Mining exploitation and institutionality in 21st century Venezuela

EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.


A responsible mining activity is developed under a framework that foresees a geological prospecting and exploration campaign for the identification, quantification of reserves, and delimitation of deposits, etc. Subsequently, the mineral development and exploitation plan is launched, that is, a mine is opened. In this context, not only the initial investment of the project, operating costs, and return on investment are always taken into account, but also all anthropic activity that modifies the initial conditions of the environment. That is why a recovery plan must be implemented for the areas that are going to be affected by mining.

The area recovery plans are generated from an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which is a requirement by law, to develop an excavation, either in the open or underground. Both the mine exploitation plan and the environmental recovery plan must be arbitrated by sound and competent institutions in order to carry out the pertinent evaluations, corrections, and subsequent inspections, respecting the country’s laws and regulations.

The Venezuelan Guyana is the country’s mining territory par excellence, with large deposits of gold, bauxite, iron and others like thorium, uranium, coltan, diamond; all of high strategic value for the development of the country. Currently, the institutional framework for mining activities has undergone severe changes. These changes have managed to obscure and almost disappear inspection and control of mining activities in general, but in a very special way, those concerning the mining of gold, diamond and coltan carried out south of the Orinoco River. The way in which the granting of areas for mining exploitation has been handled, under the scheme of alliances with the state, is highly discretionary.   The areas awarded come from officials in the Ministry of Popular Power for Ecological Mining Development and in the Venezuelan Corporation of Mining (CVM), both institutions directed and controlled by active and retired military personnel. The vast majority of companies with which these alliances have been made, do not have proven knowledge and experience in the mineral extraction industry and are generally newly formed companies. Inspection and control of mining activities have decreased considerably due to the lack of necessary resources for adequate performance such as qualified technical personnel, vehicles, allocation of travel expenses, on-site violence and others. In some cases, honest technicians in charge of the supervision and control of mineral extraction have resigned from their positions because interests from public officials on those mining areas hinder them from acting by the law.

Land planning has been reduced to nothing.  Such planning is necessary to define feasible areas for mining activities and establish the  inventory of mineral resources at a national level.  The lack of territorial organization and geological studies responds to scarce financial resources being allocated to the appropriate institutions. These institutions are the National Institute of Geology and Mines (INGEOMIN) and the CVG Mining Tech (TECMIN, CA).  INGEOMIN is the governing body of geological and mining research in the country, while TECMIN used to provide information on the country’s natural resources inventory. Information that is essential to begin any engineering project, especially that related to the environment.

The executive government is systematically dismantling institutions in charge of overseeing and advising technical aspects of the mining activity. TECMIN has just been eliminated by presidential decree and INGEOMIN is extremely abandoned, with few resources for its operation; for example, the laboratories were dismantled a few years ago by current management. In addition to the weakening of agencies providing technical support, the massification of informal mining poses the biggest threat to the Guyana region. Informal, or “artisanal” mining is endorsed by the issuance of legal instruments that grant permits, authorizations, agreements and alliances to individuals and cooperatives without the required prior studies, giving way to little or no control on the environmental impact of these activities. In the previous Mining and Environmental Acts, professionals were required in each area of ​​competence, either through consulting services or resident engineers to guarantee compliance with the standards issued by both the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM), and the former Ministry of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (MARNR). All on par with international standardized standards.

Resolution No. 0010 issued in early April 2020 has increased the well-known environmental catastrophe in Bolívar state. This decree legalises the former incipient mining extraction in the six most important rivers of the Venezuelan Guyana region. These predatory activities will worsen the ecocide generated by the irrational intervention of our forests, soils, and water bodies, previously legalized by the 2016 presidential  decree No. 2248, where the Orinoco mining Arc was established. 

Knowledge about the mining potential determines in first instance the feasibility of opening an exploitation front that will affect an area; especially if it is a fragile area of ​​the ecosystem. But it is the EIA’s that allows to assess the magnitude of the environmental damage, and delineates the appropriate prevention, mitigation, and restoration measures. The non-observance of these technical criteria leads to the pervasive use of the unappropriate mining equipment by so-called informal, independent, and empirical miners.  Hydraulic Monitors (Figure 1) are used by most miners despite them causing the greatest negative impact on the environment.

Figure 1 Hydraulic Monitors operating (and their consequence) 

This practice is an example of the obscene and criminal way in which natural wealth is extracted today in the Bolivar State. These activities are far from being called mining from the ethical, technical and professional point of view.  Our protected areas are seriously threatened. The risk comes from the detachments of vegetation layers, the collapse of forest-dependent species, the formation of steep slopes that become barriers to animals, destruction of soils and the massive movement of sediments towards water bodies, often with mercury. All this, besides the most obvious destruction of the natural landscape and the enormous scenic beauty of the region (Figure 2).  This is risking the nation’s opportunity for sustainable development. 

Figure 2 Deforestation Headway

In the specially administered areas whose main objective is not conservation but the sustainable management of resources, it is possible to carry out a much more environmentally friendly mining. It does exist and it is possible. But for that to happen, solid, transparent and responsible institutions are needed with technical and professional capacity to supervise and enforce. All mining activity, even for subsistence (Figure 3), requires strong institutions and adequate land use planning.

Figure 3 Subsistence Mining

Ana Oliveros
Geoscientists Ecologists Mining Engineer (MSc.)

