A Piaroa Indian, naked except for a loincloth and facial tatoos, pedals his bicycle through the midday heat, passing the air-conditioned bungalows that are home to two score mining camp workers.
A few miles away, up on a black-rock plateau covered by jungle growth where jaguar, deer, parrots and monkeys abound, lies one of the world's largest deposits of bauxite, the raw material used to smelt aluminum.
When developed by Bauxiven, the Venezuelan state bauxite company, the deposits -- now covered by a dense jungle forest -- should consolidate the country's position as a top aluminum producer. Then, Venezuela could challenge the six international companies -- Alcoa, Kaiser, Alcan, Pechiney, Alusuisse and Reynolds -- that now control the world markets.
The bauxite mine will also transform this remote, almost unpopulated and beautiful part of southwestern Venezuela, near the Colombian border.
Only about 500 people, many of them Indians who scratch out a living fishing and farming yams and other vegetables, now live in the plains broken by 600-meter rock plateaus of the mine area.
But that will change. Bauxiven plans to build a town to accommodate about 3,000 people -- company personnel and their dependents. That development will be the core of a community whose population should climb to 10,000.
"The deposits lie right under the surface," said Javier Perez, the manager of the camp, a baby pet cunajuaro wildcat lolling on his desk. "All you have to do is remove the trees."
Under the trees, lies some 200 million metric tons of bauxite, enough to keep Venezuela's aluminum industry going for the next 60 years. And, according to Bauxiven President Hector Soucy, that's just the tip of a veritable bauxite iceberg. Close by, he said, there is enough bauxite to ensure Venezuela's aluminum production for the next 400 years.
If everything goes according to plan, Los Pijiguaos should be providing about one million tons of bauxite a year by the end of 1986. Full production capacity of three million per year should be reached by the end of 1987.
Getting the bauxite to Ciudad Guayana, the center of Venezuela's aluminum industry, will be an expensive and difficult undertaking. To do it, Bauxiven plans to build a 7 kilometer production belt, leading to a 52 kilometer railroad line that in turn connects to a yet-to-be-built port.
At the port, now just a bend in the Orinoco River, the bauxite will be loaded on a fleet of barges for the 650 kilometer ride on the tricky and not well-charted Orinoco River to Ciudad Guayana.
Weather and climate will be a factor to contend with. Oscar Izurieta, the naval architect in charge of working out transport problems expects to be able to float his barges fulltime for only eight out of 12 months. Lack of rain will stop the barges totally for two months and partially for another two months.
Strapped for cash because of an oil market slump and burdened with paying for an approximately $35 billion foreign debt, Venezuela has been forced to delay or table many of its ambitious development projects.
Even before the oil crisis, Los Pijiguos languished in a bureaucratic limbo. Even though the bauxite deposits were discovered in the mid-1970s, the project got nowhere until 1983 when the government assigned it priority status.
But now its full speed ahead. The government plans to invest $400 million in the project over the next two years. Of that sum, it hopes to raise $240 million from multinational lending agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank as well as from private banks.
The benefits of the project are obvious to Soucy and other Bauxiven officials. On the short term, when the mine goes into production two years hence, cash-strapped Venezuela will be able to save the $140 million a year in scarce foreign exchange it now spends to import bauxite from Guyana, Sierra Leone and Brazil.
But the long term is what excites Soucy. He sees the development of Los Pijiguaos as the final -- and necessary -- step in the vertical intergration of the country's aluminum industry, after oil, the country's second most important foreign exchange earner.
"The aluminum market is controlled by six companies," says Soucy in his Caracas office, which is decorated with color prints of the Piaroa, Curipaco and Guahibo Indians who live close to the mine site. "All these companies are vertically integrated -- from producing bauxite to creating finished aluminum products. It's fundamental for us to have the same vertical integration as they."
With an installed capacity of 400,000 tons per year, Venezuela is the world's eighth- largest aluminum producer and its third largest exporter, after Norway and Canada. Bauxite from Los Pijiguaos ensures the country will remain a power to reckon with in the future, according to Soucy.
Already he sees a trend. Primary aluminum production is being concentrated in countries that have both bauxite -- and most important -- plentiful supplies of cheap energy, which accounts for 35 percent of aluminum's production costs.
In this respect, Venezuela's energy from the world's third largest dam helps win it a place in Soucy's short list of future aluminum producers. On that list there are only four entries -- Venezuela, Australia, Canada and Brazil.
Venezuela also has other good reasons for investing heavily in Los Pijiguaos. The government hopes the mining project will act as a focus for the development of the whole region and will strengthen its presence in a border area, which is thought to be rich in other minerals such as vanadium and uranium.
Until recently, Venezuela was caught in an oil habit and paid only lip service to the need to diversify its economy. But the oil glut and the subsequent fall in oil prices slowed the flow of petro-dollars, forcing the country to take a closer inventory of its resources.
"We've always looked at oil -- the easy way," said camp manager Perez. "Now hard times are making us look at other places."