AP PHOTOS: A proliferation of gold mines in Venezuela offers hard, dangerous work
EL CALLAO, Venezuela — Venezuela is known to have the world’s largest oil reserves, but its soil has another valuable resource: gold.
The government established in 2016 a large mining development zone stretching across central Venezuela to diversify its income. Seven years later, there is a proliferation of mines digging for gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals.
The Mining Arc of the Orinoco is marred by violence and shrouded in secrecy as many mines operate outside or on the fringes of the law. They offer lucrative jobs to ordinary Venezuelans, but conditions are brutal.
At an underground mine in Bolivar state, operators use dynamite to release rocks some 260 feet (80 meters) below the surface, where workers descend daily to toil in oppressive heat no safety equipment.
The miners usually start the day by tying themselves to a thick steel wire, holding on as best they can as they fall about 200 feet (60 meters) down a shaft, going into a world where headlights provide the only light. They wear shorts and flip-flops or rubber boots and must bend at the waist to walk 60 feet (20 meters) down a half-ramp. There, they collect rocks and throw them in bags to be transported through pulleys above ground to a grinding mill.
One of the miners, Alfredo Arriojas, says he doesn’t like mining, but has been doing the job for more than two years hoping to own a home, with money left over to “invest in something good that will give me an income.”
According to the law, about half of the gold produced must go into state coffers, but authorities as well as critics of the government report growing illegal mining. Rights advocates say labor laws are being flouted and human rights violations are rampant. Violence between rival gangs is forcing many miners to rethink their trade.
Another nearby mine in Bolivar captures gold through open-pit workings on the surface, where workers spend hours near ponds that breed mosquitoes that spread diseases such as malaria.
Open-pit miner José Rivas says he’s had enough: “I just want to buy my house and work on something else.”