Photo Credit - Jorge Benezra, Venezuela 2017
In our new column ‘Eyes on the Amazon’ we talk with artists, indigenous peoples, journalists, scientists and many more. Asking them to share their knowledge about the Amazon with us.
Jungle lessons 101.
This past month's theme for our filmclub ‘Cine Selvático’ was ‘Amazon Resources: Wealth and Destruction’. The Amazon is heavily threatened by large-scale mining, deforestation and oil extraction. The dangers posed by these industries are incalculable in one of the last natural lungs left in the entire planet and home for many indigenous communities that take care of our common environment.
We kick off this first edition of ‘Eyes on the Amazon’ talking about illegal gold mining with Amazon Aid founder and ‘River of Gold’ producer Sarah DuPont, Dutch journalist Bram Ebus and Harakbut indigenous leader Jaime Korisepa.
This is their story and the daily reality of many others about armed groups, modern slavery and malaria. All that glitters is not gold...
The Amazon rainforest is home to 10 percent of the world's known species, and its ancient trees remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere. Its virgin forests, however, are increasingly under threat. The soil underneath some of the rainforests is laced with gold, and each year, thousands of kilometres of the Amazon rainforest are devastated by illegal gold mining. In Peru, where the rainforest covers about 60 percent of the country, illegal mining operations threaten local communities and turns strides of rainforest into dead wasteland.
A River of Gold
Sarah DuPont is the founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation and producer of ‘River of Gold’. We showed Sarah’s movie this month in Xapiri and the audience had the chance to have a Skype with her afterwards. The 2018 movie is the disturbing account of a clandestine journey witnessing the destruction of the rainforest in the pursuit of illegally mined gold. War journalists Ron Haviv and Donovan Webster travel along Peru's Madre de Dios River to reveal the savage unraveling of pristine rainforest. Peruvian environmental activist and biologist, Enrique Ortiz, guides the team, pointing out the heedless exploitation of the land for minor short-term gain.
Sarah DuPont is an award-winning humanitarian, educator and filmmaker and is a vocal advocate of ecological preservation. As the President and Founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation, Sarah works with Neotropical scientists to study Amazonian biodiversity with an eye toward educating the public and introducing cutting-edge conservation practices and on the ground solutions to the region. Sarah is a producer of the film River of Gold.
“When I first arrived in 1999 the Peruvian Amazon held the largest contiguous area of pristine forests in the world. It was a wonderland of biodiversity, teeming with life. Unfortunately after 9/11 the prices of gold rose from $250 an ounce to at times over $1600 an ounce. People came in droves to these once pristine forests to mine for gold in the sediment, destroying the habitat and poisoning it with mercury, which is used in the mining process. As the gold mining grew in the Peruvian jungles, so did the deforestation, the mercury poisoning, the corruption, organized crime and child slavery. Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon is now an approximately 3 billion dollar a year illegal activity”, according to Sarah. The Amazon Aid Foundation (AAF) thought long and hard about how to create global impact to mitigate the issue of illegal gold mining in the Amazon. Amazon Aids best answer was to produce a 3 tiered approach which started with documentary films to expose the situation. Trusting in the power of film. In the meantime, AAF's projects have already been screened on 6 continents and have been cited for creating policy change.
Photo credit: Bram Ebus, Venezuela 2017: Mercury poisons rivers along which indigenous communities live
In her movie ‘River of Gold’, Sarah shows how miners rush to the Amazon to scrape together enough money to start a business or to feed their family while disregarding the catastrophic consequences to their health and homeland. Vulnerable trees, over one thousand years old, and countless species of plants, animals, and insects, both known to science and yet to be discovered, fall victim to the annihilation as well. The valuable Amazon rainforest is not only being stripped of life, but also forever poisoned with mercury, a byproduct of illegal mining practices.
VICE documentary ‘Poisoned by Gold Rush’ on the side-effects of mercury:
Environmental degradation and human degradation are irrevocably intertwined as illegal gold mining is directly tied to corruption, human trafficking, narcotics, and organized crime. The shooting of ‘River of Gold’ was somewhat troublesome, as the Amazon Aid team was some of the first to film inside the gold mining camps. Sarah reckons that “...today, the situation seems worse. From what I have heard, the Croatian mafia is in charge, and the corruption out of control. It has also been said that drugs are laundered through the gold, adding to the financial incentives to keep these illegal activities intact. The national government of Peru has, at times, attempted to regulate the mining and is often at odds with the local pro-mining governments adding to the difficulty to control the situation”. Criminal participation increases the risk that smuggled minerals finance illegal armed groups, money laundering and other illicit activities. In recent years, organizations that traffic in drugs have mobilized strongly towards illegal mining, using the same networks that transport drugs and taking advantage of gold extracted illegally to launder revenues.
Sarah nevertheless remains optimistics and advocates to turn around the situation with education and working solutions. Soon they will be developing curriculum for schools to engage the global youth and a significant social impact campaign which will leverage influencers, coalitions and partnerships to push for policy change globally to regulate the gold mining and to protect the Amazon.
