Orinoco Mining Arc Threatens Electricity In Venezuela

Venezuela’s Mining Arc represents an environmental crime that endangers the country’s most important hydroelectric basin.
Diálogo | 27 August 2019

Transnational Threats

Almost all of Venezuela found itself without power when the Simón Bolívar hydroelectric plant was disconnected, causing a national blackout in March 2019. (Photo: Humberto Matheus Nurphoto, AFP)

Caracas — Uncontrolled gold exploitation in Venezuela’s central region threatens the source of 70 percent of the country’s electricity at a time when the system is already overwhelmed and blackouts are frequent, environmental and mining experts told Diálogo.

In addition to the threat to the region’s flora and fauna due to the use of mercury and cyanide in gold mining within the Orinoco Mining Arc –– an area that represents 12 percent of Venezuela’s territory, located in northern Bolívar and Amazonas states, south of the Orinoco River — there is a direct risk to electric power generation. Gold exploitation threatens the main source of power in Venezuela: The Guri dam, also known as the Simón Bolívar hydroelectric plant, a gigantic complex that began operating in 1986.

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez issued a power emergency in 2008 ––which continues a decade later–– due to several reasons, including a prolonged drought that caused the water of the Guri dam to reach low levels, the government said at the time. Although the government adopted new measures to overcome the crisis, such as the implementation of an electrical power rationing program, the problems remained due to the lack of follow-up of the electric system’s expansion projects, the lack of maintenance on the Guri’s turbines, and the scarce presence of professionals, the opposition says.

In March 2019, most of the country went 11 days without power in a massive blackout. Another blackout on April 10 affected Caracas. An interruption to the electrical system was reported July 22, which affected half of the country and for which the Maduro regime claimed to be the victim of an electromagnetic attack. But in many states, like Trujillo, on the Colombian border, blackouts are reported daily. 

Alexander Luzardo Nava, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a former lawmaker, and an environmental expert, warned in 2016, when Maduro created the Mining Arc, that mining activity in the area would cause a reduction in the flow of the Caroní River, upon which the Guri depends, and that mining activities that include deforestation would increase sedimentation processes. 

A former military commander who worked in the area and requested anonymity for security reasons confirmed Luzardo’s predictions to Diálogo: The sediment that originates in mining operations upstream ends up flowing into the Guri. “There’s a risk that these sediments will damage the turbines,” said the former service member.

For Mónica Martiz Lizama, president of the research group Venezuela Minera, who has written extensively on gold and the Mining Arc, sediment is not the worst that can happen to the Venezuelan reservoir, one of the biggest in the world.

“Now they tell me that Maduro’s people are talking about exploiting gold mining inside the Guri. That would be fatal for the reservoir,” said the expert to Diálogo.

In addition to the risk to the Guri, Martiz says projects in the Mining Arc cause severe environmental damage. “It’s a mining pillage and an irrational exploitation,” says the expert.

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