The Business that Feeds the Mine

People all over Bolívar State have got gold fever. They travel to the mines and make ends meet by selling everything they can think of to miners. The problem is that, in addition to gold fever, they could get malaria or measles. As profitable as the business might be, is it worth the risk?

Photo: retrieved 

Every day, hundreds of mothers and housewives wake up before the sun even rises to travel many miles into southern Bolívar State to get a taste of the famous gold, as the frenzy of making profit from the gold business has turned the lives of thousands of Bolívar citizens around.

While millions of Venezuelans suffer the consequences of the serious economic crisis beating the country, many others have found their economic climax thanks to the mining boom taking place in Bolívar State, the state with the fourth largest gold mine in the world.

It takes about two hours to go from Ciudad Guayana to El Callao or Tumeremo, two mining sites that are regularly visited by a large flow of people due to the mining boom.

Cakes, homemade ice-cream and sweets, arepas, empanadas, pastelitos, dumplings and papelón con limón are some of the products that these women carry with them to satisfy the growing demand in the southern area.

Although there is no official data, last year, former El Callao mayor Coromoto Lugo said that at least 30,000 miners are working in the municipality. The presence of these men has created a new social order that demands goods and services.

For eight months, Flor García has been making the trip from her house in Ciudad Guayana to El Callao. “My cousin convinced me. Originally we were afraid, but once you start seeing the movement, you start realizing that if you follow the rules and don’t mess with anyone, you won’t have any trouble.”

Nelson Solano, representative for the Bolivarian Transport Federation of El Callao, estimates that at least 100 buses move in and out of El Callao every day, with people who engage in some sort of commercial activity directly or indirectly related to mining.

Besides the buses, there are always 350 pickup trucks, among other vehicles, transporting people in poor safety conditions to mining towns.

But in the last two years, things changed dramatically for her, because gradually, she was left without a job.

Flor had previously worked cleaning houses for almost 20 years, which allowed her to raise her children, send them to school and build a house little by little. But in the last two years, things changed dramatically for her, because gradually, she was left without a job.

Flor began making ice cream at home, “I stood in line for regulated products and then I sold the ice cream near my house, that’s the first thing I could think of to make some money.”

The voracious economy and rampant shortages that inflate the prices of the few products that can be found, has led many to think of other ways to make ends meet and, in the case of Bolívar, many seek to work in activities related to mining.

Flor and her cousin make the trip during weekdays to sell food, cigarettes and coffee. They prepare everything during the night and in the morning, they pack it in coolers and take it to the mines. “Not all the women who work in the mines are prostitutes, that’s a lie. You have no idea of how many housewives go there to sell something and make some money.”

José Guevara, head of the Association of Retailers of San Félix, explains that retailers find it increasingly hard to find people who want to work for a wage, “right now, everyone sees the mines as the answer. People go there to sell anything you can imagine: food, clothes, medicine, TV sets, stoves, cell phones; and since miners make easy money, they also spend it easily.”

The jackpot is finding a miner who pays in gold.

The jackpot is finding a miner who pays in gold. There are fees expressed in bolívares fuertes or soberanos in Bolívar State; prices are set in gold and many transactions are made in the valuable mineral.

“In town, everyone talks of grams and points of gold, and the closer you get to the mines and camps, the more gold people accept,” says Flor, adding that she’s been paid in gold only a few times, but she’s preferred to keep working in downtown El Callao because she’s still afraid of the mine and its work. Still, cash flows freely through the streets and it’s common to see people with large amounts of money in cash on them. “Since we sell everything in cash, I find better prices for most of the ingredients I use for what I sell, that’s why the trip is worth it.”

This new way of making a living implies also an important health risk for Flor and other people travelling to the mines.

After months of silence, in April this year, the government admitted that 175,000 malaria cases have been recorded in the area to this date in Bolívar State alone. Luis López, who was Health Minister at the time, said that 400,000 had been affected by the end of 2017.

Sadly, there’s no indication that the figures might decrease, since there are no policies for preventing the disease and providing timely attention to the people affected. According to estimates of Red Defendamos la Epidemiología, by the end of 2018, there will be 586,000 cases in Bolívar alone.

Just like malaria, dengue and more recently measles have also become common ailments in the mining areas.

Just like malaria, dengue and more recently measles have also become common ailments in the mining areas.Flor is one of the lucky ones, because she’s suffered malaria only once, “I know people who have been ill eight times.”

It’s common to hear townsfolk say that with the gold rush, violence and anarchy have taken over the streets, but at the same time they refuse to think of other trades far from the mines and the profit they bring.

The government has collected a long list of initiatives and programs that have failed to fight off the illegality and the crime associated with mining; from the Plan Piar announced in 2003, as an alternative to certify illegal miners, which later mutated to Misión Piar, offering credits and incentives for small miners to seek out other trades.

Later, in 2007, there came the mining reconversion, which started with the controversial and criticized eviction of miners from the Caroní shores, accompanied with another wave of financing for some 6,000 miners that were working in the area at the time.

After each of these policies, the inhabitants of Bolívar State’s mining areas in general have seen that, far from declining, the mining activity has gained more and more strength, as an “organized” business where, like Flor and others say, if you follow the rules and don’t mess with anyone, you won’t get in any trouble.