MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

Published by MAC on 2006-10-08

Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

Humberto Márquez - Tierramérica

CARACAS, Sep 28 (IPS) - Canaima, god of evil in Venezuelan legends, is the name of a 1935 novel by the famed Rómulo Gallegos which explodes that myth, and of a national park whose borders, as if pushed by the deity himself, pit mortals against each other as they fight for survival and wealth, for the environment and gold.

More than a thousand small-scale miners from the town of Las Claritas, 800 kilometres southeast of Caracas, earlier this month cut off the road that connects eastern Venezuela with Brazil, and kept up protests against the government for several days, demanding their right to work and the concession for mining gold ore that was granted to the Canadian transnational Crystallex.

Last week, however, the conflict evaporated. The roadblocks were not repeated, although the latest signs of the government's strategy to respond to the miners have not been clear.

Clashes with the army left several people injured, vehicles burned out and protesters arrested.

"We make our living from the mine. Our children were born here, and we aren't going to let them take us away from where we have worked. President Hugo Chávez has said the land belongs to those who work it," said activist Luis Almeda, of the pro-government Bolivarian Front of Miners.

Southeastern Venezuela, bordering Guyana and Brazil, has gold ore areas that have been mined since the 19th century and could hold the largest deposits in Latin America. Las Cristinas mine, handed over to Crystallex and so far unexploited, alone could hold -- in 462 million tonnes of ore with 1.1 grams of gold per tonne -- more than 16 million ounces of the precious metal.

Some 3,000 small miners "demand their right to exploit that land because Crystallex hasn't done anything in four years. It didn't receive authorisation because it did not present the environmental impact studies on time," said the opposition councilman for the area, Carlos Chancellor.

Meanwhile, Mayor Marlene Vargas, who is pro-Chávez, told Tierramérica that "the artisanal miners can't operate that big mine without capital and technology. What we are proposing is that there be co-management between the miners and a bigger company, whether it's the transnational or the state-run company Minerven."

The mine and the centre of conflict are located in the watershed of the Cuyuní River, which flows to the Esequibo, in Guyana, but the miners are active throughout the southeast in the state of Bolívar, extending over 238,000 square km. Canaima National Park and the watershed of the Caroní River are within its borders.

The Caroní, the main tributary of the Orinoco, 750 km long, is a hydroelectric dream, with an estimated potential of 24,200 megawatts per hour.

Some 12,000 megawatts have been exploited in the lower Caroní with several dams. The largest, the Guri, with 10,000 megawatts/hour capacity, provides 65 percent of the electricity consumed by the 26 million Venezuelans.

Contamination from mercury, sedimentation, and deforestation are some of the harmful effects of gold mining activities in the Caroní watershed documented over the past two decades, says expert Julio Centeno, from the University of the Andes.

According to deputy environment minister Nora Delgado, the government has launched a plan, in alliance with the mining communities, to eradicate mining throughout the Caroní watershed.

Across Bolívar state, "some 70,000 miners recognised by the government operate, and 70 percent of them are supportive of agreements to relocate to areas where they can carry out their activity without affecting the watershed, and for forestry exploitation, reforestation, agriculture or tourism, in some 90,000 hectares we have identified," said Delgado.

She added, "We are going to join communities with programmes for a gradual relocation of the miners. We can't take all of them out overnight, nor can we design all of the solutions from an office in Caracas."

The ban in Las Claritas, in the zone around Cuyuní but at the gates of Canaima, would be a first step so that the strategic Caroní watershed "gradually achieves a status like that of the state of Amazonas" in the south, where all mining activity is banned until 2050 -- though miners frequently work the area illegally.

For the immediate term, the tensions between gold and the environment is being played out in Las Claritas, and the government appears to be bending to the demands of the miners, who have served as political and electoral support in the area. But the signals have been mixed.

President Chávez said last week during a rally in Caracas: "If we have to choose between environment and mining, we will leave the gold and we will keep the water and the air."

But in another speech in a mining area, he announced that the state would not grant any more concessions to foreign corporations and would review those already issued because the government would create "a national mining company" to work in partnership with the small mining operations and work in the Las Cristinas area.

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