An In-Depth Look at Women’s Slavery in the Mining Arc

Recent research carried out by UCAB Guayana’s Center for Human Rights sheds light on the patterns of forced, sexual, and labor exploitation of girls, teenagers and women in the mines. Two of the researchers explain the magnitude of these findings

The Mining Arc isn’t only an environmental disaster in Venezuela’s most biodiverse region, where most of the freshwater should be produced. Not only is it helping the spread of malaria across the country and bringing conflict, violence, disease and exploitation to Indigenous communities, the Mining Arc is also setting patterns of sexual and labor subjugation on Venezuelan girls, teenagers, and women which can only be referred to as slavery.

On Thursday, May 20th, the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello Guayana Center for Human Rights  (CDH UCAB Guayana), presented the Formas contemporáneas de esclavitud en el estado Bolívar (Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Bolívar State) report, as a result of research designed and coordinated by Eumelis Moya (center coordinator) and Beatriz Borges (executive director of the Centro de Justicia y Paz, CEPAZ).

This report is the first one by the CDH UCAB Guayana which addresses modern slavery in Bolívar with a sensitive focus on gender, and it’s the second to last of four reports, dedicated to investigating this problem in the Zona de Desarrollo Estratégico Nacional Arco Minero del Orinoco (Orinoco Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone).

The investigation for this report was born as the result of a lack of data by the government, and it started as soon as the CDH UCAB Guayana office was created in 2019, with the objective of identifying and monitoring complaints in Bolívar, especially those linked to labor and sexual exploitation of women, teenagers and girls in the municipalities south of the Mining Arc, as well as several extremely violent practices against women which in the end, are a regression in all of their rights. In fact, of society as a whole: the United Nations measures the development of a country based on the exercise of women and children’s basic human rights, among other indicators.

Moya and Borges reflect on the findings, which tell the story of the ongoing gender-based violence, in women between the ages of 12 and 35 years old, associated not only with the illegal exploitation of natural resources in a state that’s 30% to 50% controlled by irregular armed groups and the State but also because of the historical structural and cultural lag in the country which has intensified during the complex humanitarian emergency. The report, also points out the negligence and lack of effectiveness of the justice system to protect women, teenagers, and girls, in spite of the latter two being the main victims of forced prostitution, sometimes by members of the military.

This report was written following a descriptive, qualitative methodology, and you were able to go to the field and see the reality of brothels and sex bars, how was this possible?

Moya: “When we conducted our first research in 2019, we were able to map out the main characters from experience and location, making sure that the information given to us was accurate. So we managed to visit the entire Troncal 10 road and the towns of Tumeremo, Guasipati, El Callao and even Santa Elena de Uairén, and gather the testimonies from victims, survivors, miners, and people who are part of irregular groups. We monitored all of them and we also interviewed other organizations who work in these areas.”

It draws attention to the fact that this report has a gender-sensitive focus, why do research with this type of approach?

Borges: “To understand that the problems are different between men and women and how it affects them as a result of the discrimination and inequality patterns. When you look at the modern slavery practices in this report, you can see a gender pattern: 99% of the victims of sexual exploitation are women in relationships where mechanisms of control, power, and hierarchy are in place, in a violent environment over territorial control. You can even see the stereotypical patterns: men have control and women are destined to do house chores, cooking, and cleaning. Since these separate analyses don’t exist, no one sees how these women are affected, thus, there’s no protection for them and we won’t see policies based on them, to protect them and to guarantee their rights.”

Any other relevant findings?

Borges: “How does the close knit relationship between the patriarchal stereotypes, generalized violence over territorial control, and illegal mining, facilitate human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced prostitution? I can sum it up in a sentence from the report, said by one of the interviewees: ‘You have to add rum and prostitutes to mining to produce more gold.’ This shows how these relationships are so normalized in the culture in these places that they end up being fertile ground for subjugation and oppression to occur with complete impunity.”

Moya: “I insist on this: the subject matter has to go beyond a simple anecdote.  We have to strip the myth that prostitution is just an activity, when in fact, since it’s being forced, these women are being trafficked. The situations mentioned in the report are all about labor exploitation and violation of rights. In the open mines, you’ll also find women taking people up and down from the extraction hole, heaving bags of materials weighing over 45 kilos, exposed to gases from the extraction and water polluted with mercury. In industrial facilities, although the infrastructure is more acceptable, you have women cooking for abusive lengths of time and quantities. Mines are the closest thing to a continuous production company. An extraction work shift goes on for at least eight to twelve hours, and if you don’t give anything, you don’t eat. So the pace set by the shift will also set the pace for the other jobs associated with the process.”

Borges: “Women work by a restriction of their will in order to survive. They’re commercial objects, but they can’t escape from the system when it’s their only option to live, because even if they have a way to get out, the women or their families are victims of threats and retaliations, like disappearances, mutilations, or murder.”

The report also mentions the low involvement of law enforcement to stop and eliminate these practices, what should they be doing?

Borges: “There’s lots to be done, because little has been done in a state where there’s no authority nor law: to stand up and forbid slavery, dismantling armed groups, because the State isn’t in control of the land, it’s controlled by armed groups which also practice illegal mining.  Those responsible have to be investigated, sanctioned, and protect the victims with shelters, giving them access to complaints and reparation without criminalizing them when they’re being forced to commit crimes…There should also be international technical assistance, because the problem, in terms of the humanitarian emergency and human rights violations, is serious.”

Moya: “The situation is so bad that when you go to state institutions, the employees don’t have a real understanding of the crime indicators, so they don’t know to subsume the facts in a specific type of felony, in other words, they don’t know how to classify them or don’t even know that they are crimes at all, because they don’t train those employees nor is there a legal compilation which can guide in prevention and sanctioning, beyond the general regulations regarding slavery.”

So, the recommendations set by the UN’s Fact Finding Mission report aren’t being executed…

Moya: “The ones from that report or any other report, none of the recommendations are being carried out…”

Borges: “…and it’s key that the authorities answer the call made by the High Commissioner’s Office, because we’re not talking about just crimes, but international crimes. The consent, the silence from the authorities who are responsible for protection and aren’t doing it, turns them into accomplices. It’s evident that Venezuela isn’t complying with the High Commissioner’s Office, because there’s no cooperation or improvement.”

How does the CDH UCAB Guayana report help prove that the Venezuelan State isn’t complying with international recommendations?

Moya: “We present the problem with the utmost clarity. We organize and detail the information so that it becomes more visible and easier to understand, but we kept its focus so as to start proposing and allowing for it to be ‘simpler’ for other actors to participate in resolving a conflict that isn’t just about the women over there far away somewhere in the Mining Arc. We know we aren’t discovering the situation, but we’re warning about the events and the much more serious consequences they are having.” 

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.