Caura: A Maduro-made Environmental Disaster in the Amazon

Gold mining is bringing mercury pollution, malaria, mass poaching, and ethnocide to one of Venezuela’s natural treasures

Photo: Alberto Blanco Dávila

Alberto Blanco Dávila, a specialist in ecotourism and current editor of Explora magazine, got acquainted with the pristine shores of the Caura River 25 years ago. He’d been hired as an environmental advisor by Bernardo Kröning, a German-Venezuelan businessman who was opening the first tourist lodging house in the area.

After two decades organizing expeditions and getting to know each corner of its waterfalls and deep green jungle, Blanco Dávila has been away from the river for three years now: it’s not safe anymore. In less than a decade, he explains, around five thousand miners have settled in the basin to mine gold and that lodging house was temporarily taken over by 60 members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Colombian Marxist guerrilla which controls large parts of the territory.

The Caura is the third most voluminous flowing river in Venezuela: it starts in southwest Bolívar, in the Jaua-Sarisariñama National Park, and it flows into the Orinoco River after 723 kilometers. It’s also the basin that generates the most water in Venezuela. Blanco Dávila says that “there are places that are still pristine, where no human has ever set foot.”

Caura is a “mega laboratory”: over 35% of all national fauna species have been registered there and 60% of the species in the Guayana region. “There’s approximately, and this is a conservative figure, about 500 bird species out of the 1,400 found in Venezuela, about 40 amphibians, 60 reptiles, over 180 mammals, and some 3,000 vascular plants, close to 80 per cent of all endemic plants in the Guayana Shield.” In fact, according to a botanical study from 2008, there are at least 56 endemic species which are restricted to the river’s basin.

“Caura is a ‘mega laboratory’: over 35% of all national fauna species have been registered there and 60% of the species in the Guayana region.”

Photo: Alberto Blanco Dávila

But today, the Caura is polluted with mercury. Mining activity in the basin began two decades ago, in the Yuruani, a Caura tributary. Small at first, the changes began with projects for legalizing artisanal mining. And then in 2016, the Mining Arc came along: an area for mining exploitation larger than Switzerland or Panamá, considered illegal by the legitimate National Assembly, which has turned into a violent and lawless territory, ruled by criminal gangs, guerrilla groups, and gold traffickers.

In April 2020, by official decree and without consulting with local Indigenous peoples or studying the environmental impact (as required by the Constitution), Nicolás Maduro’s Ministerio de Desarrollo Minero Ecológico (Ecologic Mining Development Ministry) added part of the Caura and other rivers to the exploitation area. Since then, the fluvial landscape has been speckled with barges that drag the river bed, even outside the area allowed in the decree. For this reason, in May, the residents of the town of Maripa went out in protest.

“15 years ago you could say this was the most pristine basin in Venezuela and one of the most pristine in the world,” Blanco Dávila says. 

But today, mercury is polluting from Maripa, close to the mouth of the Caura in the Orinoco, all the way to the Salto Pará. 

“The effects of this kind of mining are enormous and they can’t be mitigated,” says Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, biologist and coordinator of the environmental and human rights organization Clima 21, “some might even be permanent.”

A Poisoned River

Several ethnic groups live in the Lower Caura, an area inhabited for at least ten thousand years, according to archaeological records. Mainly moving along the basin are the Yekuana (of the Cariban linguistic family) and Sanema (of the Yanomami linguistic family), and the Hoti or Joti (with no linguistic relation to any other group), who have remained more isolated from the criollo world. There are also, in smaller quantities, Kariña, Guahibo and Pemón communities.

“15 years ago you could say this was the most pristine basin in Venezuela and one of the most pristine in the world.”

Photo: Alberto Blanco Dávila

Also, there are Afro-Venezuelan communities in the towns of Trincheras and Aripao: descendants of slaves who came to Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar) after escaping from plantations in Essequibo and Demerara in the 18th century, back then part of Dutch Guiana, now Guyana. There, in 1758, Spanish colonial authorities gave them their freedom and lands to live on. “The Aripaeños have an Afro-Indigenous culture, different from other Afro-Venezuelan communities,” explains Karina Estraño, member of the Human Ecology Laboratory in the Anthropology Center of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), “they have very old family links with Caribans, mainly the Kariñas (Kalina), and their life patterns are strongly tied to the Caura basin’s natural cycles. In this sense, they are expert sailors, fishermen, and small farmers.”

Since their livelihood is the water and fish from the river (in fact, Yekuana means “people from the river” in their language), the multicolored mosaic of people who reside in the Caura have suffered the effects of mercury in the basin, poured at the mines where it’s used to separate the gold from other minerals. “Everything that lives in the river is poisoned,” Blanco Dávila says, “the Indigenous people are ill and so is everything everyone eats there.” According to the ecologist, there have even been reports of Minamata disease, a serious and permanent neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning.

