The Orinoco River territory includes the Orinoco Oil Belt, which is a globally important oil extraction territory, broken up into sectors with drilling rights, which belong to various countries, such as China, Russia, and Canada.
Venezuela holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. A history of and dependence on extractivism plays an important role in the formation of cultural values, mentality and political and economic principles.
Venezuela has predominantly been a mono economy dependent on oil for the past 100 years and the precarious nature of oil and gas markets globally have brought the country to its knees economically, politically and socially.
The Orinoco Oil Belt overlaps with the Orinoco Mining Arc, a special economic zone for mining precious metals, minerals and rare earths, as well as indigenous territories and acres of protected forest areas. The delta of the Orinoco is rich in natural gas. The Delta Platform project, for the extraction of oil and gas on a large scale is spread over the clusters of green islands intersected by river streams, which is a unique ecosystem/ biome hosting high biodiversity.
Recently, with oversupply in the market for the heavy crude that Venezuela produces, oil storage in floating off-shore facilities has increased. These are ill-maintained and vulnerable, leading to repeated leaks into the Caribbean Sea, damaging marine ecosystems for 50+ years. In 2016 there were 69 active extraction sites in the Orinoco Delta, now only two remain functional. Programmes of rehabilitation are not being implanted, so every disused rig leaves a pollution footprint that affects the soil and waterways.
Venezuela occupies a strategic position in the global drug trade due to its position between with the world's largest cocaine exporter, Colombia, and Caribbean coast, which is permeated with smugglers' routes. Current political conditions allow for a number of quasi-official negotiations between transnational and national armed forces who operate in and control this area. The farming case study offers another example of a loss of applied sovereignty in the vicinity of the Orinoco, following the oil & gas sectors and Mining Arc.
It is possible to map the drug transportation and human trafficking routes on the Orinoco with geo-localisation and detail, based on news articles and social media reports, and the relationships between military and paramilitary forces and the territories they control based on aerial photography analysis of settlements and their organisational structures.
The border between Colombia and Venezuela follows the contour of the Orinoco river, but the frontier dissolves deep in the forest, it is not enforced at tributaries of San Fernando de Atapabo, the Toma River and the Meta River, which become entry points for cocaine and guerrilla activities, onto Venezuelan territory. The Amazon is noticeably militarised throughout South America, not only on the Orinoco. This is a highly contested, politicised and relatively densely populated zone, not an empty 'forgotten eden' as it is often portrayed in the northern hemisphere.
The fast flowing Orinoco, with its abundant tree cover, is perfect natural infrastructure and efficient human transportation network for drug producers to take advantage of international drug-trade routes into Trinidad and Tobago and beyond, to Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.
All gold mining in this region is catastrophically destructive to the natural environment. All gold in the Orinoco belt is mined illegally. It is the most polluting, irreversible and violent form of deforestation in the amazon. After removing trees from the area, the fertile layer of the soil is power-washed away using mercury and cyanide. This fertile layer cannot be reinstated and no plants are able to grow thereafter. Mercury does not break down and works as a cumulative poison which collects in the bodies of animals and human, who experience high infant mortality and birth defects among many other effects.
UNESCO's world heritage Canaima National Park is a landscape of planetary importance and value and lies up river from the Orinoco, Yapacana National park which is home to the Yanomami tribe which retains one of the most distinguished cultures in the world, also lies up river. These territories are in grave danger from ongoing illegal mining and the environmental depletion which it brings.
Orinoco gold is extracted by economic migrants or local communities who are predominantly forced into this work by the humanitarian crisis being experienced in Venezuela and the lack of economic opportunities in cities and towns. The illegal extraction of gold is a sign of desperation and lack of economic opportunities.
Venezuela has 26 Indigenous tribes which make up 3% of the country's population. Lack of regulation in extraction of gold and coltan leads to violence, modern-day slavery, child labor and prostitution which impact indigenous peoples through the destruction of their traditional social and economics structures. Some tribes have chosen voluntary isolation as a protection mechanism, also in response to the latest pandemic, which forces them to regularly relocate when they are besieged by miners and criminal groups. Tribes such as the Hoti tribe, parts of the Yanomami and Piaroa tribes are cut off from the outside world and are facing existential threats due to limited access to medical resources, malnutrition and disease.
It is important to highlight and focus on the form of trade the Indigenous People used to be dependent on, since the existence of a new currency is forcing the people of the orinoco to try and find a middle line to coexist without having to sacrifice their land and their culture.
A national ban of mercury is active in Venezuela in which smuggling businesses started to occur from the bordering countries and later on distributed through the rainforest's rich and complex river system.
Large amounts of mercury are washed into waterways as the result of illegal gold mining, which supply drinking water and feed ecosystems. The pollution has a cumulative effect in the ecosystem, leading to still-births and birth defects in humans and damage to the ecosystem which has not been properly measures or assessed.
The Orinoco river begins at the Sierra Parima Mountain and drains more than 2,000 rivers along the way to the Orinoco Delta, it includes a cluster of ecosystems and encompasses more than 300 tributary channels and independent streams. The watershed of the Orinoco extends over 1.1 million km2 to the north and west of the main stem and it has great ecological, cultural, and economic complexity driven by the combination of constant physical change.
The Orinoco River is the third largest in the world by water volume, it is the source of hydroelectricity which powers 70% of the country. Its hydrological characteristics are also essential for the structure and function of many ecosystems that provide habitat to a great diversity of life. This region is among the highest priorities for conservation on our planet. Practical protection of these ecosystems is currently enforced by indigenous communities, and is important to understand their methods of living on this earth without destroying it, knowledge which is in danger of disappearing due to the ongoing environmental crisis.