MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Hard scrabble life for poor Venezuela gold miners

Published by MAC on 2005-10-18

Hard scrabble life for poor Venezuela gold miners

18 October 2005

By Patrick Markey, Reuters

LAS CLARITAS, Venezuela - His face blistered with red burns from an accident, Venezuelan miner Ronald Guillen massages a silvery ball of fine gold he hopes would feed his wife and three children for a while.

The sliver of malleable metal culled after a day in an open mining pit should fetch around $30, a lucky day for unlicensed miners like Guillen who carve out a hardscrabble existence in deforested clearings in Venezuela's Bolivar state.

"Sometimes we get nothing, sometimes four grams. Gold is all about luck," Guillen said as his children darted around his shack of plastic sheets and wooden poles. "It's not the life for everyone."

Tens of thousands of poor, mostly unlicensed miners are drawn to quarries in southern Venezuela hoping the precious yellow metal can bring them quick riches or at least a source of income in a remote region where jobs are scarce.

In camps hacked from dense jungle, miners slog waist-deep in sludge with generators and water hoses to wash down the earth and suck it onto raised pallets. Then it is dried and panned with mercury for small pieces of gold.

The sweltering jungle here is scarred by huge open pits, blasted by jets of water into bright red and gray moonscapes tangled with a mess of pipes, motor parts, muddy pools and skeletal wooden frames used to dry earth.

Mining became a political issue last month when hundreds of unlicensed miners blocked a highway leading to Brazil to demand jobs and permits. Troops battling protesters protected the nearby Las Cristinas concession, where Canadian miner Crystallex <KRY.TO> has an operating contract.

Soon after, President Hugo Chavez's government warned that it would revoke contracts and concessions judged inactive after a sector review and hand the blocks over to small mining cooperatives supported by the state.

The announcement was the latest to rattle investors in Venezuela, where left-winger Chavez has promised to introduce sweeping reforms as part of his socialist revolution to fight poverty in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

JUST MORE PROMISES?

The Las Cristinas deposit is set in miles (km) of jungle framed by Venezuela's famous Gran Sabana, where the beauty of the region's flat-topped mountains inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his novel "The Lost World."

But the beauty fades in the nearby town of Las Claritas, where many seethe over the lack of development. Wooden shacks cram dusty streets selling mining equipment, clothes, food, music and liquor. In alleys, merchants equipped with small scales offer to ply their trade in gold and rough diamonds.

Community leaders say most people have no formal employment and about 70 percent live directly or indirectly through illegal mining. Prostitution is common and HIV infections and poisoning from mercury contamination are problems, they say.

Small-scale miners use mercury to extract gold amalgam but often pollute riverways and earth with waste from the recovery process.

Crystallex says it has invested more than $2 million in a local clinic, water treatment plants, housing and roadways as part of its infrastructure investment in the area. But the problems at Las Claritas are complex.

Deputy Environmental Minister Nora Delgado said officials are working to create an alternative employment plan for miners while reorganizing and supporting those who will get licenses and continue working in the area.

Authorities say they are slowly trying to shift unlicensed miners away from the River Caroni, where mining work threatens the environment of a waterway that provides huge amounts of hydroelectric power.

"We have a plan of action ... (with) alternative options for the mining zone, and regulating and putting order in the areas where people will stay on working the mines," she said.

But for miners working in unlicensed encampments like those that pockmark the ground near and inside the Las Cristinas, such announcements sound like just more hollow promises.

Most say their illegal status forces them to pay high prices to transport contraband food and gasoline to their camps and they complain about abuses by National Guard troops trying to keep them off official mining sites.

"The government? We don't get help from anyone here," said Simon Hernandez, a life-long miner who sat resting in a shack inside one camp, his skin caked in mud from work.

"The president says the permits are on the way," he said. "But local officials here never deliver."

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