In fact, a study carried out by the Fundación La Salle and Universidad de Oriente in 2012 (before the Mining Arc), found that 92% of Yekuana and Sanema women had much higher mercury exposure levels than those established as safe by the WHO. 36.8% of the Indigenous women had pollution levels which presented important risks of having children with neurological disorders.

Since then, in spite of the drastic increase of mining activity, there haven’t been more evaluations. “But given that the mercury pollution is accumulative, and the exploited areas in the Caura have increased”, Álvarez Iragorry explains, “it’s fair to say that the effects of mining will severely grow.”

The Caura Invasion

International tourism vanished from the Caura several years ago. With this, so did work for drivers, boatmen, cooks, and local guides, which would provide for the local communities. Also, predatory mining has generated “a perverse economy which destroys all traditional economic processes,” Álvarez Iragorry states, “even those who were more recent and had become important to the locals, like tourism and arts and crafts, and products from the rainforest.” This has led to products being valued by a “gold standard” (using gold as currency), as well as an eruption of brothels, bars, and drug dealing.

36.8% of the Indigenous women had pollution levels which presented important risks of having children with neurological disorders.

For the past few years, the local Indigenous chiefs from 54 Yekuana and Sanema communities) have denounced a system of “neoslavery”. This exploitation has worsened the ancestral relations between the two ethnic groups, as traditionally the Sanema have depended on the Yekuana: now, the Sanema serve as carriers taking supplies to the camps, subordinated to the miners.

Thus, the Indigenous people of the Caura have been forced to participate in the precarious mining economy. “Most local Indigenous people aren’t working of their own free will”, Blanco Dávila says, “they’re either killed or starved to death.” Also, the situation has caused a demographic realignment due to the mass incorporation of Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Guyanes miners as well as armed groups, criminal gangs, dissident FARC guerrillas, and the ELN which has taken over entire areas.

Over this mafioso palette, Blanco Dávila says, there’s the complicity of the Armed Forces: “Everything has to go through the military, there are very tight checkpoints in areas of the river,” he says, “it’s a chain that starts from the lowest grade: the Hoti or Sanema, then the Yekuana, then the mafia groups and armed groups, and at the top is the general who controls the entire area. And above him: the high government in Caracas.”

Violence in the Upper Caura has been shifting along the entire basin, Karina Estraño explains, especially since the mines in the Bajo Caura have appeared “with all the consequences it brings. For instance, the massacres and disappearances of Indigenous people in the El Silencio mine.”

“The south is like another country: it’s a feudal territory, where not even the governors have a say,” Blanco Dávila says. “The ones in charge are the generals, who are like kings. And the big losers are the Indigenous cultures south of the Orinoco.”

A Cultural Genocide

Indigenous groups in the Caura had “managed to keep the balance: they had never had such contact and transculturation with creoles, like the Pemón, and cheap politics had never reached so far into the Caura,” Blanco Dávila says. The same happens with hunting, which was done strictly as a means to survive and based on the “ancestral knowledge and wisdom about the rainforest: which animals to kill, which ones you don’t, how to know when a tapir is pregnant and can’t be killed. But the environmental balance for the Indigenous peoples has crumbled in the last few years.”

For the past few years, the local Indigenous chiefs from 54 Yekuana and Sanema communities) have denounced a system of “neoslavery.”

“There’s a serious risk of ethnocide in the Caura basin, threatening Indigenous and African-Venezuelan populations,” Estraño asserts, using the term coined by French Anthropologist Robert Jaulin in his book The White Peace: Introduction to Ethnocide (1970) about the Barí from the Catatumbo, who were harassed by capuchin missionaries and oil companies alike. In it, Jaulin would redefine the concept of “ethnocide” as the extermination of a culture without necessarily exterminating its people.

“Mining has forced them to abandon their ancestral activities, they don’t make bongo boats anymore,” Blanco Dávila says. “Yekuana basket weaving, its symbology, its ornamental value, its worldview, is being lost.” Now, “you won’t find any Yekuana that knows about basket weaving,” the ecologist explains, pointing out that the cultural artefacts of the group are highly sophisticated, with uniform geometric patterns and colors.

There’s also the ethnobotanical and ethnozoology epistemological loss: “If you ask them the names of palm trees, they rarely know the answer: if they do know, it’s probably a very isolated community or a very old person,” Blanco Dávila says. “Their traditional lifestyle, traditions, their culture, their views of the world: all of it has been altered by the arrival of these criminal groups.” This massive disruption in the cultural order of the Yekuana, Sanema and other groups has resulted in an increase of prostitution, alcoholism, and drug use, traced directly to new mining communities and economic networks: “Many Indigenous people are now alcoholics.”

