Controversy over Venezuelan mine killings

Six miners were killed by the Special Operations Unit of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (TO5) on September 22 in the remote jungle area of La Paragua, 200km south-east of Ciudud Bolivar in the eastern state of Bolivar. Fourteen soldiers landed their helicopter at the El Papelon de Turumban mine, destroyed the miners' heavy machinery and shot them in the back, according to a report in the October 8 Ultimas Noticias.

Two of the dead were indigenous, from the Pemon community, and another two originally came from Brazil. The miners were illegally blasting the banks of the La Paragua tributory, which feeds two huge rivers, the Caroni and the Caura, searching for gold and diamonds. One miner, Manuel Lizardi Fernandez, was shot in the shoulder and pretended to be dead by holding his breath. He lay on the ground until he was certain the TO5 army unit had left, then walked through the jungle for three hours, bleeding profusely, to get help at La Paragua township.

Another miner escaped in a truck when the helicopter landed to raise the alarm. The miners had two guns, which they said were used for shooting animals for food. It is not clear if other miners, hidden in the jungle, had shot at the army helicopter before it landed. The next day, the TO5 unit went back to hide the bodies, bury the two indigenous bodies and remove the cartridges. But it was too late; news had already reached the town.

This tragic incident is being used by the right-wing opposition in its election campaign to attack the government of left-wing President Hugo Chavez.

In reality, however, the issue highlights the complex, deep-seated problems in Third World countries like Venezuela that a revolutionary government has to tackle.

For decades, the La Paragua community has lived by mining gold. Indeed in the 1530s, the original conquistadores, in their search for the fabled El Dorado, centred their activities around Guyana and Puerto Ayacucho. There are hundreds of small goldmines in the Caroni, Caura and La Paragua river basin, right up to the edge of the Gran Sabana.

The Gran Sabana is one of the most famous tourist sites of Venezuela, filled with tepuis (table mountains); unique and exotic flowers, orchids and wild animals; and dozens of spectacular waterfalls, including the world's highest, Angel Falls.

This beautiful area has become an environmental disaster: Illegal mines have caused deforestation in the water catchment areas of the rivers, and miners have used heavy dredging equipment, blasting the river banks to extract gold and small diamonds. This reduces the rocks to a fine dust, which does not settle in the huge dams, and is destroying the electricity power generators that supply 78% of Venezuela's power. Venezuela sells some 500 megawatt hours of this electricity to northern Brazil. One of Chavez's future plans is for a huge natural gas pipeline to go through the area, from the Caribbean south to Argentina and Uruguay.

The miners also use large quantities of mercury to purify the gold, contaminating large stretches of the rivers, making the water undrinkable for communities that live alongside the Caroni and other rivers.

The situation is even more complex, because big-business operators, some of them non-Venezuelan, make huge fortunes by renting water pumps and sand-blasting equipment to individual miners, who do all the dangerous, dirty work of extracting the gold.

The miners pay off their debts by selling the gold, but often at low prices set by the equipment owners. La Paragua has a history of killings and robbing of exploited miners. The extent of big-business involvement has been revealed by these killings.

One of these businesspeople, Ibrahim Salom, exploits two giant diamond mines with cheap Pemon labour, owns jewellery shops in the US and Syria, as well as in Caracas, Bolivar, and Puerto Ordaz, and runs three illegal landing strips in the area to bring in heavy equipment and supplies, under the guise of a government concession to extract gravel until 2009, according to the October 15 Ultimas Noticias.

Further, the government has so far received no part of the wealth extracted from the area, as there have been no administrative controls. Caracas has no idea how much gold and diamonds have been exported. The gold extraction has accelerated in recent times, with the increase in its world price. Right-wing Colombian paramilitaries who have infiltrated Venezuela have exploited the violence, promoting the aims of a section of the Venezuelan opposition.

To solve the problem, Chavez signed a decree on June 26, 2005, declaring an emergency in the municipalities of Raul Leoni, Gran Sabana and Sifontes, and inaugurating the Reconversion Plan. Small and medium-sized groups of miners would together receive 50 billion bolivares (A$31 million) to move to another area. Included in the plan was financing for the miners to receive instruction in other types of employment — such as tourism, farming, reforestation or artisanship.

The miners were given until August 18, 2006, to abandon mining completely. However, the trainers sent by the environment ministry to run the courses only arrived on July 20, with barely a month left until the deadline.

Part of the problem is the area's isolation. To get to Chiguao, a small mining town, it takes a 45 minute flight from Ciudad Bolivar, then an eight-hour trip by four-wheel drive. It is impassable in the wet season.

Indigenous groups have always faced discrimination and lower payments for their gold than non-indigenous workers. The army has always regarded a posting to the isolated La Paragua area as a punishment. The miners' killing has brought to light other abuses of the miners, especially indigenous people, who have ben roughly handled by the army. One incident resulted in four drownings.

A miner living in Chiguao told the October 9 Ultimas Noticias, "Of course we agree with the Reconversion [plan], but the officials of the Ministry of Environment offered us everything. For them, nothing was impossible. Everything we asked for, they told us the government had approved. Nevertheless, nothing, absolutely nothing, that was promised arrived here."

Miners can earn up to US$1500 on a lucky day — it would take three months to earn this in an agricultural job offered by the government.

Environment minister Jacqueline Farias gave a press conference in which she said a total of 51 billion bolivares (A$3 million) had been given to miners in exchange for their machinery. Nevertheless, according to the October 9 Ultimas Noticias, only eight people, who were not miners, had received a payment of 1 million bolivares each. Among them was a Peruvian, two Guyanese and a retired army major. The latter, after handing over his machinery, had immediately left for another mine, where he bought new equipment and continues to extract diamonds from the rivers.

A representative of the La Paragua mining community told Ultimas Noticias: "This money has been stolen, because the only thing we have been given are some food bags from Mercal."

Farias claimed that La Paragua would be converted into a tourist destination, with a boardwalk along the river half-finished. However, when Ultimas Noticias checked, not a stone had been turned.

Miners estimate there are 40,000 illegal miners, but the government has budgeted for only 6000 miners in the Reconversion Plan.

Pastora Medina, pro-Chavez National Assembly deputy for Bolivar, has criticised the implementation of the plan so far as "totally inefficient, by the ministries of environment, health, mines and the mayors and governors. But the most serious thing is that nothing was written down, the people knew nothing about it."

Another deputy, Juan Molina, added that the plan should have been applied in a coherent manner, to benefit the miners who work the zone and not those with better economic resources.

On September 24 and 25, hundreds of angry miners and their families protested in the streets of La Paragua and Maripa, the capital of the local municipality. They burned the home of the mayor, Juan Carlos Figarella, and blocked off the streets for hours with burning tyres and vehicles belonging to the environment ministry and the state government.

Figarella has played a duplicitous role, according to the October 8 Ultimas Noticias. He is alleged to be buying the gold from the miners at very low prices. According to defence minister General Raul Baduel, it was Figarella who complained to the army about the illegal mine.

Chavez said, "We know at the very least there was an excessive use of firearms by a group of soldiers. The government is not covering up, nor will it cover up any abuse. This government respects human rights." The TO5 unit has been confined to barracks, and a special human rights sub-commission has been set up by the National Assembly to fully investigate the incident.