Capitalism is Saving the Planet Part 3: Would You Rather Mine in Venezuela? I Didn’t Think So

We are often told that capitalism is destroying the planet, and that the only way we can repent from causing environmental degradation is to switch from a capitalist system to a socialist system. This thought process, however, could not be more wrong.

While anti-mining activists say they don’t want mining in Minnesota, what they are really saying, if they are not willing to forego the items made with these metals and minerals, is that they want mining, they just don’t want it here.

But if not here, where? I often write about the state of the cobalt industry, where 40,000 children have been employed in underground mines and washing ore in rivers, but today I’d like to talk about what happens when that mining occurs in Venezuela.

Last year, the platform Mongabay released a series of articles written by Bram Ebus on the the situation on the ground in the Arco Minero, which covers 112,000 square kilometers (43,243 square miles), a depository of gold, diamonds and other minerals south of the Orinoco River and in the Venezuelan Amazon:

“Ebus reports on the extreme poverty in Bolívar state, a part of Amazonia fabulously wealthy in natural resources and biodiversity. He writes of corrupt military commanders setting up their own illicit mining fiefdoms; of armed gangs of illegal miners run amuck; of poor, sick mineworkers barely able to feed their families; of indigenous people forced by soaring inflation to abandon their ancestral communities to go down into the mines.

Miners work all day underground or in rivers up to their necks, then spend nights huddled on muddy slopes amid a deforested landscape, sleeping under nothing more than a plastic sheet. Living hand-to-mouth, it’s no wonder people inside the Mining Arc give little thought to environmental and wildlife protection. In his reporting, Bram Ebus draws a vivid picture of what day-to-day life looks like in the rural countryside of a failing state.

In his first story, Ebus tells how militarization and mining have become an incendiary mix in the Venezuelan Amazon, as the army and National Guard compete with each other, and with armed gangs, for the best mineral claims.

You can’t drive 30 minutes without encountering a roadblock and potential harm, says a local man: “[D]o not freak out!” he commands. “You will see a lot of arms here!”

Also at risk is the Arco Minero’s remarkable biodiversity. The region includes Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), with forests and plateaus home to jaguars and giant otters. The region slated for mining also encompasses Imataca Forest Reserve; the La Paragua and El Caura reserves; Cerro Guanay Natural Monument; and Caroní River watershed.

Unfortunately for the world, Venezuela’s Arco Minero isn’t a one off. Similar scenarios are playing out to a lesser or greater degree in struggling and failing nations like Honduras, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, and across South America, Africa and Asia – with intense civil unrest met by repression and violence; extreme exploitation by extraction industries and agribusiness aided by corrupt government; escalating ecosystem and climate disasters; and ongoing suffering by indigenous, traditional and impoverished peoples.”

This is in stark contrast to the United States, where no mine permitted with modern mining practices since 1990 has ended up on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, which is a precursor to becoming a Superfund Site. The one mine in the 1990-200 category was deemed to be non-representative of mines with modern mining practices by environmental protection agencies.

It’s not necessarily that other countries don’t have laws to protect the environment on the books, it’s that they are no adhered to as often when the residents of a country are struggling to make ends meet. As countries become wealthier, they are less willing to sacrifice environmental quality for economic gain. This forces industries like mining to clean up their practices, as we’ve seen in the United States.

The picture below is of the Eagle Mine, an active nickel-copper mine in Upper Michigan. The project has a good environmental track record and demonstrates that we can have a healthy environment and a strong economy. The conditions for workers and the environment are far better in Michigan than they are in Venezuela.