The legendary search for El Dorado took place centuries ago, but for many in Venezuela’s gold-rich southern region of Guyana, it is only just beginning. Hordes of illegal miners—from Guyana, Brazil and Co-lombia as well as Venezuela—are excavating in biologically sensitive areas including the Imataca Forest and the La Caroné, La Paragua and Cuyuné River Basins.
"Some suggest that there are no more than 5,000 active miners, but I believe there are more," says Lués Pérez, a Guyana-based biologist with the La Salle Foundation, a local environmental group. "And that’s not counting the indirect employment generated by this activity." Estimates from mining union groups have placed illegal mining numbers as high as 40,000.
Despite government efforts to control illegal mining, it continues to spread. Miners had been spotted in the tropical Caura River Basin—one of the most ecologically diverse hot spots in the world—as early as May 2006, but the area remained largely untouched until last fall, when hundreds flocked to the area, drawn by re-ports of gold.
Ye"kwana and Sanema indigenous leaders protested the intrusion, but the miners responded by burning down their houses. Around the same time, authorities shot six miners in La Paragua who were trying to escape. Alarmed, the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation issued a declaration last November urging the government to protect the area’s environment and indigenous peoples.
The Ministry of the Environment has since issued a statement forbidding mining activities in the Caura River Basin and the National Guard maintains a presence there. But in recent months the "vigilance and control has failed," according to one ecologist, who has spent years living and working in the area and declined to be named for security reasons.
"I believe the number [of miners] is rising," says the ecologist, who expressed concern for the basin’s many species, including 168 mammals and 475 birds. Mercury, used by the miners for gold extraction, contaminates the water and continues polluting up the food chain, affecting indigenous groups that rely on fishing. Displaced sediments can affect hundreds of aquatic species sensitive to water purity, while gaping pits from dynamite blasts provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes that are linked to rising malaria rates.
In recent years, the Venezuelan government has been running a program designed to relocate miners and provide them with other work as farmers or tour guides. The government has reported some success, but many environmentalists such as Pérez—who works with miners in the Guyana region, encouraging them to recycle mercury—remain skeptical. "I believe that this is a very complex situation of considerable magnitude that can’t be resolved with improvised programs and limited resources," Pérez says.