Foreign Mining of Venezuelan Gold Unearths a Mother Lode of Dissent

Small miners, Indians angry over government mining concessions

ANARCHY rules the gold fields of Venezuela.

On Aug. 16, 1993, illegal Brazilian gold miners killed Yanomami Indians living in Venezuela's rain-forested Amazonas state. The Indians' crime was to stand in the way of miners and their pots of gold.

Nearly a year later, the Venezuelan army ransacked the town of El Polaco, in a southern Venezuelan area reserved for small-time gold miners, after they refused to pay the soldiers' bribes. The soldiers burned equipment, cut open food sacks, and beat all who tried to stop them.

Since European conquistadors arrived in the 15th century in search of El Dorado, a battle has raged over Venezuela's gold reserves. Indian groups have struggled for 500 years to keep their territory, and despite land-protection laws, they continue to be bulldozed from their domain by gold miners.

Meanwhile, large foreign companies are pushing local miners off land they have mined since early this century. Thus, small-scale miners are open to extortion and violent abuses by the country's security forces.

In the midst of the anarchy, environmental groups are fighting to preserve the unique landscape of southern Venezuela from uncontrolled gold mining.

The latest gold rush began in 1991 after the government made gold mining more attractive to private firms. With a gaping budget deficit caused by a drop in oil revenues, the government is seeking to raise funds from taxing private-company gold production, which is expected to triple to 50 tons in the next six years.

Meanwhile, an avalanche of foreign companies has descended on Bolivar state in southern Venezuela to snap up 255 gold-mining concessions.

In the haste to sell gold, the government has granted concessions in areas reserved for Indians. For example, in 1993, Yellowjack Resources, a Canadian company, bought rights to mine two concessions. But the same land was granted by the National Agrarian Institute to the Uaiparu Indian Community for fishing, hunting, and farming.

Adolfo Fernandez, chief of Waramasen, the Pemon Indians in southern Venezuela, wrote to authorities: ``Why, after excluding the Indians [from mining], do they permit foreigners to exploit that which they forbid us? By chance, do they hope that the same will happen to us as occurred to our brothers, the Yanomamis in Amazonas?''

Most people forced off their land are local miners.

In 1991, the Canadian company Placer Dome began exploring its concession in Las Cristinas, in western Bolivar. The firm aims to produce 12 tons of gold a year by 1997, making it the biggest mine in Latin America.

The thousands of miners who were moved from Las Cristinas to less productive areas could never have produced 12 tons ``because the tools they have are only enough to scratch the surface, to explore shallow surface mining,'' explains Jose Francisco Arata, mining vice president at the Corporacion Venezolana de Guayana (CVG), the state-owned company that grants concessions.

Today, about 40,000 small-time miners work in Bolivar, and more than 125,000 people depend on income from gold-mining activities. Foreign companies defend their work. Anthony Williams, head of International Operations at mining finance company Yorkton Securities, says jobs will be created, infrastructure built, and services expanded around a mining community.

But overseas firms generally employ a small, foreign, skilled labor force. That indicates there will be few jobs for the local miners.

Thus, politicians are clamoring for a plan for jobless miners, and for the CVG to exert more control over concessions. In early December, the CVG's top two officers resigned over allegations of irregularities in granting concessions. Meanwhile, environmentalists fear that lawless gold mining will irreversibly destroy the landscape.

``The Venezuelan government is so desperate for funds that it is giving away concessions right and left, and the Ministry of the Environment has neither the funds nor the capacity to supervise the environmental damage,'' says Mary-Lou Goodwin, director of Venezuela's Audubon Society.

Many firms dredge rivers and lakes, causing sedimentation in the Guri Reservoir and threatening the Guri Hydroelectric Dam, which generates 65 percent of Venezuela's electricity.

The CVG has also granted concessions in areas reserved for natural science, tourism, and agriculture for indigenous groups. And Bolivar congresswoman Pastora Medina claims CVG has granted seven concessions in Canaima National Park, site of the unique table-top mountains and the world's highest waterfall.

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