It is almost five o'clock in the afternoon of November 18, 2021. Behind the tall grass, in a bend of the northern road axis of Puerto Ayacucho, near the entrance to Galipero Viejo, there are some sheds under construction that already show the logo of the Venezuelan Mining Corporation (CVM), an agency attached to the Ministry of Ecological Mining Development, which has been operating since 2013. In front, a billboard announces in black letters, capitalized and centered: CENTRO DE INSUMOS MINEROS. Industrias Onixalex, CA. Puerto Ayacucho. In the lower right corner the logo of the so-called Mining Engine. A national flag flies in the advertisement. It also carries the CVM logo.
This is an electoral November. The government called for controversial regional elections to elect state governors and municipal mayors throughout the country on November 21.
In the State of Amazonas, the incumbent Governor, Miguel Rodríguez, is in full campaign mode and is seeking reelection. He is inaugurating works and delivering materials and supplies in the seven municipalities of Amazonas state. By means of State resources—such as military airplanes and helicopters—he visits distant places where other candidates, not to mention most of the inhabitants of the state, could never reach. The lack of gasoline and the very high cost of fares are the main impediments.
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In La Esmeralda, in the Alto Orinoco municipality, Rodríguez had to harangue the people in the middle of darkness. Due to lack of fuel, there was no light in the roofed court where he appeared. But he did not let the inconvenience or the cries of the people who asked: "What about the gasoline?" He delivered to the people a diesel-powered electric plant.
The billboard in Galipero Viejo and the campaign speech of Miguel Rodríguez—who in the end was reelected—share a common feature: they refer openly to the official promotion of mining activity in the state of Amazonas, where it has been forbidden since 1989.
Rodríguez, of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), presented on October 29, 2021, as part of his electoral offer, the Development Plan The New Amazonas. Although it was no more than a brief list of points without greater precision, two premises stood out in the document: to create and consolidate the Special Economic Zones, as well as to promote the "great debate" on the mining activity in Amazonas.
"Now the new Amazonas is being born … Because this November 21 we are going to obtain a great victory", he said at the end of the act in the facilities of the Escondido covered gymnasium in the city of Puerto Ayacucho. But then, in all his rallies throughout the campaign, until his victory at the polls, he raised the slogan of The New Amazonas.
These are the most recent signs that the State hierarchy is preparing the ground to break the seals of the taboo that until now prohibits mining exploitation in the state of Amazonas, a large jungle and biodiverse reserve area where the Orinoco River, the longest river in Venezuela and the third largest in the world, is born.
Eligio Dacosta, indigenous Baniva and general coordinator of the Indigenous Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Amazonas (Orpia), is concerned about the attempt to legalize mining in Amazonas state or to promote a replica of the Mining Arc that the government of Nicolás Maduro set up in neighboring Bolívar state.
"Many political leaders are seeing this as an alternative to supposedly solve the blockade we have right now in Venezuela and the economic crisis in the country or, in this case, here in the region," observes Dacosta, days after participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), held in Glasgow, Scotland. "They don't see that this is really destruction in the territories, because unfortunately where the mineral resources are, there are the indigenous peoples and that is what we don't want."
What Dacosta denounces is not an unfounded prophecy. In November 2018 the government tried to open an office of the Orinoco Mining Arc in Amazonas. The government initiative was stopped thanks to the protests of the native peoples, who already know what has been happening with the CVM in Bolivar. In September 2020, the indigenous community of Santo Domingo de Turasen in the Gran Sabana municipality of that state rejected the installation and operation of the state corporation on their lands, accusing it of promoting and formalizing gold mining in protected areas, including the Canaima National Park.
CVM has acquired a persona non grata profile in the Gran Sabana. People who asked not to be identified claim that from the airport of Santa Elena de Uairén, in the southeast of Bolivar state, CVM sends mining supplies purchased in Brazil, such as turbines, to the Amazon in airplanes of the Air Transport Group N˚ 9 of the Bolivarian Military Aviation.
