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NASA Highlights Beauty of Venezuelan National Park, Fails to Mention Mining Devastation

NASA destaca belleza de parque nacional de Venezuela, pero no menciona devastación minera

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“Canaima National Park has inspired many books and movies. After he created the Sherlock Holmes character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World, describing an adventurous ascent of a plateau in the Amazon Basin similar to those found in Canaima. In the movie Up, the main character travels by balloon to fulfill a longtime dream to live in a park that bears a striking resemblance to Canaima. Although fictional, both stories captured the authentic allure of this region.”

The description is perfect. The three million hectares that make up Canaima National Park are probably home to some of the most impressive natural beauties in the world. The tepuis, such as Auyantepui (from which descends the longest waterfall in the world, the Angel Falls or Kerepakupai vená), Roraima, Kukenan, Akopán, among others; the indigenous tribes of the Gran Sabana, the natural spas, its unique flora and fauna. This park has also been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.

Almost everything in Canaima is truly magical. Unfortunately, we must emphasize the “almost”. Today, beyond its wonders, Canaima faces a problem that should put the world on alert: the criminal mining devastation that threatens to destroy its biodiversity and endangers all the biota that inhabit it, including the indigenous communities.

Image of Angel Falls or Kerepacupai Vená. (Courtesy of Fritz Sanchez, Venezuelan journalist)

NASA does a good job describing the majesty of Canaima: “Decorated with flat-topped mountains, steep cliffs, and dramatic waterfalls, Canaima National Park is one of the most notable landscapes in Venezuela. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured the image above of the park on February 25, 2019. Canaima spans more than 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), making it one of the largest parks in Venezuela.”

However, satellite images show not only the park’s enormous size, but also several areas covered by bright yellow colors that increasingly cover the park’s jungle. This yellow is the result of anthropogenic impacts —or human-caused devastation— that has altered the park’s geography.

There are organizations that for several years now (especially since 2016, when the Orinoco Mining Arc project began) have denounced the illegal activities —such as gold mining— taking place in this National Park and much of Bolivar state. SOSOrinoco.org is one of them.

The Orinoco Mining Arc was born as a “national strategic development project” created by Venezuela’s dictatorship in 2016. Initially it comprised an area of exploitation equivalent to 12 % of the national territory (mainly in the state of Bolivar), but in practice, the informal and illegal activity extended to various regions south of the Orinoco, including the regions of Amazonas and Delta Amacuro.

This is the most mineral-rich area in all of Venezuela, which is why the Maduro regime exploits gold, copper, diamonds, iron, thorium and coltan: all resources used to finance illicit activities from which irregular and criminal groups benefit.

Heliamphora, Tepuyan Flora on the Auyantepui plateau. Heliamphora is one of the most exotic species of flora in the so-called “Islands of Time”. This species is only seen on the tepuis, because of the altitude and solar radiation. (Courtesy of Fritz Sanchez, Venezuelan journalist)

Last June, UNESCO finally reacted and asked the Venezuelan regime for authorization to evaluate the environmental impact of mining within Canaima National Park. SOSOrinoco confirmed the resolution.

In February 2021, The Washington Post gave a platform to SOSOrinoco to denounce the ecological crimes perpetrated in Venezuela, especially in Bolivar State and Canaima. The article reads:

“According to Mongabay and Global Forest Watch, illegal mining, logging and collection of firewood for cooking accounted for over 3.2 million lost acres of rainforest between 2001 and 2018, one of the highest deforestation rates in tropical America. RAISG’s 2018 report and SOSOrinoco’s mining footprint map place Venezuela at the top of the list of Amazonian countries with the highest number of illegal mines. Hundreds of mining sectors have been detected, including 59 illegal gold mining clusters in Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and other protected areas, which are home to 27 Indigenous communities.”

Artificial ponds contaminated by mercury in Yapacana National Park in the Venezuelan Amazon. (Courtesy of Fritz Sanchez, Venezuelan journalist)

Not only are these data frightening, but there is a tragic reality for the populations living in these areas.

Indigenous communities are especially affected by illegal mining that attracts organized crime. Almost all tribes, except for some that remain stoically resilient, end up being part of the deforestation and become a cog in the mining system through forced labor and various forms of modern slavery.

