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  • Estimates suggest Venezuela could have 7000 tons of reserves

    Estimates suggest Venezuela could have 7000 tons of reserves | Photo: teleSUR

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The country has the largest reserves of the precious metal in Latin America.

In the eastern Venezuelan state of Bolivar, the illegal dollar is known to everyone according to a buyer from one of almost 500 gold houses in the town of El Callao.

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The shops sit side by side and open late.

At their doors, the miners stand with wooden bowls in their hands, Chinese style hats on their heads, and muddy clothes.

They sell what they mined during the day, an average of between half a gram and two grams of the precious metal.

They are paid 215 thousand bolivares per gram of raw gold, almost a minimum wage.

The price in the local market varies according to how the Venezuelan Bolivar is valued on the illegal market - the speculation rate changes daily.

The miner is paid for unprocessed gold which is then cleaned and increases in price.

The total number of miners in Bolivar state is uncertain.

But it's estimated that around 250 thousand people's livelihoods depend on the industry.

The number has risen dramtically over the last four years in line with the economic war because many people can earn big money in mining areas.

But costs can also be high.

Since 2008 gold has been the exclusive property of the state.

Before then, the industry was mainly in the hands of foreign companies and individual miners.

State ownership means that no one else is legally allowed to extract or sell the metal.

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But where does this leave the thousands of people who depend on the illegal exchange of gold for their incomes?  

It can sometimes have fatal outcomes.

In March 2016, 17 miners were killed in Tumeremo during a confrontation to control a mine - an incident which the right tried to use politically.

In response, the authorities made moves to regularize some mining areas.

Several measures have now been imposed to prevent artisanal gold from falling into to private buyers' hands and miners have welcomed the changes.

But to compound the problems in El Callao, there is an epidemic of malaria.

The communal council of Nacupay has reported more than a thousand cases in a population of around eight thousand people.

There's no medicine but around 200 people turn up at the hospital everday.

It seems like a setback in time: epidemic, gold pursuit, poverty.

At a makeshift home on the river, a young man is lying in a hammock. He has malaria but is not receiving any treatment.

"If you can't get healed, it will kill you," a spokeswoman for the communal council told him.

"I know," he replied.

Answers are sought to combat the health crisis.

Venezuela lacks medicine due to sabotage by the big pharmaceutical companies and state bureaucracies.

The picture is aggravated by lack of fumigation.

In El Callao, there are rivers and ponds near every mill where the gold-rich soil is processed - and there are hundreds of mills.

There is no official figure for the amount of gold reserves in the country, but estimates suggest it could have 7000 tons.

The challenges facing the industry are varied and complex.

There is a need to regulate one of the highest value resources Venezuela has, to strengthen the reserves and foreign exchange.

The nation needs them in times of economic uncertainty caused by conflict with the complicity of internal bureaucracies.

At issue is the challenge to mine without contamination, without detriment to the country's future and without the involvement of the large transnational companies.

The metal's profits must go to the state, to national production, and to those who toil day after day to find the glister of gold.

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