Venezuela mainly features in the international news in reports of the country’s economic meltdown and of the increasingly repressive measures taken by the President, Nicolas Maduro, to cling on to power despite the opposition winning a majority in the Congress. The obverse of these realities gets less attention. In an effort to boost the flagging economy and garner support from the impoverished rural poor, last year the government announced new measures to open up to mining a huge swathe of the south of the country, referred to as the Arco Minero Orinoco.
The policy poses a major threat to the indigenous peoples of the south of the country who have been vocal in their opposition to the policy since it was announced. Public statements denouncing the opening up of their lands to mining have been made by the indigenous organisations representing indigenous women, the indigenous peoples of the Guayana region and the local indigenous peoples’ organisations of the Sanema, Yanomami, Ye’kuana, Pemon, Eñepa, Yabarana, Warekena, Kurripaco, Baniba, Yeral, Hiwi and Wottoja (Piaroa) peoples. They have been widely supported by NGOs, academics, environmental experts and human rights groups, as well as by opposition politicians in the Congress. Complaints have also been sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights pointing out how the mining policy violates Venezuela’s human rights obligations under international law.
Venezuela’s Constitution and its law on indigenous peoples actually guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, including their rights to own and control their lands and territories (habitat) and their right to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent to operations on their lands. However, the government has repeatedly blocked recognition of these peoples’ land claims. It is estimated by national human rights groups that only some 12% of indigenous land rights have yet been titled.
Details of the implementation of the new mining policy have not been made public. However, press features allege that exploration and mining concessions have already been offered to up to 150 international mining companies from 35 countries, including China, Canada, USA, Italy and DR Congo, for the extraction of gold, diamonds, coltan, iron and bauxite. Meanwhile, extensive illegal mining continues in many parts of the country including in the Pemon and Akawaio peoples’ territories in the east, in the Caroni and Paragua, the Ye’kuana and Sanema peoples’ territories in the upper Caura river and in numerous indigenous areas in Amazonas State. Some 150,000 illegal miners, many from Colombia and Brazil, are estimated to be operating in the south of the country, supported by collusive relations with the local security forces and armed guerrillas. These mines are already having a devastating impact on the indigenous peoples and their forests and wider ecosystems. Mercury pollution is rampant; mosquito-borne malaria has increased; prostitution of indigenous women is reported and; death threats have been made to indigenous leaders who oppose the miners.
As one indigenous woman reported in a public meeting:
Mining does not only destroy the environment, it also destroys us women and the indigenous peoples.
Ironically the mining policy of the left-leaning government is not new. Back in the early 1970s, the right-wing Christian Democrat party (COPEI) announced a similar initiative, termed the Conquista del Sur (CODESUR - the Conquest of the South), in which road-building, industrial development and agribusiness, in the States of Apure, Guayana and Amazonas, would be spearheaded by mining. While some major hydropower, bauxite mines and aluminium smelters did go ahead, the centrist government that assumed power after elections in 1974 soon revised CODESUR’s ambition. Environmental protection was prioritised, penetration roads through the rainforests were washed away, and the madder river diversion plans of hydropower developers were shelved and up to 45% of the two southern States were classed as protected areas. By the mid-1990s, all mining in the State of Amazonas was decreed illegal. Now, with the petroleum-based economy in the north of the country in ruins, politicians are again pinning their hopes on mining the interior.
By Marcus Colchester