Impacts of illegal mining on indigenous peoples of the Venezuelan Amazon.
EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.
Since the late 1980s, the Venezuelan Amazon has been besieged by irregular armed groups involved in illegal mining. Back then, the garimpeiros from Brazil were the ones who focused their activities within the Alto Orinoco. This area harbors the biggest population of indigenous peoples in the Venezuelan Amazonian and the country’s most important watershed – also the fourth world’s largest-.
Apart from the serious environmental damage illegal mining causes in this strategic region of the country, the social impacts on indigenous peoples inhabiting this territory are of high concern. Illegal mining and the incursion of irregular groups into the Yanomami territory of the Alto Orinoco have numerous negative consequences, including the introduction of pathogens into communities highly vulnerable to infectious diseases carried by non-indigenous people. A vulnerability explained by the relative isolation1 and specific geographical characteristics in which the Amazonian indigenous peoples have lived, especially the Yanomami. According to the anthropologist Aimé Tillett2, since the garimpeiros invaded the binomial Yanomami territory, more than 2,500 Yanomamis have died due to introduced diseases and violent attacks.
All the damage caused by illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon begins with the occupation of indigenous territories. The occupation per se, constitutes a serious violation of indigenous people’s territorial and socio-cultural rights3, as it manifests itself through the alteration of the ancestral ways of life by which the 19 indigenous groups of this region have lived. This occupation brings with it different forms of violence and submission to these groups’ interest for extractive activities and the control of these territories. The most violent antecedent in our contemporary history within the Amazon region was the “Haximú Massacre”4 in 1993, where 16 Yanomamis were killed by garimpeiros who were controlling their territory for mining and related activities. Despite this grim background illegal mining have, and is, causing similar situations.
Another aspect severely impacted by mining is the right to education of indigenous children and youth. They are affected by the dynamics of this harmful and illegal socio-economic model, which cuts off access to education through the monopolization of fuel hindering the mobility of students and the transportation of supplies and school meals. This has affected the right to education in various sectors. In 2018, “La Esmeralda” Salesian School, a boarding school in the Alto Orinoco, ceased operations as they could not guaranteed school meals and other supplies due to fuel scarcity. Another example is the staggering increase in school dropouts. In the municipality most impacted by illegal mining, the “José Gumilla” School in Atabapo Municipality, a 48% dropout was recorded between 2018 – 20195.
To get a clearer picture of how mining activities within the Venezuelan Amazon and their impacts on indigenous peoples have increased, it is necessary to remember that at the onset of illegal mining, this activity was concentrated in the southeast of the Upper Orinoco and was done only by garimpeiros from Brazil. As of today, illegal mines have spread throughout the seven municipalities of the Amazonas state and are controlled by various armed groups, mainly from Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela. Analysis of satellite images carried out by the organization SOS ORINOCO in January 20196, indicate that mining has increased by 7,000% in Yapacana National Park over the past 10 years. This shows the exponential growth of illegal mining in Amazonas and its impacts on indigenous peoples.
We can synthesize the social impacts that illegal mining is having on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon as follows:
- Occupation of indigenous territories and the engender of violence.
- Violation of indigenous rights, especially territorial and sociocultural.
- Introduction of pathogens to indigenous communities.
- The proliferation of malaria in areas of mining influence.7
- Monopolization of fuel, driving scarcity in the region.
- Impact on the right to education, linked to the previous cause.
- Impact on the right to traditional indigenous economic activities.
The development of mining activities should not imply impairing the rights and wellbeing of the region’s local communities. The right to education and health are fundamental human rights. These are being severely affected by an activity that is carried out illegally, anarchically, and without oversight within a region that has historically been vulnerable because of its relative geographical isolation. It is the State’s responsibility to guarantee the rights of communities and indigenous peoples; which will never be materialized without their territorial rights underpinning the illegal nature of any invasion to their territory.
Luis Betancourt Montenegro
Coordinador General Grupo de Investigaciones sobre la Amazonía – GRIAM
- Indigenous Peoples in Relative Isolation under Siege of Miners, Diseases and Guerrilla, Mongabay, Mongabay, 2018.
- A. Tillett y L. Bello, Mining in the Venezuelan Amazon – The Case of the Yanomami People, 2015.
- Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, 1999, G. O. 36.860 art. 119.
- Case 11.706, CIDH, Haximú Massacre, 1996.
- El Correo del Orinoco, Indigenous School Dropout Increases in Amazonas, 2018.
- SOS ORONOCO, Gold Mining in Yapacana National Park 2019
- Efe Salud, M. Grillet, 2019.