Flying over a dense jungle in southern Venezuela, the sea of trees below is suddenly replaced by large patches of bare soil, tree stumps and the turquoise waters of ponds from abandoned gold mines. An airstrip 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) long marks the entrance to one of Venezuela’s more than 3,700 gold mines. Only half of the runway is used for landing and taking off, as the rest of the dirt track is in poor condition. Dozens of Indigenous people wait impatiently for the small aircraft to land. They rush toward the plane to receive bags of food, medicine and other basic supplies. Without such planes, mostly intended for transporting mining equipment and gold, these remote Indigenous communities would have a hard time surviving.
By Mongabay – Mie Hoejris Dahl
May 24, 2023
This airstrip, located a 40-minute flight away from Santa Elena de Uairén airport right by the Icabarú River in Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region, is one of at least 42 airstrips that bring both life and destruction to Venezuela’s Indigenous lands. It was created in 2006, but even before that, there was another airstrip nearby, feeding the mining activities in this area. Where there is gold, there is usually an airstrip. Such runways are essential to understanding how gold mining is expanding even in Venezuela’s most remote pristine forests.
These gold mines are so remote that without planes and hidden runways, it would be hard, if not impossible, to keep mining going. The landing strips, often carved out of the rainforest with little regard for the environmental impact, serve as logistical hubs for transporting gold, workers and essential supplies. They facilitate the expansion of mining operations, allowing miners to evade government controls and export their gold, often to neighboring countries. As a result, these hidden airstrips are a crucial lifeline for the illegal gold mining industry in some of the most far-reaching parts of Venezuela.
Clandestine runways support gold mining
A 2022 report by the Venezuelan investigative journalism group Armando.info and the Spanish newspaper El País, supported by the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Investigations Network and the Norwegian digital agency Earthrise Media, called Corredor Furtivo, used satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to identify more than 3,700 mining sites and 42 airstrips in the Venezuelan states of Bolívar and Amazonas. They found that at the time of the research, new runways had been developed between 2015 and 2020, and that Brazilian garimpeiros (gold miners) had returned to the south of the Venezuelan Amazon. “We found clandestine tracks next to the illegal mines, meaning there’s a relationship,” Joseph Poliszuk, one of the investigative journalists behind the Corredor Furtivo project, told Mongabay. “These flights and airstrips are part of the trafficking network. They are sophisticated networks,” he added.
Corredor Furtivo found that an area about the size of 40,000 soccer fields has been deforested in Southern Venezuela. Deforestation in Venezuela’s Amazonian states of Bolívar and Amazonas has soared particularly due to illegal mining, agriculture and fires. Mongabay has reported how most of the mining-related deforestation in the country can be traced back to gold and coal extraction, as these operations have much bigger impacts than previously thought.
The Corredor Furtivo team is not the only one that has used satellite imagery, crowdsourced databases and geospatial analysis to detect hidden runways in the Amazon Basin. In a project by the New York Times, The Intercept Brasil and the Rainforest Investigations Network, reporters identified more than 1,200 unregistered airstrips throughout the Brazilian Amazon. Both studies highlighted the substantial deforestation linked to these airstrips.
In Venezuela, the network of airstrips may be much larger than what can be observed on existing maps. SOS Orinoco, an investigative group focused on the human and environmental effects of gold mining in Venezuela, has created a Geoportal that documents 117 runways in Venezuela. “We have many informants in the territory who give us data about where they see mines and runways,” Cristina Burelli, founder of SOS Orinoco, told Mongabay. “Like this, we’ve been able to detect a lot more mines and airstrips,” she said.
Airstrips provide a lifeline to Indigenous communities
These runways do not only boost environmental devastation, they also ensure the livelihoods of Indigenous communities, which rely on the pilots serving the mines for basic supplies and for flying out suffering patients. On a sunny day in July 2022, a Brazilian woman who lives next to one of the gold mines limbs her way into an airplane; she needs to get to a hospital in the closest city, Santa Elena de Uairén, after she fell in the muddy terrain outside her house and hurt her foot. Such cases are part of an unwritten agreement between the pilots serving the mines and the Indigenous leaders. “We bring them basic supplies and help whenever there’s a patient in need; and in return, they let us access the mines,” said a local pilot, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals from government officials or community members who do not want to expose their mining activities.
Such deals are necessary. Health problems such as malaria, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes and diarrhea permeate these mining areas, said Maria Gabriela Castillo Aguin, a 27-year-old medical doctor. Like many young Venezuelan doctors, she was sent to a mining community to complete a one-year work rotation. The small clinic that she worked and lived in had limited equipment so Castillo Aguin needed to handle everything by herself.