Luis Zambrano
Engineer of Mines (MSc.)

Gilberto Delgado
Engineer of Mines

Carlos Jiménez
Engineer of Mines (MSc.)

Armando John Madero
Engineer of Agronomy (MSc.)


RESCUING OF THE MINING CONSTITUTIONALITY IN VENEZUELA WITH AN ENVIRONMENTAL APPROACH

To know the scope and severity of the ecocide caused by ill-implemented and pervasive mining, it is necessary to carry out a multidisciplinary investigative study that results in a comprehensive diagnosis. This study must be accompanied by specific corrective action plans for each of the different aspects involved made by professionals with extensive experience in the fields of institutional law, mining, geology, sociology and environment. 

The reconstruction and refounding of the country is urgent, and starting from scratch is not an option.  Generations born in the 40s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s made considerable technical contributions, generating a pool of knowledge and expertise that will accelerate the reconstruction of the country. It is advisable to study the feasibility and usefulness of: rescuing, replacing, restoring, reimplanting, using and taking advantage of data, infrastructures, software, previously trained and experienced personnel, criteria, principles, techniques, experiences, laws, regulations, procedures, organizational structures, operational structures and supporting institutions, that have already been designed, implemented and tested in past administrations. To the extent that these resources can be rescued, the transition time to recover the country’s progress will be reduced. Simultaneously, plans for the replacement, modification, adaptation, and modernization of the State’s executive branch infrastructure must be activated while training the personnel. Table 1 is a roadmap to identify aspects to consider.

A fundamental factor in developing a less environmentally damaging mining is the active and avant-garde participation of the research and higher education sectors, for the future professionals are trained there and is where new knowledge, techniques and methodologies are created in favor of responsible mining. A first step in this direction would be to update and restore operational capacity of  laboratories working in rock mechanics, mineralogy, remote sensing, geochemistry, among others. But it should not stop there. It must advance until we are able to interweave applied earth sciences and those of the environment.  That is why updating and adapting the curricula of the country’s universities should be the second step. Also research within government entities should be resumed, specially by CVG Mining Tech (TECMIN), and the National Institute of Geology and Mines (INGEOMIN). Currently there is no adequate geological-mining oversight or control because these institutions’ capacities have been slowly weakened or simply eliminated, like it recently happened with CVG TECMIN, which had the responsibility of maintaining the geological, mining, forestry and hydrological inventory of the Venezuelan Guyana region.

Having a strong legal framework to regulate mining activities that has an environmental vision is of the utmost importance, as it will guide the drafting  and approval or bylaws at the states level. Venezuela not only has deposits of metallic minerals, there are also non-metallic deposits that serve as raw material for the cement industry and  building aggregates. Administration of non-metallic minerals falls on the state governor’s office. These entities are responsible for assigning concessions and supervising mining activities.  Hence the importance of having bylaws and state-level regulations intended to exploit natural resources in a rational manner causing the least environmental damage, see table 2.

All planned mining activities are focused on making the most out of a deposit applying the principle of selective mining. However, what is currently happening in the Venezuelan Amazon and Guyana is a criminal act. Here, good mining practices are not applied, resulting in structural damage to the deposit, the soils , the fauna and flora and nearby rivers. Based on this reality, a multidisciplinary committee made up of experts in earth, environmental and social sciences, jurists and economists must be urgently created to evaluate the current status of the mining activities and its multiple impacts and establish possible solutions for the short, medium and long term.

Table 1 – ASPECTS TO CONSIDER TO REINSTITUTIONALIZE THE MINING ACTIVITY

ASPECTSACTION TO TAKERESPONSIBLE
Mining PolicyDevelop policy for its implementationCommittee of experts from CORDIPLAN
Legal frameworkRestore legal framework in force until 1997National Assembly
Comptroller general of mining activityDesign a comptroller systemComptroller General of the Republic
Environmental PolicyRestore environmental protectionNational Assembly
Ministries, regional corporations, CORDIPLANRelaunch with the same organizational structure and powers of 1997National Assembly
National inventory of mineral resourcesDesign a comprehensive plan to update the mining geological cadastreMinistry of Mines
Professional and technical training in the mining areaRestore technical schools including mining training through INCEMinistry of Education
Protected Areas, especially administered areas and the Mining ArcRestore all environmental laws, decrees, and resolutions to the state in which they were in 1997 National Assembly
Mining unions and mining cooperativesStudy its viability, convenience and bodies for its control and auditNational Assembly, Ministry of Mines

TABLE 2 MODIFICATIONS AND NEW ARTICULATION TO INCLUDE IN MINING LAW

Benefits to the populations and communities close to the mining activityRedefine and update the Mining Law to be restored and in force for 1997National Assembly
State and municipal powersRedefine and update the Mining Law to be restored and in force for 1997National Assembly
Corporate and social responsibilityIncorporate mining legislation in a specific chapter.Executive government and Industry corporations
SustainabilityIncorporate mining legislation in a specific chapter.
Mining in river bedsProhibit the activity
Small MiningIncorporate definition and specific articles in the mining law and its regulations
Large MiningIncorporate definition and specific articles in the mining law and its regulations
Tailings and waste dams and reservoirsIncorporate specific articles in the Mining Law and the Environmental Law
Management of closed mine areasIncorporate specific articles for their use as tourist areas

José Ferrer
Mining Engineer


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