One month before the environmental summit that should bring together presidents of all Amazonian countries in Belém do Pará, Brazil, the Venezuelan government decided to expand military operations in the south of the country to contain the advance of illegal mining in Amazonian regions within its territory. The focus of the activities, which started about two weeks ago, is in the Yapacana National Park, located in the state of Amazonas, which borders Colombia.
According to the Armed Forces, more than 100 extraction areas were deactivated and hundreds of materials used in the practices, such as vessels and equipment, were seized or destroyed. In addition, until last Tuesday (11), the Army had already evacuated more than 4,000 prospectors operating in the region.
Although the results of the most recent actions are expressive, operations in Yapacana are not new in Venezuela, since since 2021 the Army has been conducting a series of missions of this type in the region. Transformed into a National Park 45 years ago, the location is part of the 47 million hectare portion of the Amazon rainforest that is in Venezuelan territory.
Despite the zone being protected by law, organizations that fight deforestation denounce that illegal mining there has been growing dramatically in recent years. According to the NGO SOS Orinoco, currently around 3,200 hectares of the entire national park are affected by irregular mining, which represents an increase in the affected area of more than 36% compared to 2019.
Indigenous movements claim that since 2015 they have been denouncing to the government the illegal activities carried out in stretches of the Venezuelan Amazon, warning of the environmental impact and the worsening of the living conditions of the original communities. The main environmental consequences are deforestation and the action of mercury, a substance used in the extraction of gold that causes serious impacts on the affected biomes.
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“The list of crimes committed in Yapacana is very long,” says Maria Teresa Quispe, sociologist and director of the Watanibe working and research group on the Venezuelan Amazon. Brazil in factshe claims that environmental crimes such as the cutting down of local vegetation and the contamination of soils and rivers are accompanied by other crimes generated by illegal mining, such as forced labor, trafficking in women, smuggling and drug trafficking.
“It is a protected zone that represents a valuable scientific resource, with a pioneering biological heritage and if all this is devastated it is extremely complex, not to say impossible, to recover”, he says. Yapacana also has a tepui, a mountainous geological formation that has vertical sides and a practically flat summit that reaches an altitude of 1,345 meters.
For lawyer Erick Gutiérrez, researcher and defender of indigenous rights, there is a “structural mentality” problem that must be solved in addition to the seizure and interdiction of mining sites. “If we attack the effect, but we don’t attack the cause, tomorrow the prospectors will return. It may not necessarily be within a month, or a year, it may even be within five years, in any case they will return because subjectivity has not changed. We have to work on the underlying problem, which is structural and cultural”, he says to the Brazil in fact.
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The researcher also claims that the border regions of Venezuela with Colombia and Brazil “have been neglected for many decades” and that the few initiatives that have taken place in recent years have not been able to properly monitor these areas.
“It is a problem that dates back to the 1950s, when a bankrupt indigenism emerged, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was no concern either. Today, with the 1999 Constitution, we have one of the most advanced legislation in terms of protection of indigenous people, but the battle is against a set of Western and colonial ideas that continues to exert influence in these regions”, he explains.
The director of Watanibe agrees that punitive actions alone will not be enough to contain activities in Yapacana, but points to the economic crisis as one of the main drivers of the increase in illegal mining in the region. “We need a set of public, social and economic policies because as long as there is a crisis there will be the temptation of mining, which is why the answer cannot be just punitive”, she said.
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Regarding the action of the Armed Forces, Maria Teresa Quispe assesses it as positive, but warns of the need to monitor whether the rights of vulnerable populations are being respected. “On the other hand, we hope that the operations are not sporadic, but that a permanent scheme of defense of the territory is maintained, with an integral approach because, if this is not the case, the criminal groups that operate in the region will return to exploiting the economic needs of the population”, he says.
Currently, the government estimates that there are over 10,000 garimpeiros working in Yapacana. According to reports collected by civil organizations, there is a “garimpeiro city” in the area, with shops and other establishments that depend on extraction and are controlled by armed agents.
