Green Light for Destruction: Mega-Mining in Venezuela


George Engels * (colaboración para PeriodismoCC)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has set out, by decree, 12% of Venezuela’s total landmass to be exploited for non-renewable metals and minerals.

Critics, including prominent chavistas and Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, have lambasted President Maduro’s Orinoco Mining Arc – AMO, in Spanish – for being “unconstitutional.” They claim that the mega-mining project’s alleged economic benefits will be vastly outweighed by its devastating environmental, social, and humanitarian impacts, and have labelled the AMO as a potential “ecogenocide” and a “national sovereignty threat.”

Nevertheless, President Maduro insists that the AMO will revitalise Venezuela’s crumbling economy and help it move away from its exclusive dependence on crude oil exports. To that effect, the president has signed at least 10 memorandums of understanding with foreign and national mining companies worth several billion dollars.

High ranking government officials have even speculated that the AMO’s reserves’ value may exceed USD2 trillion, but precise figures are non-existent since the majority of the area’s reserves have not yet been certified.

President Maduro has also claimed that the vast area will be mined in conformance to the highest environmental standards and that the area’s inhabitants – many of them indigenous peoples with traditional ways of life – will benefit from the creation of jobs brought by the mining companies.

But experts disagree, stating that the type of mining that would take place in the AMO – open-pit mining – is internationally recognised as having catastrophic environmental consequences, and that the Venezuelan government lacks the expertise and the funds to ensure environmental norms are met.

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On 24 February 2016, President Maduro ratified on live television the Decree 2.248 for the Creation of the Zone of Strategic National Development “Arco Minero del Orinoco.” The Decree was announced with great fanfare to an auditorium brimming with businessmen from dozens of countries, among them the US, Canada, and China.

Militarised and split into four areas, the AMO covers 111,846 km2 and sprawls over significant portions of three of the country’s southern states: Bolívar, Amazonas, and Delta Amacuro.

These states are home to dozens of indigenous peoples; contain freshwater resources essential for Venezuela’s hydroelectric production, the country’s main source of electricity; and house vast rainforest reserves, national parks and natural monuments, making them some of the most scenic and bio-diverse territories in the Caribbean nation.

President Maduro’s decree has opened up an area 10,000 km2 larger than Scotland and Wales combined to be mined for non-renewable resources: gold, copper, diamonds, iron, bauxite, coltan, and other metals and minerals.

The Decree 2.248 states that the development of the AMO will proceed according to “principles of integrity… defence of national sovereignty, protection and respect of indigenous peoples … co-responsibility,” “transparency,” and “sustainability.”

However, critics maintain that the mega-mining project violates a host of constitutional guarantees, especially environmental, indigenous peoples, and national sovereignty rights.

In June 2016, the opposition-led National Assembly issued a resolution disavowing the Decree for “being contrary to the interests of the [Venezuelan] Republic and for being in open violation of its environmental constitutional rights,” considering, among other factors, that it represents “a national sovereignty threat by intending to illegally grant concessions… of national public interest to 150 companies from 30 different countries.”

Nevertheless, as of August 2016, President Maduro had signed at least ten memorandums of understanding with international and national mining companies to certify, develop, and exploit the non-renewable resources in the Orinoco Mining Arc.  This includes a contract with a newly formed company controlled by the Venezuelan armed forces – CAMIMPEG.

Furthermore, in September 2016, Roberto Mirabal Acosta, the Minister for the newly created Ministry for the Development of Ecological Mining, announced that the Zone’s certification and exploration was underway.

Despite the Decree’s and the government’s reiterated assertions to the contrary, Professor Juan Carlos Sánchez, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the IPCC and a founding member of the Department for Climate Change at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, is one among many experts who does not believe that the AMO can or will be exploited sustainably.

“The concept of sustainable development, when applied to any extractive activity, means that the rate of degeneration of the biosphere cannot exceed the ecosystem’s overall natural capacity to regenerate itself from said degeneration,” Dr Sánchez notes.

He notes that since no studies aimed at gauging the potential environmental effects of the AMO have been conducted or made public – as is required by Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution – it is impossible to know a priori whether the AMO will be able to be conducted in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

But most experts agree that the various resources in the Orinoco Mining Arc would have to be extracted with open-pit mining techniques. Dr Sánchez explains that this practice implies massive excavations and the utilisation of “enormous quantities of energy and water to extract, process and transport minerals.”

Open-pit mining “has always had devastating environmental impacts like deforestation, erosion, and the contamination of water sources and soils with toxic substances” like mercury and cyanide. These substances, commonly used in open-pit mining, pose tremendous health risks to living beings if improperly handled or stored.

Therefore, Dr Sánchez continues, “the mining of gold, copper, diamonds and other resources that is commonly practiced is very far away from being sustainable”, and “less so even in regions that are as ecologically fragile” as the one now encompassed by the AMO.