Mining also generates a hostile climate of violence where young people and women are particularly affected, as prostitution, white slavery and drug trafficking are common problems in these places.

Violence and disease plague the mining areas. Roughly 50 percent of reported malaria cases in Latin America are in Venezuela. Of 398,000 reported new cases in 2019, 70 percent were in southern Venezuela. Mining sites are exploited by state and nonstate groups, including the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), promoting violence, slave and child labor, prostitution and disintegration of Indigenous social structures,” explain Cristina Burelli and Francisco Dallmeier in The Washington Post.

The devastation in Canaima National Park is openly ignored

What is happening south of the Orinoco is an ecocide, where the contamination of the main rivers of the region by the discharge of mercury affects the aquatic fauna that is consumed by the local populations, whose health is deteriorating with neuronal problems, miscarriages and respiratory complications.

It is a progressive and silent ethnocide that has been widely denounced by environmental organizations, journalists and critics of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. However, the international community has done little to make this problem visible.

El American contacted SOS.Orinoco.org for comment on the environmental problems in Canaima National Park and their consequences, the recent reactions of UNESCO, the NASA report and the responsibility of the Maduro regime in this problem. A spokesperson for the organization, who for security reasons preferred to remain anonymous, commented to El American:

“The government has the means to stop this mining, but does not do so because it is obviously in their interest to extract gold. The strength of the government is relative, and is fundamentally based on tolerating and participating, at the same time, in the criminal scheme surrounding mining.”

“It is the shortest path, the one with the least effort, the one with the least investment of resources: let the mining continue, and thus allow the miners to “solve” themselves economically, and in parallel also “solve” the government officials, military, first of all: they also get their share. It is the result of a negotiation policy: that everyone benefits, but with the tacit agreement not to go beyond a certain line, which only they know what it is and which depends on the agreements they have reached, which we do not know”.

Regarding the consequences, the SOSOrinoco spokesman explained that “the damage being generated in Canaima is of two types: social-cultural and ecological”.

“The social-cultural ones have to do with having promoted a change from indigenous communities that were relatively self-sufficient and that made a good profit from tourism, to now being totally dependent on mining. They were communities that saw nature as a fundamental value for them, and now the new generations see it with Creole eyes: they only see money and economic resources. The ecological damages are many and are explained in our first report of 2008, but they can be summarized in: alteration of the scenic-landscape value, drastic modification of the ecology of the rivers, mercury poisoning and sedimentation of the rivers”.

Fritz Sánchez, a Venezuelan journalist specialized in investigating the consequences of illegal mining in the state of Bolívar, Canaima and the entire Venezuelan Amazon, spoke to El American and called attention to the acculturation processes generated by this “mining culture” promoted and sponsored by the Maduro dictatorship and members of the National Armed Forces present in the region.

He explained the adverse context generated by mining, as it leads the indigenous people to adapt to a totally different way of life, leaving behind ancestral practices and worldview of respect for the environment as a provider of food and spiritual well-being. Today, many indigenous people only see this extractive spiral as the only way to survive, given the lack of tourists and the gold price of all air transport services, food, etc.

Indigenous Pemón people living in Canaima National Park. (Courtesy of Fritz Sánchez, Venezuelan journalist)

Regarding the UNESCO petition and NASA’s work, SOSOrinoco emphasized that the international community is not paying attention to the ecocide in the state of Bolivar and the devastation of Canaima National Park.

“We have really seen little international interest in what is happening in Canaima. The small report that NASA published was more to highlight the wonder of the geological landscape. That report was misinterpreted,” the spokesman explained. “Some media thought they saw there a denunciation of deforestation, but really those spaces devoid of forests correspond to the famous Gran Sabana, which we know is a very old landscape, created by human intervention for centuries.”

“We do not see any interest from any non-Venezuelan entity on the issue of Canaima and the mining destruction. Even UNESCO took too long to react, and it did so under pressure from civil society organizations that took the trouble to support what is happening and send reports to the international organization. They had no choice but to admit that something negative is happening,” he stressed.

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

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