Venezuela’s head of state Nicolás Maduro publicly asked the Operational Strategic Commander of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fanb) to ramp up efforts against illegal gold mining in the southeastern Amazonas and Bolívar states.
During a televised end-of-the-year address, Maduro said that the army must do a better job carrying out the Roraima Operation, which is meant to halt the environmental destruction caused by unregulated extractive operations.
The message was done a few days after actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio shared a social media post citing a New Scientist article that reported that state-sanctioned gold mining in Venezuela is causing a 170% annual increase in the loss of pristine rainforest.
Earlier reports by NGO Clima21 and the independent international fact-finding Mission on the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council noted that Bolívar is the state that shows the largest loss of rainforest. This area has lengthy borders with Brazil and Guiana, hosts most of the country’s gold deposits and is part of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a National Development Strategic Zone created by presidential decree on February 24, 2016.
The Mining Arc is a 111,843-square-kilometre concession area for mining gold, diamond, iron ore, copper, bauxite, and coltan, among other resources. It is larger than the whole territory of Portugal and represents 12.2% of Venezuela’s landmass.
Despite Maduro’s recent call out, the UN Mission’s report says that a big chunk of the destruction in Bolívar and the other states that fall within the Arc is taking place within gold mining concessions granted by the Maduro administration to the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian guerrilla group. The group has divided the region into several chunks ruled by so-called unions that, in addition to carrying out illegal logging, traffick with drugs, arms, fuel, medicine and food; create modern slavery situations, and attack Indigenous communities.
“Venezuelan military units allow and sometimes facilitate, ELN activities to drive out rival criminal armed groups,” the dossier reads. “Additionally, the ELN relies on a network of smugglers and mules who pay bribes to cross GNB (Venezuelan army) lines and armed group checkpoints to bring gold to the Colombian border.”
Alluvial semi-mechanical mining is the most common south of the Orinoco river and other areas of the great Guayana region. The UN report notes that typically, it results in heavy deforestation, soil disturbance, degradation of riverbeds and banks, and water and land pollution by hazardous waste, notably mercury, which is massively used despite being banned in the country.
Overall, illegal mining, paired with some agricultural activities and both legal and illegal logging, has led to undetermined yet high levels of pollution and to the loss of 1.1 million hectares of native vegetation coverage in the Venezuelan Amazon between 1985 and 2020. “Because of this, Venezuela’s Guayana region is considered a hotspot when it comes to global deforestation,” Clima21’s report reads.