The Nicolás Maduro regime has lifted the prohibition on river mining, authorizing gold and diamond exploitation in six rivers in the country’s south. The April 8 decree declared the Aro, Caroní, Caura, Cuchivero, Cuyuní, and Yuruari rivers (vital riverine areas in the Amazon) suitable for mining, incorporating them with the Orinoco Mining Arc project — an area that covers 12 percent of the Venezuelan territory and comprises Bolívar and Amazonas states.
In mid-April, the Venezuelan National Assembly led by Juan Guaidó condemned and rejected this decree, which, according to legislators, could worsen environmental conditions, increase persecution of indigenous communities, and is also a constitutional violation.
River mining was already carried out illegally in Venezuela, so critics said that the decree was created only for Maduro to continue to plunder the nation’s wealth and finance narcotrafficking.
“Maduro is just formalizing illegal mining activities in Venezuelan rivers,” Liborio Guarulla, former governor of Amazonas state on the border with Colombia, told Diálogo. “We’ve been denouncing the same activities for four years […]. In Amazonas state, Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan irregular groups carry out illegal mining, working in some way with the protection of the Venezuelan government.”
During a parliamentary session on April 21, representative Américo De Grazia called the decree a “legal monstrosity” and blamed narco-terrorist groups.
“The FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], the ELN [National Liberation Army], and Hezbollah have taken by force every mining site in southern Orinoco, in the Venezuelan Amazon, and in the Orinoco Delta, causing ecocide and displacing a great number of indigenous ethnic groups,” De Grazia said.
Guarulla said that Maduro and his closest allies, whom the United States formally charged with narcotrafficking, will profit even more from river mining with this decree, because they will be able to control rivers, which according to him, are already being used to transport drugs from Colombia to the Atlantic.
“The activities are conducted on the Guaviare [a tributary of the Orinoco River in Colombia] but mainly on the Orinoco River, which allows [narcotraffickers] to reach Venezuelan territory and go to Brazil or the Atlantic Ocean with their drug shipments,” Guarulla said.
In addition to politicians, several environmental and human rights groups have opposed Maduro’s decree for its highly damaging impact on the environment and the suffering that mining brings to the Mining Arc’s indigenous people. Many are forced to work under the threat of violence, are subjected to atrocities, and even killed, indicates the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, in its April 2020 report, Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions.
On May 8, the Ecological Research Center of Venezuela reported that criminal groups that carry out mining operations on the Caura River, which was declared suitable for exploitation, had killed 13 members of the Yekuana indigenous community. According to PROVEA, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization for human rights, at least 16 indigenous communities, totaling about 50,000 people, live near the rivers that are now open to mining in Bolívar state.
The decree’s illegal nature has also been pointed out. The Political Ecology Observatory of Venezuela reported on its website that river mining violates Sections 53 and 54 of the Venezuelan Constitution’s Water Law.
“The rivers in Bolívar state are part of the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and 90 percent of the water supply for all of Venezuela,” representative Rachid Yasbek, told Diálogo. “For this reason, before Chavismo came to power, constitutional orders banned these mining activities in Venezuelan rivers. However, Maduro uses the exploitation of this gold to maintain his dictatorship, after having destroyed the country’s entire productive apparatus.”