Venezuelan gold strike prompts invasion by 3,000 miners, military raid

  • Venezuela is in the throes of an intense economic crisis, with people eager to earn money by any way possible. In 2017, rumors of a gold strike in Palmarote, a farming hamlet in Carabobo state, attracted 3,000 miners — even though no gold was known to be there, since Palmarote is 600 kilometers from the Orinoco Mining Arc, the primary source of Venezuelan gold.
  • Illegal miners, given bogus mining permits by a local villager, wreaked havoc, excavating pits everywhere, digging out streambanks, polluting waterways with sediment and allegedly with mercury, a toxic metal used to purify gold. Local farmers complained repeatedly and bitterly to the government asking for law enforcement to step in.
  • On January 31, a military and police operation, armed with guns and helicopters, detained 3,000 illegal miners and jailed dozens. Locals allege that a dozen people were killed. In February, President Maduro created the Carabobo Gold Corporation and nationalized the mining area, claiming its profits for government.
  • Mongabay went to the lawless artisanal mines in Palmarote, which are still operating despite the government presence, to get the full story firsthand.
Land in Palmarote that was covered in forest now looks like a desecrated cemetery due to artisanal mining pits. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

PALMAROTE, Venezuela: Gregorio and his brother said it was easy to become artisanal gold miners. The precious metal just appeared one day, revealed in the banks of the Pira Pira, a small stream that serves their small farming community of Palmarote.

The hamlet is located in Carabobo state, 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Valencia, Venezuela’s third biggest city, and more than 600 kilometers (373 miles) from the Orinoco Mining Arc where the nation’s gold deposits are supposed to be located.

What at first seemed like good fortune, has turned out mostly not to be the case. The discovery stimulated an illegal gold rush that deforested the landscape, polluted community water supplies, and ultimately resulted in a January military sweep to curtail the artisanal mining that detained 3,000 miners, jailed dozens, and allegedly killed twelve people.

José Hilario Hernández (left), the owner of a property bordering the Pira Pira stream where gold was found, stands with his son-in-law amid some of the damage done by artisanal mining. The discovery of gold has caused conflicts between local people, with some hoping to strike it rich, while others seek to maintain their farming livelihoods and traditional community values. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

A quiet community with a viable economic future

Palmarote is a rural village surrounded by fruit trees and small orange groves. Farmers there survive on conucos, small plots where they grow crops and raise chickens. In 2013 the government supported Proyecto Cuenca (the Basin Project) there. This community development effort, financed by FONACIT, the National Fund for Science and Technology, assessed the feasibility of local sustainable water management and new livelihoods.

The project evaluated the natural, socio-cultural, institutional and economic setting of the local villages. Researchers developed a viable future economic plan for the community that would include small-scale cattle ranching, cocoa and coffee cultivation utilizing sustainable agroforestry, and ecotourism. Although the study suggested real development opportunities, it also recommended the continuation of social programs that grant monthly economic allocations to single mothers and poor families.

This government financed study, which included scientific and social researchers from five national universities and two environmental NGOs, “did not find [even] the most remote possibility of mining extraction, and [as a result, the locality] was one of the healthiest areas [in the region] ecologically,” researchers told Mongabay.

The discovery of gold in 2017 changed everything, and overturned any possibility for orderly community development.

Mining, which removes trees and soils, and erodes sediment into streams, is incompatible with farming. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

José Hilario Hernández, one of Palmarote’s agricultural producers, was outraged by the intrusion of mining and miners into his once peaceful hamlet. He denounced the illicit mining activities to local authorities, reporting that hundreds of local people, and others from surrounding communities, were deforesting, invading private property, and imperiling Palmarote’s main source of water.

But neither the municipality, nor state security forces, nor the Ministry of Ecosocialism and Water paid any attention to the dozens of letters which he wrote in formal complaint.

Meanwhile, Hilario Hernández fought verbally, and sometimes with a machete and shotgun, in defense against miners trying to trespass onto his property. “They arrived eight months ago, about 300 people. They ruined everything,” he recalls.

Today, the area around his farm is a scene of desolation, with the forest cut down and streambeds turned to deeply gouged and denuded ravines. Where there was clean running water, now there is a layer of sediment and waste several centimeters thick. The stream bank looks like a desecrated cemetery, he says. Dozens of gold extraction pits, called “bullas,” are dug meters deep into the ground, leaving tree roots exposed.

A gold pan, an artisanal miner’s basic equipment. In addition to it helping make you rich, it can also be worn as a hat against sun and rain. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

Government raid

The destruction by the miners went on with impunity until January 31, 2018. On that day, a surprise raid known as Relámpago Dorado, Operation Golden Lightning, was launched by the military, police and civil officials armed with guns and combat helicopters. The raid on the neighboring communities of Chirgua, El Torito, and La Lagunita detained three thousand miners, including three foreigners, 80 people without identification, 54 teenagers and three pregnant women.

The authorities seized six firearms and 3,400 pieces of mining equipment – mostly shovels, picks and gold pans. Only 42 were ultimately jailed. According to the Minister of Ecosocialism and Water, Ramón Velásquez, the raid was made in an effort to protect the environment, especially the area’s hydrographic basins and water supply. A radio journalist collected testimonies from local people saying that the raid resulted in 12 deaths. Officials have neither denied nor confirmed that allegation.

Deforestation and erosion, the result of unregulated illegal mining. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

Farewell dear water

Palmarote and the communities around it where the military made their raid are part of an area designated as an ABRAE, a Special Administration Regime Area, created to protect the Pao and Chirgua rivers, which flow into the Pao-Cachinche reservoir, a resource managed by a state company that supplies more than four million people with drinking water in the central states of Aragua, Carabobo, and Cojedes.

