How the Lost World was Lost

Canaima inspired everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Pixar — a paradise in the middle jungle. Amid a boom in ecologically ruinous illegal mining, it may not survive the Revolution.

Photo: retrieved

High-resolution satellite images show patches of land devoid of the park’s typical vegetation and bluish-green ponds, tainted by minerals oxidized during the expansion of the mining process across Canaima and its surroundings, revealing at least 15 mining sites inside the National Park and 18 more in a perimeter of less than 11 km from its borders. These are only some of the worrisome findings of a report from whistleblower group SOS Orinoco, regarding the permanent damage by illegal mining of Venezuela’s most famous national park. The authors, as well as those interviewed, decided to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

Canaima is a magical place. It was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 sci-fi novel The Lost World, and to Pixar’s 2009 movie Up. It has been a national park since 1962 and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, propelling its international recognition and turning it into one of Venezuela’s main touristic attractions for years. Mining has been a recognized problem since at least 1974, when the first reports of activities within its borders were revealed.

The project, labelled as a threat to Venezuela’s biggest freshwater reserves and most important hydroelectric plants, has been fiercely opposed by NGOs and was even deemed unconstitutional.

In 2003 Hugo Chávez created the Plan Piar (later renamed Misión Piar), a project intended to promote small scale “environmentally-friendly” mining activity across the country and that even today keeps actively recruiting miners from impoverished communities to work in the region. By 2015, the now reformed Venezuelan Ministry of Environment acknowledged a dramatic increase in illegal mining, and identified it as a threat to the park’s future. But the situation has worsened since February 2016, when in response to the fall of oil prices, Nicolás Maduro announced the opening of an area of about 112,000 Km2 (12,2% of the nation’s territory) in Bolívar, Amazonas and Delta Amacuro states, to the extraction of gold, diamond, bauxite and coltan. The Orinoco Mining Arc, as this area is known, doesn’t include Canaima National Park, but surrounds most of its northern border. The project, labelled as a threat to Venezuela’s biggest freshwater reserves and most important hydroelectric plants, has been fiercely opposed by NGOs and was even deemed unconstitutional by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, a decision ignored by the Venezuelan executive branch.

As the economic crisis worsened, mining became pervasive in Bolívar, attracting people from inside and outside the region to mines located in the jungles that surround the sparsely-populated towns deep into the state, and creating a complex social, public health and environmental crises that have touched the whole country. Many of these mines are overwatched by criminal gangs known as “syndicates” making them a lawless land where extreme violence is the norm. On the other hand, according to the report, the Armed Forces, through components of the Air Force, Army, Navy (river division) and National Guard also play a key role in the logistics of all these operations, distributing the required fuel and supplies for miners, all of it with the approval of regional and national authorities. These groups also smuggle most of the gold out of Venezuela through Brazil, Guyana, or the Caribbean taking most of the earnings for themselves and their superiors. According to the report, the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) to whom all the gold production must be sold by law, may be receiving only some 10% of the total gold production in the region.

The vast majority of these activities takes place around towns like Tumeremo, El Callao or Guasipati, outside the limits of Canaima National Park. But as SOS Orinoco’s report and a recent work from The Wall Street Journal show, mining activity has recently increased around and inside Canaima. Several factors explain this: In the first place, following economic deterioration and a sharp decrease in tourism inside the park, both the Pemón tribes (who make up most of the park’s permanent residents) and the non-indigenous groups that inhabit inside Canaima, started getting involved in mining activities within its boundaries. And they go to great lengths to keep their mining sites secret from outsiders, with some reports even talking of a paramilitary self-defense group called “Pemón Territorial Guard” created to prepare for an eventual confrontation with “syndicates” in case they try to exploit their mines inside Canaima.

Outsiders are also being pushed further into Canaima by different reasons.

Outsiders are also being pushed further into Canaima by different reasons: After worries that sediments lifted by mining activity along the Caroní river may damage the turbines of Guri Hydroelectric Complex (which produces 70% of electric energy in Venezuela), Misión Piar started to encourage the relocation of miners to other areas, including those bordering Canaima. On the other hand, mines around both sides of the park’s border are under the influence of the Armed Forces, rather than the way more violent “syndicates” that monopolize activities around small towns. Many non-indigenous miners prefer to move to Canaima to avoid these groups, working under the “protection” of the military, or in case they decide to go further into the park, the Pemón people.

Authors recognize that although it’s very hard to estimate, mining activity inside Canaima is still considerably smaller than in the rest of the state. Based on high-definition satellite images publicly available on Google Earth, they estimate that the 15 mining sites located inside Canaima, occupy some 501 hectares, which account to only 0,018% of the park’s total area. Nonetheless, each one of these sites is dumping tons of sediments into the rivers around them, severely modifying their ecological characteristics. Not to mention the extremely negative effects of poisonous elements like mercury and cyanide, widely used in these mines, that could have long-term effects of the plants and animals of the whole park. Furthermore, authors indicate that the available images lack the resolution needed to spot small mines and activity developed directly on rivers using rafts, which is also taking place inside the national park. In the event of a possible penetration of “syndicates” inside the park in the near future, armed violence would also add another threat Canaima.

SOS Orinoco’s call is for UNESCO to include Canaima in its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, a list that already includes the colonial city of Coro in Falcón State, as a way to drag international attention to the subject, and hopefully exert some pressure on the Venezuelan government to take concrete steps in the matter. However, given the ruling clique’s involvement in these activities, it’s hard to see that happening anytime soon.