Venezuela allows gold mining in river basins

The Caroní river basin, pictured, where gold mining has been allowed, is the source of most of Venezuela’s hydroelectric power. (Image by Gabrielphoto985, Wikimedia Commons).

Emulating the late Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro makes a fuss on TV every time his government makes a decision, no matter how big or small.

But that wasn’t the case this April, when Maduro’s Ministry for Ecological Mining Development, through resolution N° 0010 published in extraordinary issue N°6526 of the Official Gazette, decided to allow mining operations in six river basins in the southeastern Bolívar state. 

One of the river basins mining has been allowed is the Caroní, which belongs to the Canaima National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site

The Gazette and the decision started circulating among environmental groups and opposition MPs over the weekend, but the official document has not been made available online on the Ministry’s website or social media channels.

However, the National Assembly led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the US, the EU and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president, issued an order of annulment of resolution N° 0010. According to the legislative body, the decision violates Venezuela’s environmental protection norms, which are established in the Constitution, Environment Law, Land-use Planning Law, Biodiversity Law and Water Law.

According to the leaked Gazette, the new resolution allows diamond and gold mining along the basins of the Cuchivero, Caura, Aro, Caroní, Yuruaní and Cuyuní rivers, up to 80 metres from the riverside and without the use of mercury. These rivers are located within the Mining Arc of the Orinoco River National Development Strategic Zone, a 111,843 square-kilometre mining concession area that was created by decree on February 24, 2016.

The rivers, however, are also within the Pemón traditional territory and are their main sources of food and fresh water. The Caroní river is also the source of most of the country’s hydroelectric power, which has been failing for years due to poor maintenance and lack of investments.  

Does anything change?

Mining operations in river basins will be carried out by state-owned Venezuelan Mining Corporation and its subsidiaries, or by private entities that partner with them. The Ministry for Ecological Mining Development is tasked with inspection, surveillance and control of “all phases of primary mining activities, linked operations or auxiliary operations taking place in the river basins,” the resolution reads.

The document also states that the Bolivarian National Guard will be in charge of supporting the Ministry when it comes to providing security to the mining operations.

Venezuela allows gold mining in river basis
Artisanal mining operations in the Bolívar state. (Image from MP Americo De Grazia’s Twitter).

The move provides a legal framework for a situation that already exists. With the launching of the Mining Arc, artisanal operations taking place in the area only grew, to much concern of environmental and human rights groups.

But as US sanctions on Venezuela toughen up, Maduro and others linked to his administration have turned to gold as a safety net.

The lucrative business is supported, according to human rights organization Provea, by criminal groups known as “unions,” who collude with authorities, including the military, and use violent tactics to take control of communities and their mineral resources.

The business is so profitable, that in January the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, urged the European Union to officially label as “blood gold” the precious metal informally mined in the country’s southern jungles.

The request was aimed at increasing pressure on Maduro.