From one crisis to another: Venezuelan mining boom
That protecting the forest against the mining industry is not without any danger, is something that Dutch journalist Bram Ebus can agree upon. Last year he was detained by the Venezuelan state-corporate business JV Empresa Ecosocialista Parguaza for a total of 24 hours for reporting on the country’s mining boom, impacting a whole other area of the Amazon. “The first 15 hours we could not call anyone and were driven along winding jungle paths for about 7 hours, to be brought to an office of the military counter intelligence. They suspected I was a foreign spy or researcher of an opposite party. We were [Bram was detained together with his driver, the human rights coordinator of a local church and an indigenous Pémon leader] probably released thanks to pressure in the Venezolan press”.
Dutch journalist Bram Ebus has been living and working for four years in Colombia. End of 2016 he started reading about a phenomenon called ‘El Arco Minero’ or ‘The Mining Arch’ that Venezuela’s then-President Nicolas Maduro signed to promote a large-scale mining project south of the Orinoco river. “I didn’t know much about Venezuela or environmental conflicts in the country and could hardly find any information. Meanwhile, Maduro claimed ‘150 multinationals from 35 countries’ were standing in line to invest in Venezuela. That’s when I got worried”. Bram got in touch with InfoAmazonia and applied for a grant with the Pulitzer Center on Conflict Reporting, which they won.
Bram Ebus s a Dutch investigative journalist and NGO-researcher with ample experience in Latin America, specializing on socio-environmental issues. In 2018, Bram published the in-depth multimedia platform called Digging into the Mining Arc about the Venezuelan Mining Arc produced by InfoAmazonia in collaboration with Correo del Caroní and with support from the Pulitzer Center of Crisis Reporting.
In February 2016, president Maduro signed a decree that created the ‘Arco Minero’ (Mining Arch). It is an area larger than Cuba south of the Orinoco river in the Venezuelan Bolívar and part of the Amazonas states, about 12% of the nation’s territory. The goals were to exploit large deposits of strategic minerals, such as gold, diamonds, coltan, copper, nickel, uranium and bauxite. Within Venezuela, the operation has been widely described as ‘ecocide’ - that is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.
According to Ebus, it is very hard to speculate about the possible impact of the mining operations. Mining in Venezuela is everything but transparent. There are no environmental impact assessments being done, it is unknown in what way the minerals will be extracted and how huge the contamination caused by the mining will be. All of this means anti-mining activists will have to grope in the dark. The Orinoco is the third largest river in the world in volume, its waters are not only important for the biodiversity of the region but for the many indigenous communities that build their lives around the river and its hundreds of tributaries. At the same time, indigenous communities within the Mining Arc have had no say in the development of mining in their region. They have not been consulted or given the right to free, prior and informed consent for mining projects that affect their territories, as required by Convention 169 of the World Labor Organization, an agreement of which Venezuela is a part.
Amazonas is not officially part of the Arco Minero, but it is only a matter of time before encroaching projects expand across the state border. More than half of Amazonas’ lands are under environmental protection, but have nevertheless been invaded by illegal mining and armed men. About 25 percent of Venezuela’s lands belong to indigenous populations. The Arco Minero is inhabited by 198 indigenous communities, but most ancestral lands are neither recognized by legal boundaries nor given protection.
Photo credit: Bram Ebus, Venezuela 2017
Men work on the gold, coltan and diamond farms, but the indigenous women also work in the mines and around them preparing and selling food, cleaning shelters or working as prostitutes. Bram received the disturbing news of indigenous Yanomami slaves who have numbers tattooed on their backs or shoulders in the state of Amazonas. Various indigenous people would have been branded by invading Brazilian miners, called ‘garimpeiros’, who enslaved them in the mines. It is a way to appropriate another human being. At the same time, the girls of 13 or 14 years from the communities end up in prostitution or suffer from sexual abuse. “The ‘beautiful’ girls cannot leave anymore, they keep them there,” says Henelda Rodríguez, from the Organization for Amazon Indigenous Women Waanalera. “Girls that want to escape disappear.” According to Bram, “indigenous communities that find themselves in the way of prospective mining projects, a sector branded as one of the motors of the national economy, are now an inconvenient obstacle—or worse, cheap labour”
Consulted local indigenous communities say they have never been told about the real implications of the project, and were manipulated with false development promises and wrong information. There are outbreaks of malaria as it is no coincidence that malaria is rampant in illegal mining areas as the disease is known to be related to deforestation. Stagnant pools in the mine pits are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and medicines are scarce.
Photo credit: Bram Ebus, Venezuela 2017: Indigenous youngsters get tested for malaria.
In many cases where the guerilla enters indigenous communities, a minority of the indigenous leadership were given jobs or benefits by the company. Dissident groups of the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC recruit adolescents in indigenous communities along the Orinoco river, separating Colombia from Venezuela. Recently arrived companies apply strategies to divide and conquer the communities and how newly created frictions cause unrest. The few dollars paid to the indigenous communities for opening up the earth and extracting minerals for financial gain contrasts with their ancestral beliefs. “We were recognized as protectors of the jungle. This is not what we are anymore. We are the destroyers of the jungle,” says Juan López, an indigenous person who currently works as a lawyer for the vicariate in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas.