Necessity has a miner's face
At the time of reporting this work, the streets of Puerto Ayacucho looked desolate in the afternoons. No business opened its doors after midday due to the time restrictions imposed by the confinement. Only informal vendors and rows of motorcycle cabs remained on the streets. The lethargy deepened in the evenings. Sometimes a party in a square, or children riding their bicycles in parks devoured by weeds and darkness, broke the monotony.
The Mirador, a tourist spot from where the Atures streams can be contemplated, was also huddled together. At the top, on a millenary stone, some children were flying parrots made with black bags. "What this governor has done is to destroy the little that worked," said a passerby. "We have seen the deterioration."
The state of Amazonas has been transformed into a virtual enclave economy, in which the Colombian peso and gold are the currencies of exchange. In Puerto Ayacucho there is a market where all kinds of Colombian products are sold. "Casuarito has been our salvation", says another of the villagers referring to this Colombian town on the other side of the river, a crossing that costs 10,000 Colombian pesos (about 2.5 dollars). Venezuelan shoppers there stock up mainly on medicines.
The cell phone signal is precarious. As the theft of cables to sell copper in Colombia is becoming more and more frequent, many residential sectors of the state capital have not had a fixed telephone for years.
Every time it rains or the temperature rises, electricity service is interrupted in Puerto Ayacucho.
A good part of the communities in the urban area of Puerto Ayacucho do not have piped water. Places such as the Cataniapo neighborhood, in the El Calvario sector, have not had this service for 30 years. The locals opt to drill deep wells, although this is not a solution that is within everyone's reach: drilling is charged in Colombian pesos and a pump to extract the water costs around US$62.
For the last two years, the capital city of the state has not even had the traditional weekly flight that every Thursday used to connect it with other parts of the country. The only way in or out now is by land. For about $10, depending on the size of the car, a barge allows crossing the Orinoco River between Puerto Paez (Apure) and El Burro (Bolivar), to continue the journey to Amazonas.
In Puerto Ayacucho there are still some buses that run interurban routes to the communities along the northern, southern and eastern roads, but the most popular means of transportation are the motorcycle cabs.
It is common to see people walking along the northern road axis. Some leave their homes on the outskirts at two o'clock in the morning to arrive at noon in Puerto Ayacucho. Those who walk two hours to their workplaces can consider themselves lucky.
The post-apocalyptic picture corresponds to the state capital. In the interior of the province, the difficulties are even more acute. Hardship fuels expectations about an opening to mining as the only economic option. "Here there is no consultation. Here it is done and then it is said. Economic rights cannot prevail over other rights. When we allow illegality, we are all criminals," warns Berta Macurivana, special indigenous ombudsman for the State of Amazonas.
Toll collection is better than nothing
There are several pockets of illegal mining in Amazonas state, generally in the headwaters of rivers.
One of them is located at the headwaters of the Guayapo River, in Cerro El Quemao, part of the ancestral territory of the Uwottüja people. The indigenous people have counted up to 20 machines that are working in the place and have met with the head of the Integral Defense Operational Zone N° 63 (ZODI) of Amazonas state, General José Ramón Maita González, so that he can help them stop the destruction. They assure that the machines come from Colombia and that there are foreigners and indigenous relatives working in the mines.
In some of these mines there is evidence of the presence of evangelical pastors who control the place. These people say that God authorized the mines, that they are for everyone and, therefore, they collect the tithe in gold. The offerings are around one million Colombian pesos because, according to them, "that is God's will". When someone dies in a landslide, the consolation is that this person has already fulfilled his mission.
Further south, in the Atabapo municipality, there is another long-standing mining hotspot in the Yapacana National Park, extensively documented by SOS Orinoco, and controlled by Colombian guerrillas who act as "security", with their own codes inside the mines. Until 2020, according to some testimonies, there were close to 5,000 miners, and this is calculated by the number of motorcycles that enter the place. "A prosecutor wants to apply the decree that prohibits mining in Sipapo, because she says that in the Yapacana National Park they are already out of control," says one of the locals, who insists that these actions should be extended to all areas where mining is taking place.
