COVID-19 and the Orinoco Mining Arc: A Large-Scale Ticking Time Bomb

By Cesar Romero, originally published on Revista SIC of Centro Gumilla.

HeartsOnVenezuela translation revised by Venezuelan Voices
Photo credit: infoamazonia.org

The Maduro government declared a collective quarantine on all 23 states of Venezuela and the Caracas Capital District on March 17, after 33 cases of COVID-19 were officially announced in the country. Although certainly the quarantine was a necessary measure to prevent the accelerated spread of the virus, it has been consolidated as a one-way, militarized state policy, its planning carried out without the participation of health workers and researchers (ecologists, biologists), and focused on a sort of massive military lockdown in which citizens’ mobility is limited and the exercise of their political and social rights practically cut off. How can solidarity and community spirit be activated under a dominant police state and restrictions of all kinds? The situation has been exacerbated by unequal access to goods and services, worsening fuel shortages at a national level (with privileges for the military and authorized personnel), and a critically ill health system in no condition to respond to the health problem.

To some extent, social isolation has set in. Across many towns of the country, citizens have tried to stay at home, but many doubts arise regarding the situation south of the Orinoco River, a territory of economic dynamics that remains strategic for the support of the mafia model. In other words, does the collective quarantine decree include the Mining Arc and the entire territory south of the Orinoco where mining activity exists? Taking into account the bankruptcy of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and that the reduced production of oil (less than one million barrels per day) is practically destined for debt payments to China, Russia, and other creditors, will the extraction of minerals, lumber, and other resources be suspended south of the Orinoco? Does the early April assassination of Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Solís of Tumeremo’s Fort Taraby, repeatedly denounced by residents for human rights violations since September 2019, allow us to believe that social quarantine is effective in the mining areas? Do images of the expansion of mining in Canaima National Park allow us to believe so?

As shown by facts, testimonies, and multiple investigations in the territory during the last decade, all mining activity is crossed and transversally directed by irregular, informal, violent, and criminal logics. Organized crime will not be stopped by the pandemic. The hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly engaged in mining activities become a population with a potential high risk to the highly contagious virus.

The reality of Venezuela regarding COVID-19 is extremely worrying, not only since the quarantine system implemented so far is economically unsustainable in the medium term (people need to work to survive) but also because the population around mining areas do not have a minimum capacity to respond to the arrival of the Virus. The two basic WHO tips to avoid contagion, hygiene and social isolation, are completely blurred and difficult to observe if we take into account the following factors:

  1. Access to water in entire towns is either quite limited, scarce, or polluted with mercury and chemical products;
  2. Due to the remoteness of the mining settlements from the cities, and the characteristics of the economy in these areas, basic cleaning products such as soap can cost several grams of gold, discouraging its purchase by the residents.
  3. Sanitary conditions are extremely critical. The mining environment is inherently toxic and polluting. Local primary health centers are abandoned. To access care, those wounded, victims of gunshot from armed confrontations, and those ill with malaria, to cite the most common situations, must travel to municipal primary care centers, or if they are able to, proceed further to hospitals in the main cities of Ciudad Bolívar, San Félix, Puerto Ordaz, and Santa Elena de Uairén.
  4. Malnutrition, anemia, and diseases that affect the immune system, such as AIDS, have been expanding alarmingly throughout southern Venezuela, mainly affecting rural, Afro-descendant, and indigenous communities.
  5. Populations of thousands of miners in the camps are habituated to enter and leave the mines and, because of their nomadic condition, move from one village to another from time to time, providing the conditions for a rapid spread of the virus. We can add the weekly entrance and exit from the mines and across the national border of foreigners from Brazil, Colombia, and Guyana.

When inequality increases, the most vulnerable population seeks any type of economic activity in order to subsist. The mining boom of the last five years is part of this phenomenon, that follows the bankruptcy of the aluminum and steel plants of the Venezuelan Guayana Corporation, the deterioration and indebtedness of PDVSA, the economic recession, the government policy of disinvestment in the agricultural and fishing industry, the increase in the price of gold, and an excessive expansion of small and medium-scale mining activity. As Mariano Aguirre affirms, “COVID-19 highlights the profound inequality in global society”, and southern Venezuela is one of the starkest examples in South America. On April 10, the first death of an indigenous person due to COVID-19 was reported in Boa Vista (Brazil), a state bordering Venezuela, a 15-year-old teenager belonging to a Yanomami community.

Faced with COVID-19, the Orinoco Mining Arc model is a time bomb that can alarmingly exacerbate the complex humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Given their characteristic indolence and ambition, the mafias that run the mining business will ignore this reality and look for ways to maintain their profits at any cost.

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