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Hardscrabble life for poor Venezuela gold miners

October 18, 2005

By Patrick Markey

LAS CLARITAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – His face blistered with
red burns from an accident, Venezuelan miner Ronald Guillen
massages a silvery ball of fine gold he hopes would feed his
wife and three children for a while.

The sliver of malleable metal culled after a day in an open
mining pit should fetch around $30, a lucky day for unlicensed
miners like Guillen who carve out a hardscrabble existence in
deforested clearings in Venezuela’s Bolivar state.

“Sometimes we get nothing, sometimes four grams. Gold is
all about luck,” Guillen said as his children darted around his
shack of plastic sheets and wooden poles. “It’s not the life
for everyone.”

Tens of thousands of poor, mostly unlicensed miners are
drawn to quarries in southern Venezuela hoping the precious
yellow metal can bring them quick riches or at least a source
of income in a remote region where jobs are scarce.

In camps hacked from dense jungle, miners slog waist-deep
in sludge with generators and water hoses to wash down the
earth and suck it onto raised pallets. Then it is dried and
panned with mercury for small pieces of gold.

The sweltering jungle here is scarred by huge open pits,
blasted by jets of water into bright red and gray moonscapes
tangled with a mess of pipes, motor parts, muddy pools and
skeletal wooden frames used to dry earth.

Mining became a political issue last month when hundreds of
unlicensed miners blocked a highway leading to Brazil to demand
jobs and permits. Troops battling protesters protected the
nearby Las Cristinas concession, where Canadian miner
Crystallex has an operating contract.

Soon after, President Hugo Chavez’s government warned that
it would revoke contracts and concessions judged inactive after
a sector review and hand the blocks over to small mining
cooperatives supported by the state.

The announcement was the latest to rattle investors in
Venezuela, where left-winger Chavez has promised to introduce
sweeping reforms as part of his socialist revolution to fight
poverty in the world’s No. 5 oil exporter.

JUST MORE PROMISES?

The Las Cristinas deposit is set in miles (km) of jungle
framed by Venezuela’s famous Gran Sabana, where the beauty of
the region’s flat-topped mountains inspired Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle to write his novel “The Lost World.”

But the beauty fades in the nearby town of Las Claritas,
where many seethe over the lack of development. Wooden shacks
cram dusty streets selling mining equipment, clothes, food,
music and liquor. In alleys, merchants equipped with small
scales offer to ply their trade in gold and rough diamonds.

Community leaders say most people have no formal employment
and about 70 percent live directly or indirectly through
illegal mining. Prostitution is common and HIV infections and
poisoning from mercury contamination are problems, they say.

Small-scale miners use mercury to extract gold amalgam but
often pollute riverways and earth with waste from the recovery
process.

Crystallex says it has invested more than $2 million in a
local clinic, water treatment plants, housing and roadways as
part of its infrastructure investment in the area. But the
problems at Las Claritas are complex.

Deputy Environmental Minister Nora Delgado said officials
are working to create an alternative employment plan for miners
while reorganizing and supporting those who will get licenses
and continue working in the area.

Authorities say they are slowly trying to shift unlicensed
miners away from the River Caroni, where mining work threatens
the environment of a waterway that provides huge amounts of
hydroelectric power.

“We have a plan of action … (with) alternative options
for the mining zone, and regulating and putting order in the
areas where people will stay on working the mines,” she said.

But for miners working in unlicensed encampments like those
that pockmark the ground near and inside the Las Cristinas,
such announcements sound like just more hollow promises.

Most say their illegal status forces them to pay high
prices to transport contraband food and gasoline to their camps
and they complain about abuses by National Guard troops trying
to keep them off official mining sites.

“The government? We don’t get help from anyone here,” said
Simon Hernandez, a life-long miner who sat resting in a shack
inside one camp, his skin caked in mud from work.

“The president says the permits are on the way,” he said.
“But local officials here never deliver.”




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