Army tackles wildcat gold mines in Venezuela jungle

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s President Hugo  Chavez yesterday ordered troops to crack down on wildcat miners  who use mercury, chain-saws and high-pressure hoses to strip  gold from beneath the South American nation’s jungles.

Venezuela’s southern forests contain some of Latin  America’s largest deposits of gold. Industrial mining is scarce  in the region, but hundreds of local miners have devastated  tracts of forest in the past few decades.

“This is a crime that we cannot keep on permitting. Look at  how the jungle ends up,” Chavez said, pointing at a photograph  of a treeless expanse of red earth.

He deployed soldiers in the southern state of Bolivar to  tackle the miners, who live in chaotic camps and villages known  for prostitution and drunken machete fights.

Chavez said he was prepared to use more troops if  necessary.

“This has to end, without killing anybody, without  torturing anybody, just applying the law,” he said on his  weekly TV show. “We cannot allow capitalist mafias, both  national and international, to keep destroying our homeland.” Previous attempts by the Chavez government to stop the  mining led to violent protests by the miners and were  ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the practice.

Venezuela has been slow to develop its precious metals and  gemstone deposits, with only one private foreign company,  Russian-Canadian Rusoro currently extracting gold. A state-run  firm also owns mines.

The socialist Chavez has repeatedly said he plans to  strengthen the state’s participation to develop the sector in  partnership with allies such as Russia and Iran. Mining could  help diversify Venezuela’s export income away from its main  product, oil.

“We are going to exploit gold, we would have to nationalize  all of this, take back and finish with the concessions,” Chavez  said.

Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office said it  was investigating whether the deaths of a group of Yanomami  Indians were caused by mercury run-off from illegal mining  camps.

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