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A proliferation of gold mines in Venezuela offers gruelling, dangerous work

EL CALLAO, VENEZUELA (AP) – Venezuela is known to have the world’s largest oil reserves, but its soil holds another valuable resource: gold.

The government in 2016 established a huge mining development zone stretching across the middle of Venezuela to diversify its revenue. Seven years later, there is a proliferation of mines burrowing for gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals.

The Mining Arc of the Orinoco is plagued with violence and shrouded in secrecy because many mines operate outside or on the margins of the law. They offer lucrative jobs for ordinary Venezuelans, but conditions are brutal.

At an underground mine in Bolivar state, operators use dynamite to loosen rocks some 80 metres below the surface, where workers descend daily to toil in oppressive heat with no safety gear.

The miners typically begin their day strapping themselves to a thick steel wire, holding on as best then can while dropping about 60 metres down a shaft, entering a world where headlamps provide the only light.

ABOVE & BELOW: A worker removes iron plates from an unused area of an underground gold mine in El Callao, Bolivar state, Venezuela; a gold miner lowers into a mine, down a 60-metre shaft; and a worker digs for gold at an open-pit mine. PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Workers crush rock at a gold mill; a seller uses a torn Bolivar bill to hold a golden nugget for a buyer; and the gold miners’ family members play in a pond next to a mine. PHOTO: AP

They wear shorts and flip-flops or rubber boots and must bend at the waist to walk 20 metres down a quasi-ramp. There, they collect rocks and throw them into sacks to be carted via pulleys above ground to a grinding mill.

One of the miners Alfredo Arriojas said he doesn’t like mining, but has been doing the job for more than two years in hopes of owning a home, with money left to “invest it in something good that gives me income”.

By law, about half of the extracted gold must enter state coffers, but authorities as well as critics of the government report growing illegal mining. Rights advocates said labour laws are flouted and that human rights violations abound. Violence between rival gangs prompts many miners to reconsider their trade.

Another nearby mine in Bolivar captures gold through open-pit operations on the surface, where workers spend hours near ponds that breed mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria.

Open-pit miner José Rivas said he’s had enough: “I just want to buy my house and work on something else.”