The Fight for the Territory

Caura’s forest reserve, with an area of five million hectares, was created in 1968 during President Raúl Leoni’s administration. In 2017, two million hectares would be added when it was transformed into a national park by Maduro’s government. “We have the best legislation in Latin America when it comes to environmental issues,” Blanco Dávila says, “but they are national parks only in paper, because none of the rules are followed.”

“Their traditional lifestyle, traditions, their culture, their views of the world: all of it has been altered by the arrival of these criminal groups.”

Photo: Alberto Blanco Dávila

“The area making up Caura National Park overlaps a bit that of the Orinoco Mining Arc,” Álvarez Iragorry says, “but Resolution 0010 of March 2020, which authorizes the use of mining rafts, contradicts an important number of Venezuelan environmental legal regulations, illogically ignored by the government.”

The creation of the national park was rejected by the Indigenous peoples in the basin, Estraño explains, since they weren’t asked about it, violating their right to self-determination and creating a contradicting situation with the territorial rights and constitutional guarantees.

“This doesn’t represent a property right as it’s understood by Western countries,” Álvarez Iragorry says, “it’s the right to live in a territory according to their ancestral rules and customs, without foreign interference and making autonomous decisions in regards to activities taking place there.” But, in spite of the legal ruling established by the 1999 Constitution and by the 2001 Ley de Demarcación y Garantía del Hábitat y Tierras de los Pueblos Indígenas (Law of Boundaries, Habitat and Land Guarantee for Indigenous Peoples), these Indigenous communities have never had the control nor have they seen the formalization of these lands. “The Yekuana, Sanema and Hoti did all the work to achieve the demarcation of their lands,” Estraño explains, “but there was no answer from the authorities.”

In 2013, the Civil Association of Afro-descendants of Aripao was born to delimit the lands used by the community. In 2016, it formally requested the collective occupation of the territory, basing itself on the traditional scheme of the population’s use of lands. It also began the process of collective titles for the Suapure community rainforest, protected by a Conservation Agreement with the NGO Phynatura. There’s been no response from the authorities.

The Return of Malaria

In the past few years, malaria has also wreaked havoc in the area. “Deforestation caused by gold mining creates a sort of lagoon where mercury is used to separate the gold,” María Eugenia Grillet says, a biologist specialized in insect ecology and also a member of the Academy of Science. “The miner is creating water habitats for the vector mosquitoes to reproduce.”

Therefore, in camps, made up of a “provisional shack with four sticks and plastic bags, with almost no walls and sleeping in hammocks in the middle of the jungle,” Grillet says, miners are exposed to mosquito bites. In fact, research done by the biologist has shown that deforestation for mining activities favors malaria: “An area reduction of 1.02%, which accounts for thousands of hectares, has resulted in a 746% increase of malaria cases,” she says, “with the rainforest lost already, you can establish an inverse ratio of malaria increase.”

“The Caura flows into the Orinoco River, taking the sediments and heavy metals to the Caribbean and its islands.”

Photo: Alberto Blanco Dávila

The government has also abandoned sanitary policies while people from all over the country, forced by the economic crisis, have had to settle south of the Orinoco because of the mining activity. From there, once they made their wages, they returned to their lands of origin, with the malaria parasite in their blood. Because of this, “malaria has moved further north since the country doesn’t have a monitoring and safety policy,” Grillet says. The WHO reports that over half of malaria cases in the continent are located in Venezuela, which had eradicated the disease in 1961.

An Environmental Crime

“80% of Venezuela’s drinking water is located south of the Orinoco,” Álvarez Iragorry explains, “The destruction of the Caura basin is an environmental crime which will affect the quality of life and potential development of the entire region.” The Caura flows into the Orinoco River, taking the sediments and heavy metals to the Caribbean and its islands. “This means the mercury poisoning of fishes, which are consumed by riverside and Caribbean dwellers,” he says, “and those who eat fish through trade.”

For Blanco Dávila, a mining future isn’t viable: “All mining is destructive in every sense, there isn’t (as the government says) ecological mining. Those terms can’t go together, that’s impossible.” He believes that a lot of will, authority, and bravery will be needed to solve the problem: “So much corruption, money, and other things are involved there that it’s very difficult to eradicate this. But it can be done.”

“The Caura’s future lies in controlled, responsible, ethical tourism, which should go hand-in-hand with local communities, businesses and the government,” says Blanco Dávila, “a symbiotic relationship.”

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.