Recently the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world’s largest scientific organization devoted to the study and protection of tropical ecosystems, with members in over 70 countries, has passed a resolution calling upon the Venezuela government to take action on illegal mining in the Caura Basin.
Deep in the Venezuelan Amazon, among ancient forested tabletop mountains known as tepuis, crystalline rivers, and breathtaking waterfalls, illegal gold miners are threatening one of world’s largest remaining blocks of wilderness, one that is home to indigenous people and strikingly high levels of biological diversity.
The region is home to indigenous groups — including the Ye’kwana, Sanema and Hoti — who rely heavily upon local rivers for drinking water, food, and transportation. Being one of the most isolated parts Amazonia, these indigenous people live in mostly traditional ways.
An accident of geography has put this biodiversity and these indigenous populations at risk.
The Guiana shield is incredibly old, with exposed rock dating back to the Precambrian period some 600 million years ago. This geology, like that of parts of West Africa, Western Australia, and the Brazilian Shield, produces rich deposits of gold, diamonds, iron, and bauxite.
While in Venezuela much of the area is nominally protected on paper, in reality national parts are becoming dotted with illegal settlements, clandestine landing strips sometimes used for drug trafficking and other smuggling, and small scale mining operations.
In the nearby Caroni and other areas, this informal mining sector is having a significant environmental impact — one that will likely be replicated in the Caura with invasion of more than 600 miners into the basin.
Miners rely heavily on hydraulic mining techniques, blasting away at river banks with high-powered water cannons and clearing forests to expose potential gold-yielding gravel deposits.
Gold is usually extracted from this gravel using a sluice box to separate heavier sediment and mercury used to amalgamate the precious metal. While most of the mercury is removed for reuse or burned off, some invariably ends up in rivers.
Mining can also wreak other forms of havoc. Dissolved sediments stirred up by mining activities cause have detrimental effects on aquatic flora and fauna, while interfereing with river navigation and posing risks to hydroelectric operations, like Guri dam, the world’s second largest hydroelectric dam, located in the Caroni River Basin.
On land, recovery of the cleared forest can be impeded by damaged soil and areas formerly forested may be transformed to fire-prone savanna as trees fail to recolonize once tough grasses take hold.
Environmental groups have complained that will take 300 years to re-plant destroyed forest in the area and 70 years to decontaminate areas polluted by the miners.
ATBC hopes that by highlighting illegal incursions in Venezuela it can bring attention to similar developments across the Guiana Shield region.
ATBC’s resolution urges the Venezuelan government to enforce existing Venezuelan law which requires it to protect forest ecosystems and biodiversity while defending the rights of indigenous groups currently threatened by miners.
Further, consistent with these provisions, the ATBC resolution asks the government to promote sustainable development projects in the region to provide employment opportunities for the local population without damaging the environment. The oil-rich government has already sponsored similar social welfare projects in other parts of the country.
Gustavo Carrasquel | ANCA24