In another part of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region, Mary Rossy Tomedez Morales, a Venezuelan nurse, described sometimes having to manage patients without doctor guidance. “Mining has a very negative impact on the health situation here. Because of the contamination of our water, health problems like intestinal obstruction, diarrhea and dermatological diseases are on the rise,” she said. Miners who migrated to the mines in a quest for gold have brought diseases to Indigenous communities, and the large ponds left by mining operations serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying malaria, dengue and Zika. But she said the airstrips also helped these communities: “Thanks to these flights, we have achieved free transfer agreements for patients and teachers who need to go the city,” Morales explained. “Many Indigenous people no longer sustain themselves through cultivating and hunting, instead, we’ve become dependent on commercial activities. Our lifestyle has changed,” says Engracia Fernández, an Indigenous leader in San Antonio del Morichal, a Pemón community in Southern Venezuela, right by the Brazilian border.
Some do not make it out of the mines alive. Occasionally, the high-pressure water jets used in hydraulic mining cause piles of soil to collapse and bury the workers alive. This happens in underwater gold mining, too, where ravines or trees fall on top of miners as they dive for gold. “It’s a disaster. We have had to remove corpses from here, taking them to the runway and putting them on a plane,” said a local merchant, known as El Burro (the Donkey).
The pilots also risk their lives. They take off and land their overloaded planes, fueled by car gasoline, on short makeshift dirt airstrips. The more weight the pilots carry, the more they earn — and the riskier the flights are. “Do you think I wanna die?” the local pilot asked me. He and other pilots got used to the risks of flying in and out of the mines. “The commercial pilots tend to think we’re crazy,” he told Mongabay.
“It can be really dangerous,” Oscar Lameda, another local pilot who understood the risks of flying in these areas, said while sitting on a short concrete wall in Santa Elena de Uairén airport. On Aug. 16, 2019, on a flight unrelated to the mines, he miraculously survived a plane crash that killed his boss and left him with an open wound, an ankle fracture and bruises all over his body, and he spent an entire night in the middle of the jungle until other pilots saved him. “I keep flying because that’s what I know how to do. That’s my job and my life,” he said.
Flights adapt to local context
“These Indigenous leaders feel like they can dictate everything,” said the local pilot, rolling his eyes while receiving a message from a colleague saying they needed to send a flight out to help the Indigenous communities. “This is expensive for me. But we need to do it because otherwise, they [the Indigenous leaders] will stop giving us permissions to fly,” the pilot explained.
He and the other pilots, who are almost exclusively Creole, complain that Indigenous leaders are disorganized and hard to work with. Such clashes between the Indigenous and Creole cultures are common. Unlike other mining areas in Venezuela, where the Venezuelan government controls which flights are allowed in and out of the mines, here in Santa Elena de Uairén, the Indigenous leaders, known as caciques, are in charge. “It is the Venezuelan state that passively or actively has handed over sovereignty,” Poliszuk said. He explained that the Venezuelan state owns the country’s mineral resources, but in some cases, it has let other groups take control — not only Indigenous people like around the mines close to Santa Elena de Uairén but also criminal groups known as sindicatos or Colombian guerrilla groups.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens in Santa Elena de Uairén had to close their shops and struggled to access basic goods, supplies still reached the gold mines. In 2018, when Venezuela faced a severe oil shortage, there was not enough fuel for the planes to keep up with mining operations. “That’s when we started using car gasoline to fly,” the anonymous pilot said. He explained that while the engines in the aircraft are not built for this, the pilots gradually found out they could use this lower-quality fuel. “I stopped flying for a while, but after six months, I had seen that the planes didn’t fall down, so I started flying again too,” he said. Economic pressure makes it increasingly dangerous for pilots to fly, as they relax safety standards and load more and more cargo onto their flights.
Most flights come from nearby Venezuelan cities. But others come from neighboring Brazil, with mercury supplies and mining equipment. But after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s recent crackdown on Brazilian mines, their Venezuelan counterparts are finding new ways to keep operations going, taking over some of the work and routes from Brazilian pilots. “Mining here will not stop,” the local pilot said.
For the community, these runways and flights remain the main gateway to the outside world, although a rarely attainable one. A flight from Santa Elena de Uairén airport to the mines at the Icabarú River usually costs 23 grams (0.8 ounces) of gold, equivalent to about $1,500. The alternative is a tough journey on the river over several days. “You feel like a prisoner here,” said a Creole primary school teacher who worked in one of the mining villages in Gran Sabana. “The only way to get out is by plane.”
Read More: Mongabay – Venezuela’s hidden runways bring both life and destruction to Indigenous lands