Locals say that the reservoir has become polluted in recent years, though authorities have denied that claim, despite a water quality analyses published on an official website recording an excess of chlorine and aluminum in the water. The reservoir, as observed by Mongabay, is covered in green slime, the likely result of cyanobacteria that multiplies out of control in the presence of excess nitrates and phosphates.

Basin Project scientists fear that the newly arrived gold rush will pollute the reservoir even further with runoff and sediments. Heavy silting of the reservoir could even reduce its storage capacity. “We will not have water in a few years, and it will be worse when they [the miners] start using mercury,” the scientists told Mongabay. Toxic mercury is often used as part of the gold ore purification process.

Exploring an abandoned shaft. Illegal small-scale mining is causing deforestation, polluting Palmarote’s groundwater and streams, and creating conflict in the once peaceful farming community. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

Buying a mining claim

The rumors of gold in Carabobo, where it isn’t supposed to be, close to the Caribbean Sea, began a year and a half ago, though authorities and academics gave those stories little credence at first. The region showed no gold on geological maps or in Venezuela’s national gold history. INGEOMIN, the National Institute of Geology and Mining have regional offices in gold-producing areas. It has never had an office in Carabobo.

But in November, 2017, a webpage described the death of two gold miners there, without making reference to a new strike. The only way to learn the truth was to visit the area. So it was that would-be-miners, many desperate for cash due to Venezuela’s dire economic crisis, began to invade the community.

In the farming hamlet of Palmarote there were no pranes, mafia bosses who oversee illegal mining and other illicit activity in places like the Orinoco Mining Arc in the Venezuelan Amazon. As a result, anyone entering the area could easily “legalize” as a miner, simply by visiting the house of Mrs. Guadalupe Morillo.

Mrs. Morillo is president of the local communal council – a type of grassroots organization established by former President Hugo Chávez to encourage popular participation. Morillo operates the “Registry of Small Miners,” and her signature and seal, authorizes the extraction of gold. A Colombian man, also located at Mrs. Morillo’s house, buys any gold the miners find for 7 million bolivares (about $35) per gram.

However, Mrs. Morillo does not have any real legal authority. The official Registry of Small Miners database can only be updated by the Ministry of Ecological Mining Development, something that has not occurred. And national legislation has granted the exploitation of gold, as well as the delivery of mining concessions, exclusively to the Venezuelan State since 2011. That makes the digs of the artisanal miners of Palmarote illegal.

However, the miners imagine that Mrs. Morillo’s stamp of approval gives them the authority to dig at will.

Also, the miners fiercely deny the use of mercury in their operations, “because it kills the fish and the cattle,” although they concede that “an indigenous man that comes from Ciudad Bolívar” (a city surrounded by gold mines in the south), does use mercury in another part of the river.

Basin Project scientists say that the illegal gold mining, and use of mercury, are both inevitable: “Where there is gold there is not only poverty, misery, destruction, but also mercury to make it easier to obtain it.”

Miners working a claim. With Venezuela suffering from a severe economic crisis, many people see mining as their only hope for feeding their families. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

The business of mining

Gold mining is a dirty, backbreaking business: the Palmarote miners dig gray clay from the banks of local rivers, and they claim that the color and texture of the mud is a sign of the presence of gold.

The miners divert the course of the river into a “dead pool,” a pond where they wash the mud in a metal pan, which when not panning gold, can be worn as a hat against sun and rain.

If small gold nuggets appear, then “the material is good” and the miners repeat the process on a larger scale. They set up wooden sluices – ramps covered with carpets and sacks upon which they “wash” the mud. The gold catches in the cloth.

Some miners I talked with, say that they work on a “fifty-fifty” system with the owner of a farm that allows the exploitation. “We work from 7:00 in the morning. We can extract at least one gram daily”, they explain. A local police officer recently acquired a riverside property, just so he could profit from gold extraction on the river.

On February 25, 2018, President Nicolás Maduro approved the creation of the Carabobo Gold Corporation and nationalized the mining area. Carabobo governor Rafael Lacava posted a video on Twitter showing the signing of the decree, and ensured all citizens that the profits gained from the newly nationalized mining area would be used to pay for “health, safety, food, infrastructure and above all, for the economic reactivation of our industrial zone.”

Miners operating a sluice – a wooden trough covered with carpet and sacks upon which they “wash” the mud. The gold nuggets and flakes catch in the cloth. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

An anonymous source in the Ministry of Ecosocialism concedes that, despite the newly created national mining area in Carabobo, illegal mining in Palmarote will almost certainly continue unpunished and unabated. “It is an area too dangerous; we have detected the presence of criminals coming from poor communities in the south of Valencia, who cross the mountain to reach the place faster and without going through Tocuyito, [a city between Valencia and Palmarote].”

With all that has happened, Hilario Hernández is thinking of selling his farm and moving away: “I have already seen armed people, prostitution, drug use, mining children who go to school barefoot and without eating. We are tired of talking to the authorities. The mayor has never come here. It’s best to leave before this worsens.”

He fears that one day his machete will not be enough to scare the artisanal miners away from his farm, as local corruption and collusion worsens. Take for example, Gregorio and his brother, the two local miners mentioned at the start of this story. They are sons of Mrs. Morillo, the same person who gives out the illegal mining permits. The two men also work for the same policeman who bought the neighboring farm to make a killing in the gold trade. And so the possibility for conflict between farmer and miner deepens.

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A local farm. Artisanal miners boldly trespass onto farms in search of gold, creating conflict and leaving behind environmental devastation. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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