Hundreds of independent small-scale gold miners marched on the Venezuelan city of Bolívar Feb. 5, to protest the militarization of Manaima district, where security forces have been sent in to crack down on unlicensed operations following a violent clash in the area last month. Some 400 soldiers were dispatched to the community of La Paragua after six people were killed in what authorities called fighting between rival gangs for control of a gold mine called Nueva Bulla Jan. 9. Thousands of unlicensed miners in the remote jungle area have been unable to work due to the heavy military presence. Venezuela’s newly appointed defense minister, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, said the miners are “victims of exploitation by mafias.” But miner spokesman José Lucart countered: “All of Manaima is militarized and we want to be left to work. We are ready to work together with the organs that oversee the exploitation of gold, to arrive at a sustainable mining. We are seeking a meeting with the Ministry of Mines, as well as the Ministry of Defense…to coordinate an exit satisfactory to both parties.”
In May 2011, President Hugo Chávez estimated national gold production at roughly 11 tons annually—but protested that a similar amount is smuggled illegally out of the country every year. (Chávez has recently taken measures to strengthen national control of Venezuela’s gold reserves.) (Nueva Prensa de Guayana, Venezuela, Feb. 5; Globovision, Noticias24, Venezuela, Feb. 3; Parda Phash, India, Jan. 12)
Six miners were killed by Venezuelan army troops at La Paragua in a raid on one of their camps in September 2006. The government says hundreds of small goldmines in the Caroni, Caura and La Paragua river basins are leading to siltation at hydro-electric complexes in Bolívar state, potentially threatening electricity exports to Brazil. (Green Left Weekly, Nov. 4, 2006)
The region is just north of the Gran Sabana plateau on the border with Brazil, which divides the waters of the Orinico and tributaries from those of the Amazon River. (See map.) It has also been slated as a route for new oil and gas pipelines linking Venezuela and Brazil.