Opening up the country and Amazon forest for gold mining is short term thinking by the Venezuelan government. But isn’t thinking about sustainability a luxury ‘when a monthly minimum wage cannot even buy you an egg a day’ perhaps? Bram unfortunately does not see a direct sustainable alternative. “A diversification away from the extractive economy would be a start. Investments in rural areas and agriculture would at least make sure that the population has something to eat, but even that is still an illusion. Venezuela has enough fertile land and water supplies to make the economy more sustainable, but this will only be possible in the long term”.
Ancient discovery in the heart of Peru
Deep in the Peruvian Amazon of Madre de Dios, where Sarah filmed ‘River of Gold’, illegal gold mining is indeed the source of major environmental and social problems. It is a region inhabited by over 100.000 (indigenous) people. Deforestation and soil contamination affect communities such as that of Jaime Korisepa, indigenous Harakbut leader. While the government has destroyed hundreds of illegal camps and launched investigations to combat people trafficking, the authorities have not been able to stop illegal operations, nor the damage they cause.
Jaime’s community, the village of Mberowe, has been living for over 20 years with mining activities. The Amarakaeri Reserve and the Harakbut territories that surround it are under intense pressure because of the illegal gold mining. Just like in the case of Venezuela, Jaime sees his community being torn apart as youngsters are offered a fast way to make money, self destroying their territory and culture.
In order to repair the connection between his people and their lands, Jaime started cultural mapping of their land, with the goal of documenting their heritage. He sees a solution in sustainable tourism, offering his community members an alternative source of income that lies in harmony with their lands. In 2009, some Harakbut indigenous people discovered what they call the “Rostro Harakbut” - the “Harakbut Face” - located in a spectacular, super-remote part of the south-east Peruvian Amazon. It is a giant natural rockface that for the Harakbut represents a spiritual being for protection and a guardian of their territory. Perhaps the discovery of these ancient monuments could help prevent the exploration of gold mining and petroleum companies encroaching upon their territories. Acording to Jaime “it is a sacred place where one can ask questions, feel safe and that forms a place of our resistance against globalisation. With resistance I mean taking care of and protect our lands and our ways of living. To value our religion, to generate an indigenous economy of plentiful living and to give value to our products that the forest provides us”. Besides the Harakbut face, two similar archeological remains were discovered. The Harakbut people hope that by revealing the Rostro Harakbut to the world, they may be able to better protect their territory.
'The Reunion’ is a stunning story about indigenous Harakbut people exploring their ancient past in the Peruvian Amazon with the search for an enormous carved stone face, or ‘”Rostro Harakbut” in the cliffs of the jungle.
In October 2014 a group of nine Harakbut men amongst whom Jaime, accompanied by UK filmmaker Paul Redman, visited the “Rostro.” The expedition resulted in the film ‘The Reunion’. This giant monument has long been known to the Harakbut people who live in the Amarakaeri Reserve. But they have kept it a secret until now. The the giant face has never been studied by archeologists, but the Harakbut believe the face is not the product of natural forces, but carved by their ancient ancestors. The Culture Ministry must now send someone to do a “comprehensive analysis” of the “Rostro” before further drilling takes place. Xapiri is currently looking, together with Jaime and his community, into the options of opening the territory for sustainable tourism. Manmade or not, the rock faces can be declared cultural patrimony of the Harakbut people, giving them a tool to fight the oil and mining companies.
Every day the Amazon releases approximately 20 billion tons of moisture into the atmosphere seeding the clouds that rain around the world. The Amazon now holds about 81% of the trees. According to Sarah, we are at the tipping point. The good news is that there are things we can do now to reforest and keep trees standing. But people need to know this so they can participate in the solutions. Whether it is awareness raising through filmmaking like Sarah, Bram’s on the ground storytelling, or Jaime picking up indigenous community development and cultural preservation in the face of shifting global influences; only when communities themselves weigh the short-term gains versus long-term losses, can a joint effort with environmentalists truly be effective. We hope you will join us.
WANT TO TAKE ACTION?
Gold is not just in jewelry and watches. Your computer, mobile phone, many of the technological and medical products you purchase and use include gold.
1. Recycle your old electronics. Did you for example know that out of the gold of 200 old cell phones, one brand new golden ring can be made? Find a recycle point near your house.
2. When buying a new device, maybe also have a look at second hand or lease options.
3. Divestment is an example of socially responsible investing. Some institutions such as municipalities, universities, banks, and pension funds invest their money in companies that make money from coal, oil, and gas. Where does your bank put your money? The Fair Finance Guide helps you to check your bank.
4. Host a local screening of ‘River of Gold’ in your hometown. Get in touch with Sarah DuPont for screening options. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
4 Globally, the amount of e-waste is expected to hit 50m tonnes by the end of 2018. This is partly driven by consumers’ eagerness for new products, but there are also concerns about built-in obsolescence. Let’s fix it! An original idea is to organise a Repair Cafe in your neighbourhood, saving you a fortune and benefiting the environment. Repair Cafés are free meeting places and they’re all about repairing things (together). The types of items that can be repaired and reused include clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery and toys.