The risky world of small-scale mining in Venezuela

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San Cristobal (Venezuela) (AFP) – Henry Alviarez says he started small-scale coal mining in Venezuela’s western state of Tachira out of “necessity” due to the country’s current economic crisis which worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

He leaves home early in the morning on a motorbike for the 45-minute journey to the Los Parra mine in Lobatera, near the border with Colombia.

The Andean city has 50 small-scale mines run by 22 cooperatives, each made up of eight to 10 workers who earn no more than $120 a month.

From Lobatera, the extracted coal is transported via clandestine routes to Colombia or the neighboring state of Mérida to be used mainly to generate electricity.

The lack of oxygen inside the mines and the lack of emergency equipment make working conditions precarious and “exhausting”, says Alviarez.

“There are a lot of blacksmiths and mechanics here but we cannot work in those professions,” he adds, citing the unprecedented economic crisis that has plunged Venezuela into eight years of recession and four years of hyperinflation. .

Shirtless, pickaxe in hand and helmet with a torch on his head, Alviarez quickly covered himself in a mixture of sweat and black streaks.

He tries in vain to wipe away the traces of charcoal with a green cloth.

Her three children have left the country, one each for Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

Lobatera miners work as a team in small-scale cooperatives where they share the benefits of their labor Jhonny PARRAAFP

“Thank God they left,” he said, adding that their only option in Lobatera would have been to join him in the mines.

“Who would want to work here?

Around 500 families depend on the Lobatera mines, which are located in a mountainous area only accessible by dirt roads.

Temperatures in the area can soar, with the mining pit often the only shelter from the sun.

“It’s quite a risky job because we have to use a lot of wood ‘to hold the tunnels’ and pray to God,” said Jose Alberto Trejo, 38, who worked in construction before finding a job in Colombia’s mines in due to the lack of job opportunities.

Fear of being “excluded”

On average, each miner in Los Parra can extract one ton per day, although there are no reliable data on the total production of Lobatera’s 50 mines.

“The price of coal is low and has gone down over the years, which makes it harder to work these days,” said 61-year-old Pablo Jose Vivas.

A miner shows off a piece of coal mined from the Los Parra mine in Lobatera that has a purple glow in its flare
A miner shows off a piece of coal mined from the Los Parra mine in Lobatera that has a purple glow in its flare Jhonny PARRAAFP

The miners report their catches to the mine manager who sells them for $50 a ton.

The profits are shared among the members of the cooperative.

Vivas, who has worked in mining for more than 20 years, picks up a piece of mined rock and holds it between his blackened fingers.

The rock shines in the light of the torches which gives it a purple hue, like a precious stone.

Miners work as a team. One smashes the rocks with a pickaxe, another fills the wheelbarrow and a third carries it out of the mine.

Outside, several small piles of coal await the arrival of a truck.

The governor of Tachira, Freddy Bernal, a loyalist of President Nicolas Maduro, hopes to encourage foreign investment in Lobatera from Venezuela’s allies, Russia, China and India.

The coal mined in Lobatera is loaded onto trucks and transported to Colombia or the neighboring state of Mérida to be sold
The coal mined in Lobatera is loaded onto trucks and transported to Colombia or the neighboring state of Mérida to be sold Jhonny PARRAAFP

“It would generate many jobs and a significant economic impact,” he said, adding that it would ensure that families who have lived off mining for more than 40 years would not be left destitute.

But the miners are far from convinced.

“It would end the groundwork because they would come in with new technologies that we don’t know how to use,” Vivas said.

“Many of us would be left behind.”

About William J. Harris

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