In August 2021, the indigenous organizations Kuyunu del Alto y Medio Ventuari, Kuyujani del Caura and Kuyujani del Alto Orinoco, representing the Ye'kwana and Sanemá indigenous peoples and communities in the Manapiare municipality of Amazonas state, also denounced before the office of the Delegate Ombudsman the incursion of more than 400 heavily armed Brazilian garimpeiros — with some 30 machines used for mineral extraction — into their territories.
In the upper Orinoco, where most of the indigenous population is Yanomami, there is another focus of mining. Although there is a National Guard post on the slopes of Cerro Delgado Chalbaud, where the Orinoco rises, there are garimpeiros who, according to the testimonies of several sources in the area, have between 50 and 80 machines dredging the riverbed.
The president of the Yanomami Horonami organization, Pancho Blanco, has denounced that they are using the indigenous people as slaves for work, raping and prostituting Yanomami women, and have even murdered several of their countrymen, but these deaths are not officially investigated by the state. To enter the territory and buy off the Yanomami, Blanco adds, the garimpeiros are bringing them food, weapons, shotguns and machetes. They persuade the Indians to abandon the bow and arrow in favor of the white man's weapons for hunting.
"That is a threat to our territory, to our rivers, to the new generations," insists Eligio Dacosta, coordinator of Orpia. "We indigenous people are thinking about what we are going to leave to our children, grandchildren, and a destroyed territory cannot be. This is a mandate from the elders that they give us to continue doing as an indigenous organization."
In San Fernando de Atabapo, National Guard soldiers are sitting in the shade of a tree. They wear open shirts, camouflage pants and plastic sandals. They are staring at a set of cell phones. The indigenous people ran them out of their alcabalas about three years ago, tired of the multiple abuses and extortions. Instead of the olive green ones, the natives set up their own checkpoints on the waterway, around 60, from San Fernando de Atabapo to Macuruco, on the banks of the Orinoco.
They are managed by different people from the communities: indigenous and non-indigenous. When a Colombian boat arrives, some official gets active: "We leave them to the Colombians because, poor things, they also have to grab something, here they don't even bring food to those soldiers," says one of the indigenous people stationed at one of the checkpoints.
They charge for all the merchandise that passes through. "Here they are taking our gold, so they have to pay," argues another of the checkpoint attendants. If a boat doesn't stop, they chase it until they catch up and charge.
Some are ashamed of having to make a living this way, but say they have no other choice. The situation is complex because, under the argument of survival, it is true that they violate the right to free transit of the local inhabitants. In addition, the sentinels have no choice but to deal with the miners and other groups that traffic illicit merchandise in the region. "I never imagined that I would have to do this, but if I don't do it, my son will die of hunger," says a teacher, almost in tears.
"What development does San Fernando de Atabapo have with mining? There are 60 checkpoints that plunder anyone who travels along the Orinoco. Some are indigenous but I don't endorse it. Maybe they are being controlled by third parties. Helicopters arrive there with ministers. What is illegal for us, must be illegal for the State", denounces one of the settlers.
In the games of mirrors that distort reality in the Amazon, even a reforestation initiative can be deceptive. "In the Yapacana National Park there is a project that is supposedly for reforestation; they convinced some indigenous captains and came to pick them up directly in a plane from Caracas, they met there and signed it", warns an indigenous representative who prefers not to be identified. "They accepted because they are telling them that it is a reforestation project, but first they are going to remove all the mining resources that are in the areas that are already deforested".
He assures that this fiasco is a way of influencing the population, opening the way for mining that is already underway: "They present it as an institutional vision, of the state, of the government, that this is the way out and that we have to continue destroying nature".