In an exclusive interview with me, Professor Alexander Luzardo Navas has gone a step further and labelled the AMO as a “dictatorial decree… of colonial nature” and believes that President Maduro has “sold the country’s future” to the highest bidders.

Professor Luzardo, who was the President of Venezuela’s Senate Committee on the Environment and Territorial Ordnance; lead author of the environmental norms in Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution; and is now one of the Decree’s most vocal detractors, repeatedly labelled the AMO as an “ecocide” and likened its potential consequences to a “mining Chernobyl.”

Critics have also lambasted the government for what they claim is a mega-mining project planned in an ad-hoc manner and lacking adequate oversight and enforcement bodies.

In September 2014, President Maduro dissolved the Ministry of Environment when he subsumed it into the Ministry for Ecosocialism and Water.

Dr Luzardo believes this was a pre-planned “prelude” to make way for the Orinoco Mining Arc, because the “Ministry [of Environment] applied the tangle of environmental laws, of which there are many… it was an obstacle.”

The Decree 2.248 established a six-month period from its promulgation in late February for the Ministries of Planning and Mining to draw up the relevant plans for the Zone’s exploitation.

But “six months are not enough [time] to identify possible reserves or determine their quantity, let alone exploit them in a rational manner,” says Eduardo Semtei, former director of investments of the Ministry of Planification.

Almost seven months later, no concrete development plans have been made public.

In June 2016, the Ministry for the Development of Ecological Mining was created by presidential decree to oversee the sustainable development of the Orinoco Mining Arc and ensure “a profound respect for human beings and the environment.”

Dr Luzardo believes the Ministry is “a contradiction in terms” and belies the government’s intentions since “now the priority is mining and not the environment.”

In another exclusive interview with me, Ana Elisa Osorio, erstwhile Minister of the Environment under the late President Hugo Chávez, says she doesn’t “know anything – anything – of this Ministry… I haven’t the faintest clue how it will work, or what its principles, politics, or objectives are.”

When asked whether she had investigated the institution, Dr Osorio responded, “you know, that [information] doesn’t appear anywhere,” chuckling ironically. “It’s hermetic – it’s bad. It’s very bad.”

Dr Osorio has also repeatedly denounced the Orinoco Mining Arc’s “lack of transparency” and claims that the “disorganised” fashion in which it is being implemented “jeopardises the future” of Venezuela.

Critics stress that the Decree’s likely environmental consequences would have devastating socio-cultural impacts on Venezuela’s indigenous peoples and communities.

The government has repeatedly attempted to downplay the AMO’s potential implications by stating that the mega-mining project will meet the highest environmental standards.

The government has also tried to co-opt indigenous communities by assuring them that they will benefit economically from the AMO as formal labourers. When successful, they have sought to represent these economically desperate minorities as spokesmen for their entire peoples, as happened with the Pijigüaos earlier this year in the state of Bolívar.

Dr Luzardo compared this strategy to how former colonial powers legitimised their rule in regions like the Middle East and eastern Africa.

Meanwhile, the KUYUJANI organisation, composed of the “legitimate authorities of the 49 Ye’kwana and Sanema [indigenous] communities” issued a declaration in May 2016 rejecting “DEFINITIVELY THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE MINING ARC IN OUR TERRITORIES and HABITATS.”

Southern Venezuela is home to dozens of indigenous peoples, numbering in the tens of thousands of individuals, whose traditional cultures and ways of life are theoretically guaranteed by Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution. In practice, however, their rights have historically been neglected or infringed.

Experts point to the incomplete demarcation of indigenous peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed territories, and to the absence of a coherent and comprehensive government plan to fight illegal mining mafias, as historic examples of the difficulties facing these communities.

Rafael Uzcategui. General Coordinator of PROVEA, one of Venezuela’s leading human rights NGOs, believes the AMO is the latest and gravest episode in a recurring history of violations of indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights.

He is emphatic that the Decree is illegal because it was not previously consulted with Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, as is required by the country’s Constitution.

Rather than bringing in prosperity and peace, Mr Uzcategui believes the AMO will worsen indigenous peoples’ living conditions since already “the loss of their traditional way of life and the intervention and co-optation of their traditional organisations by the government obliges them to participate in mining activities for subsistence.” The AMO would compound this problem exponentially, thus hugely increasing the pressure on their current socio-cultural crisis.

Dr Luzardo’s is firm in that this could lead to “a genocide, potentially. An ethnocide and genocide, on top of an ecocide… Maduro’s government represents a retrocession of sixty to seventy years in environmental policy.”

* George Engels es periodista multimedia, autónomo, radicado en Londres. Ha trabajado con The Mail on Sunday, The Independent y The Camden New Journal. Actualmente está terminando su postgrado en Periodismo. @gengels92
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