry, the first of its kind in Latin America.
The government has declared the region off limits to gold mining and highway construction, and has placed it under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry, which argues that because of the fragility of the region's soil, Amazonas' population should be limited to two inhabitants per square kilometer. Spokespeople for the Ministry argue that large-scale projects in Amazonas must not go ahead until new technologies are developed to guarantee environmental protection. Government activity in Amazonas is currently restricted to research operations, among them an experimental station on the Orinoco River, funded by the German government.

best described as benign neglect. The government, to its credit, has rejected revitalizing the Conquista al Sur, but has failed to design programs that would use the abundant plant resources which the rain forest contains, or to tap its potential for eco-tourism. Ama-zonas is mired in dire poverty, aggravated by Indian migration to the state capital, Puerto Ayacucho. Apart from the government bureaucracy, employment opportunities in the capital are virtually non-existent. Amazonas' infant-mortality rate of 55 per 1000 is over double that of the nation, while the mortality rate for pregnant women is four times greater than the national average.
The government has no effective presence in the area to combat lawlessness. Tens of thousands of wildcat Bra-zilian gold panners known as garimpeiroshave illegally crossed over into Amazonas. The garimpeiroincur-sions have fueled the ire of the nation's armed forces. Military rebels who nearly overthrew President Pdrez on February 4 accused him of dealing too lightly with the matter.
The garimpeiroshave also visited great destruction on Venezuela's nearly 14,000 Yanomami Indians, who reside in 150 communities in the upper Orinoco basin in Amazonas. The Yano-mamis, a semi-nomadic tribe with little previous contact with the outside world, have been debilitated by Western diseases to which they lack immunity, and treated brutally by the garim-peiros. They have also seen the destruction of their rivers, many of which have dried up or had their course altered as a result of the garimpeiros' mining activity.
The Yanomamis often report the invasions to authorities, but the National Guard usually arrives weeks or months later, after vast tracts have been deforested and the miners have moved on. In an attempt to curb the worst abuses, last August, P6rez declared a 32,000-square-mile area a biosphere reserve for the Yanomami, placing it off limits to most forms of agricultural and industrial development.
In July, Amazonas was transformed from Venezuela's only National Territory into the nation's twenty-second state, a move designed to correct centuries of abandonment by the central government. Unfortunately, part of the impetus for the statehood movement came from developmentalists who want to break out of the tutelage of the Environment Ministry in order to revoke the prohibition on mining and other destructive activities.

Conflicting Interests and Policies

Plans to extensively mine gold have a certain appeal not only in Bolivar and Amazonas, but in the nation as a whole, which, like the rest of Latin America, is in the throes of a prolonged economic crisis. The CVG's Sucre Figarella, the most prominent public figure to support such an effort, argues that the nation's 10,000 tons of gold reserves represent a potential source of national income equal to that of oil. (Today gold mining accounts for less than 1% of the nation's GDP, while oil accounts for 27%, the lion's share.) The opposite stance, expressed by Environment Minister Enrique Colmenares Finol, has become a catch phrase in the ministry: "A liter of pure water is worth more than an ounce of gold." Many environmentalists have argued for the encouragement of small-scale projects, which, although no panacea, can generate employment opportunities and help pull the rug out from under the advocates of developmentalism. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have sponsored modest enterprises involving handicrafts, cooking oils, honey (whose tropical properties have medicinal value) and other products which have been marketed outside the region under their own trademarks. One NGO has even introduced buffaloes into the upper Ventuari (one of the Orinoco's major tributaries) and elsewhere, which have proved more resistant to tropical diseases and humidity than cattle. The project receives financial backing from the German Catholic Church, but not from the Venezuelan government.
At the inauguration of the Fourth Congress of National Parks in Caracas in February, Pdrez boasted that Ven-ezuela has maintained 50% of its territory as national parks (39 in all), forest reserves (27), biosphere reserves (2), and 16 other special judicial classifications. At the Earth Summit this June in Rio and at the preliminary conference in New York, Venezuela sought to parlay these achievements into international prestige and environmental leadership. To that end, Venezuelan spokespeople (not including Perez, who was forced to cancel his appearance due to domestic pressures) made frequent references to the country's hands-off policy in Amazonas.
Yet Venezuela's environmental record is decidedly mixed. To be a true leader, Venezuela must commit itself to programs which preserve the environment, but at the same time deal with the economic stagnation and social problems of its Amazon region. In this way, Venezuela would create thriving communities capable of acting as buffers against foreign penetration of its territory.
Such a strategy means bucking neoliberal formulas, which would have the Venezuelan government write off the independent miners of Bolivar and the indigenous peoples of Amazonas, who do not significantly contribute to macroeconomic growth.

Tags: Venezuela, mining, environmental destruction, neoliberal, Amazonas


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