Venezuelan tribes protest against violent mining gangs

June 18, 2015

The Hoti in Venezuela and other Amazon Indians depend on the forest for their survival. But their forests are being destroyed by illegal mining (photograph taken in 2014). © Eglée Zent/Survival

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Venezuelan Indians blocked the landing strip of Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in protest at illegal miners destroying their lives and lands.

Over the last decade, illegal mining for gold, diamonds and other minerals – some run by armed gangs claiming to be members of Colombia’s guerrilla army FARC – has spread like wildfire through the Venezuelan Amazon, affecting tribes such as the Yanomami, Hoti, Eñepa, Yekuana and Arekuna.

An Arekuna spokesperson told Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, “Mining is a huge problem in our Indigenous territories. The miners are extracting the riches of our land and the earth is crying out for help. Our rivers are drying up because of the mining. We must look after nature; if we don’t, the whole planet will suffer.”

Rivers are being contaminated with poisonous mercury used in gold mining, which is entering the Indians’ food and water supply and devastating their health. In some Indigenous communities, the infiltration of gangs has led to prostitution and alcoholism.

Illegal mining has ravaged the lands of Amazon Indians in Venezuela. © Valentina Quintero

A study found that the majority of Indigenous women living along the Caura river in the Amazon had levels of mercury above internationally accepted standards. It also found that one in three women showed a high risk that their newborn children would suffer neurological disorders.

The Indians have denounced the Venezuelan military for failing to tackle the illegal mining and for “creating a climate of terror and fear.” Some officers are known to be involved in the illegal gold trade.

While Venezuela’s constitution recognizes Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral lands, few have received official title to their territories and the government has announced it will open up large parts of the Amazon rainforest – including Indian land – to legal mining.

Tribal peoples are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world, yet their lands, resources and labor are stolen by industrialized societies in the name of "progress" and “civilization.”