Venezuelan nongovernmental organization (NGO) Fundares denounced in early February 2022 the ecological devastation illegal mining causes in the Orinoco Mining Arc, in the Bolívar department of the Venezuelan Amazon. “The serious environmental impact continues unchecked” by companies the Nicolás Maduro regime has authorized to exploit gold, “together with the actions of criminal groups living in the region,” Fundaredes said.
The Mining Arc, a mineral resource exploitation zone the Maduro regime created in 2016, covers an area of 112,000 square kilometers of rainforest south of the Orinoco River, comprising eight national parks — including the Canaima National Park, a World Heritage site — and two biosphere reserves that are among the most biologically rich in the world. Many of the mines, says Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the research NGO World Resources Institute, “are run by Venezuelan gangs or guerrilla groups from Colombia under protection from the Venezuelan military.”
River sedimentation and deforestation are some of the effects of illegal mining in the Mining Arc, environmental organizations say. Mercury poisoning, sometimes mixed with cyanide, is another impact of these activities in the region. “Mercury bioaccumulates […] with increasing concentrations being found in animals in the food chain. It is a potent neurotoxin that can cause neurological damage and death in both animals and humans,” says SOS Orinoco, an NGO dedicated to shed light on the human and environmental disaster in the Amazon and Orinoco regions of Venezuela.
In the second half of 2021, SOS Orinoco published several reports on the consequences of what it dubbed the “socioeconomic mayhem” formed around the exploitation of gold, coltan, and other precious metals in the area. According to these documents, there are at least 374 mines in the area where more than 50,000 people operate.
“Pranes (prison gang leaders), megabandas (large criminal gang organizations with over 50 members), sindicatos (gangs originally connected to powerful labor unions), colectivos (paramilitary groups), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) all operate in the region” and fight for control of the mines, said the think tank Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in an April 2020 report.
But according to international organization InSight Crime, one of the gangs that has grown the most is the R Organization (OR, in Spanish), which has managed to position itself as one of the main powers in the Mining Arc. “Few […] had heard of the OR. Reports from the region were more concerned with the military’s efforts to seize control of the region’s gold trade from criminal gangs, in a campaign directed by the inner circle of […] Maduro and, media investigations and local sources alleged, coordinated with Colombian guerrillas,” InSight Crime says.
The regime’s attempts to control illegal mining have created a cycle of violence that appears to be out of control. According to Roberto Briceño, director of the NGO Venezuelan Violence Observatory, three of the five municipalities with the highest homicide rates in the country, El Callao, Sifontes, and Roscio, are in the mining areas of Bolivar state.
According to the Amazonian Network of Geo-referenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG, in Spanish), a consortium of civil society organizations from countries that share the Amazon, the Venezuelan Amazon has lost more than 10 million hectares of forests in 20 years — since the Bolivarian revolution — 80 percent of which are located south of the Orinoco.
“Undoubtedly, the Mining Arc has encouraged an acceleration in the transformation of the forest cover directly through mining,” SOS Orinoco concludes.