The Illegal Gold in Your Phone Is Slowly Poisoning the Amazon

On its way from mine to market, illegally-extracted gold is trafficked from Venezuela through Guyana and is bypassing U.S sanctions.
September 18, 2020, 3:29pm
A worker melts a gold-mercury amalgam to extract the gold, at a gold mine in El Callao, Bolivar state, southeastern Venezuela on February 25, 2017.

Guyana, Venezuela’s eastern neighbor, is morphing into a hub for gold trafficking via illegal and environmentally destructive mines in Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil.

Illegally-mined gold sourced from Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt is now skipping U.S sanctions by being smuggled across the border into Guyana, from where it makes its way into international supply chains.

In response to U.S sanctions imposed last year by the administration of President Donald Trump, international gold buyers were forced to stop buying gold from the regime of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

Gold sourced from the northeastern Amazon, which is spread across Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Brazil, flows out of mines deep in the jungle to brokers who then sell it into international supply chains from Georgetown in Guyana, where most trading companies are based. From there, it ends up getting used in manufacturing by some of the largest multinational firms in the world, according to an investigation released this week by InfoAmazonia, a research group that monitors the Amazon basin.

Gold sourced from the northeastern Amazon, which is spread across Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Brazil, flows out of mines deep in the jungle to brokers who then sell it into international supply chains from Georgetown in Guyana, where most trading companies are based.

Map by Hunter French for VICE News.

“Licensed gold exporters in Guyana export Venezuelan conflict gold with false paperwork to refineries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East, who knowingly or unknowingly get involved with the toxic metal,” says Bram Ebus, lead researcher for InfoAmazonia on the report.

“When the gold is processed into glittering bars, stamped with the refiners’ logos, it is sold to international corporations that incorporate the precious metal in our phones, computers, cars, and other types of technology and machinery.”

Guyana trading companies sell to metal refiners like Belgian Tony Goetz and Switzerland-based Argor-Heraeus, the investigation found. These refiners are listed as suppliers by companies like Apple, Sony and Tesla, who use gold in their circuit boards as an electricity conductor, says the report -- even Starbucks, the global coffee company, buys from these companies.

Some companies, like Apple, have imposed audits on their supply chains in an attempt to rid refiners who buy conflict metals. In February, Apple removed 18 smelters who refused to comply with a third party audit. But the source of metals and minerals are notoriously difficult to trace because of fraudulent documentation.

In 2019, the Trump administration clamped down on Venezuela’s gold exports, sanctioning the state-owned mining company MINERVEN. “The illegitimate Maduro regime is pillaging the wealth of Venezuela while imperiling indigenous people by encroaching on protected areas and causing deforestation and habitat loss,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin last March.

Unregulated gold mining is an environmental catastrophe. Each year, gold mining releases over 800 tonnes of mercury into the environment worldwide. For each kilogram of gold produced, about three kilograms of mercury is used in the process. At these illegal mines, most of the mercury gets washed into South America’s river tributaries, which then run into the Amazon basin. Mercury, a toxic heavy metal used in thermometers, adversely impacts marine wildlife ecosystems.

The mines buried deep in the Venezuelan jungle are often controlled by organized crime gangs such as the Colombian rebel group the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and corrupt Venezuelan military commanders. According to Ebus, the profits from these mines fuel a range of human rights abuses.

Frequent massacres occur in the mining regions, perpetrated by state and non-state armed groups,” says Ebus. “The south of Venezuela is rife with human rights abuses such as disappearances, killings, torture, human trafficking, and forced labor - all related to mining activities.”

Officials in Guyana recognize that Venezuelan gold might be trafficked through licensed brokers, but claim that it is difficult to trace the precious metal.

The United States’ measures intended to cut off Venezuela’s leadership from enrichment through the country’s illegal gold trade. But the Guyana traders who shuffle bars off to international buyers who used to buy from Maduro shows just how easy it is to maneuver around them.

Cover: A worker melts a gold-mercury amalgam to extract the gold, at a gold mine in El Callao, Bolivar state, southeastern Venezuela on February 25, 2017. Credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images