Crisis and blockade stimulated mining
Faced with the exponential emergence of new outbreaks of illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon, researchers are able to point out a direct relationship between the worst years of economic crisis aggravated by the US blockade and the increase in extractive activities.
According to Wataniba, mining sites grew more sharply from 2016 onwards. During that period, Venezuela had already entered a recession two years ago and was facing a crisis in international reserves due to the sharp drop in the price of a barrel of oil.
The financial sanctions imposed by Washington in 2017 and the measures against the oil industry enacted by Donald Trump in 2019 accelerated the economic crisis, generating a reduction of around 80% in the country’s GDP and throwing thousands of Venezuelans into poverty.
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“Without a doubt, the national economic crisis and then the global one, aggravated by the covid-19 pandemic and the quarantine, greatly affected the scenario, causing illegal mining flows to increase enormously”, explains Quispe.
The search for job opportunities generated strong waves of internal migration in the country and many workers decided to start mining in an attempt to escape the crisis in the big cities.
According to NGO data, captured by satellite images and field work, between 2019 and 2021, illegal mining areas across the country increased from 33,900 hectares to 133,700 hectares, an increase of 294%.
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The sociologist also claims that the impacts on indigenous communities are even more serious because, in addition to being the first to suffer from ecological contamination, they are economically threatened.
“Their governance structures have been fragmented due to divergent opinions regarding extractive activity, as a result, the possibilities of facing external groups are increasingly smaller. All of this affects the productive capacity of these peoples on their land and with their resources,” he says.
ACTO meeting: international cost
Last week, President Nicolás Maduro even commented on the recent operations that are taking place in Yapacana and recalled the geopolitical impact that environmental degradation actions can have for the country.
“We have to clean up the totally destructive illegal mining from all national parks and the entire Amazon in Venezuela. That laws that protect ecology, that protect the environment, respect. We must guarantee a healthy forest, our healthy national parks, an Amazon that is in recovery, in reforestation, it is the commitment we have with our people and they are also commitments of an international nature”, he said.
The Venezuelan representative must be present at the meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) scheduled for August 8 and 9 and which promises to bring together the presidents of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.
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The realization of the summit had been debated by the Colombian Gustavo Petro and by Maduro since the end of last year. With the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in January, the proposal gained more strength and will host the meeting in Brazil. Together, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have more than 70% of the Amazon rainforest in their territories.
For researcher Erick Gutiérrez, the meeting in Belém is a good opportunity to advance environmental issues in the region, but it may not be enough if there is no popular pressure on the issues discussed.
“This will depend a lot on the struggle of the peoples. And I am not referring only to native peoples, but to all social sectors, as our agenda must be a fight against a system, in which native peoples are, those who are concerned about the ecological issue, the impoverished social classes united in a common agenda for life”, he says.
Similar operations against gold mining were also carried out in Colombia. According to the Ministry of Defense of the country, this Wednesday (12) 11 extraction points were interdicted, an excavator was destroyed and more than 1 kg of mercury was seized.
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Last Saturday (8), Lula and Petro met in Leticia, Colombia, at what they called the Amazon technical-scientific meeting. Both agreed to set the year 2030 as the deadline for zeroing cases of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and encouraged the institutionalization of the Regional Observatory of the Amazon, an ACTO instrument that would serve to exchange information between authorities and agencies of the countries.
There are differences, however, among the group’s members, which was clear at last Saturday’s meeting, when Petro questioned the feasibility of oil exploration in the Amazon. Lula, in turn, dodged the issue, but at the end of May, during the G7 summit in Japan, the Brazilian president went so far as to say that he found it “difficult” to have any environmental problems in drilling at Foz do Amazonas.
In May, Ibama denied a license request made by Petrobras to drill in a block in Foz do Amazonas. According to the agency, the information provided by the company was not sufficient to guarantee the sustainable viability of the project.
Editing: Thales Schmidt