By Antonia Brillembourg
New York City, New York
In Venezuela, 20 years of dictatorial rule have led to dire straits: the highest global rate (264,872%), an average income of 72 cents per day and 5 million displaced Venezuelans since 2014.
Venezuelan oil production has fueled the government of President Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro for decades and accounts for 95% of federal revenue. Due to a rapid drop in crude oil prices in 2014 and the mismanagement of a state-run oil refinery called PDVSA, gold has increasingly become the government’s last resort.
A little over 500 miles southeast from the capital city of Caracas lies a village called Las Claritas. The village is the center of the Orinoco mining arc, a government-sponsored mining project that covers 12% of Venezuela. The large-scale mining project was launched in 2016 by President Maduro in response to the collapse of the oil industry. It is estimated that there are over 8,900 tons of gold in the Orinoco mining arc, making the Venezuelan gold deposit the second largest in the world.
The Orinoco mining project is an ecological and health disaster. The designated mining area lies within the “protected” Amazonian forest that borders the Canaima National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to Angel Falls. Mining has led to the deforestation of nearly 1,090 square miles of forest and the rampant use of mercury has polluted the Cuyuni river basin of the Amazonian region. Conditions within the mining area have led to a resurgence in Malaria cases, despite Venezuela being the first country to eradicate Malaria in 1961.
The mining project is responsible for major human rights violations of the local indigenous population. The northern Venezuelan state of Bolivar is home to 26 indegenous groups; their resistance against illegal mining have forced them to leave their ancestral lands or join forces.
The majority of the mining is regulated by heavily armed guerrilla groups, such as ELN and FARC, linked to the Maduro Government. These violent leaders are responsible for frequently amputating, murdering, and raping workers, 45% of whom are underage children, to instill fear and maintain control in the region.
On July 15, 2020, the Human Rights Council issued a report on the human rights abuses occurring as a result of gold and mineral mining in the Orinoco mining arc. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on local “Authorities [to] take immediate steps to end labour and sexual exploitation, child labour and human trafficking, and should dismantle criminal groups controlling mining activities.”
The UN’s report and declarations have not swayed the Maduro government. Looking forward, many are hoping that the UN and broader international community will turn towards starting a campaign to ban the trade of Venezuelan “blood gold” on the world stage, similar to the international pressure placed against the purchase of “blood diamonds” responsible for civil war in Angola, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau.