The world is witnessing a surge in illegal gold mining activities, with significant repercussions for both the environment and socio-economic stability which extends into the realm of politics. This clandestine industry is thriving in sanctioned regions like Venezuela and presents a multifaceted challenge to a longstanding global trade.
It may not be the biggest exporter of gold compared to countries such as South Africa or Sudan but Venezuela finds itself at the epicentre of an illegal gold rush with between 70-90% of illegal gold making up the nation’s output according to the local branch of Transparency International. The exploitation of gold, often controlled by criminal organisations, challenges the state’s authority and exacerbates existing socio-political tensions between South American countries. This is further flamed by prominent past and current South American political figures having turned a blind eye to this type of mining. One example is the current president of Venezuela previously stating that ‘swathes of forest should be turned into the Orinoco Mining Arc’. Across the border the current president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or simply Lulu, is taking a more proactive approach and has enlisted the army to stop this type of mining within the country.
However, in places like Venezuela, illicit mining continues with local communities, enticed by the promise of quick wealth often engaging in unauthorised gold extraction, leading to devastating consequences for the environment. Unlike pickaxes and river panning of the past, potent chemicals including mercury and heavy machinery are used to blast away the land to reach this precious metal. What used to take months now takes only a week to open up a mine. Deforestation, pollution of water sources and the loss of biodiversity are among the environmental tolls exacted by these activities. Couple this with government officers secretly taking gold as payment to ignore what is happening makes this an ongoing crisis. In neighbouring Colombia authorities calculated that armed groups in the country make $2bn – $3bn a year from illegal gold even though the government shuts down hundreds to thousands of illegal mines a year. The demand for gold has escalated through banks increasing their gold stocks since the pandemic to places like India where gold plays an important part in weddings.
Whether in Africa, Sudan or sanctioned regions like Venezuela, illegal gold mining represents a global challenge that demands coordinated efforts from both the countries that experience it and countries that benefit from it. Environmental degradation, social exploitation, and geopolitical repercussions underscore the urgency of addressing this issue. Governments, international organisations, and local communities must collaborate to implement effective regulations, promote sustainable practices, and curtail the influence of criminal networks. Only through collective action can the world hope to mitigate the adverse effects of illegal resource exploitation and pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable future.