Another Byproduct of the Orinoco Mining Arc: Child Illiteracy

In the state of Bolívar, illiteracy is skyrocketing as parents leave to work in the mines

People in the mines (Via Transparencia)

Between 2018 and 2019, the Social Extension Department of Andrés Bello Catholic University at Guayana (UCAB Guayana)—where I work—carried out a diagnosis of child literacy in the Invasión 25 de Marzo, a riverside slum in San Félix in the state of Bolívar. Through community leaders from a local Catholic church and a local Fe y Alegría school, UCAB Guayana identified and evidenced an alarming number of approximately 600 illiterate and out-of-school children. The community leaders requested international support and UCAB Guayana managed to get education kits from UNICEF. However, when the pandemic hit, UNICEF had to withdraw its support from the Invasión 25 de Marzo and other areas in Bolívar, leaving many children without access to the educational system. Their parents had left, seeking better pay in the mines southward of the city.

After the Orinoco Mining Arc was created by Nicolás Maduro in 2016, the area became a free-for-all for criminal gangs, Colombian guerrillas, and security forces, skyrocketing illegal mining and splurging mining operations throughout Bolívar and into Amazonas, which are both now facing alarming deforestation rates. The mining boom has radically affected local communities, driving internal migration, fragmenting the administrative control of the country, and leading to never-ending violence and human rights abuses. 

The parents of the Invasión 25 de Marzo children are part of the wide migration of people that goes to the mines in search of higher incomes to overcome the economic and humanitarian crisis. In fact, thousands of people from throughout the country—and, significantly, former workers of Guayana’s dilapidated public industries—have moved to the mines and established neighboring shantytowns. In fact, the violent sindicatos (meaning mafias in this case, not unions) that control much of the gold trade started out as labor unions in the plants and factories of companies like Sidor and Ferrominera. Also, according to a 2022 study by the Centro de Investigaciones Populares Alejandro Moreno, 10.9% of internal migrants in Venezuela moved to Bolívar.

In the municipality of Sifontes, the migrants even took the roof of the school with them to use it for their new settlements in the mines.

Internal migration to the mines has also led to parents abandoning their children from a very early age, leaving them in the care of relatives: and without being recorded in the civil registry.  While the parents are absent, the State doesn’t classify migrating to work in other areas as child abandonment and thus won’t tackle the children’s exclusion from the civil registry. There are just a few public education institutions that accept children and teenagers without civil registration. Without it, many neglected children have no access to formal education. Among them, the 600 children of Invasión 25 de Marzo.

By 2023, according to the community leaders from Invasión 25 de Marzo, many of the children had joined crime gangs or became child laborers, a widely denounced form of modern slavery in the Orinoco Mining Arc. Similarly, according to Transparency’s local chapter, the migration of both teachers and parents to the mines had led by 2022 to the closure of at least four local Fe y Alegría schools since 2020.  In the municipality of Sifontes, the migrants even took the roof of the school with them to use it for their new settlements in the mines.

The situation in Bolívar is a local chapter of a much larger problem affecting Venezuelan children. According to a 2021 study by UCAB, almost 16% of the Venezuelan student body (around 1,2 million people) dropped out of school between 2018 and 2021. Only a little more than 40% of the dropouts had left the country. UCAB’s ENCOVI survey added 190,000 more dropouts in 2022. And those that do attend face an educational system in ruins: another recent UCAB survey found that 67% and 60% of Venezuelan students fail math and verbal skills respectively.

Such a collapse means a decline in the development of future generations and an even larger increase in inequality. It is urgent that the State intervenes and generates broad public policies to tackle child abandonment, the fragmentation of families and the lack of civil registration for children and teenagers while also making educational institutions allow access to education with a late civil registration, enforcing fundamental rights for children.

It is not only about insisting that educational institutions allow the entry of boys, girls, and adolescents, even if they are not part of the civil registry. It is about insisting on the State to tackle the structural problems that are driving internal migration, ripping Bolívar’s social fabric, and excluding a whole batch of children from the educational system.