Rising 4,415 feet above sea level, the sacred mountain – a sandstone butte – is located at the country’s corner of the Amazon rainforest. It is home to various wildlife endemic to the area. The indigenous people in South America know its distinct tabletop shape as the “House of God” or “tepui.”
Heavy machinery is invading this sacred place and ripping into the mineral-rich earth. Illegal miners, armed groups, and state troopers have turned Yapacana National park into the biggest illegal mining site in this part of the Amazon. This illegal activity threatens the rainforest which scientists say is vital to mitigating global change.
William, a former miner who still works in the area said, “They’ve turned the sacred mountain into sand.” He further added that “A tree will never be able to grow there.”
Sacred Mountain- a center for illegal gold miners
The area has long been a center for illegal gold miners. New satellite imagery shows just how heavily embedded illegal mining has become – from the foot of the hills up to the hard-to-reach top of the “tepui.” Affected by these illegal gold miners are approximately more than seven square miles of the park.
Two advocacy groups, Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) and SOS Orinoco, employed high-resolution imagery to identify at least 8000 mining camps or parts of machinery at the park’s lowlands. The groups found 425 more camps or pieces of machinery at the top of the tepui.
A senior research specialist of ACA said, “What we typically see is a smattering of dwellings and equipment. But when we zoomed in on Yapacana, it was like…What is this?”
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A post-analysis of separate satellite imagery confirmed the presence of mining camps and machinery.
Finer was stunned by the density of the illegal operations. He further added that he had not seen anything like it in a supposedly protected national park. Finer had studied mining at the Amazon.
“It is the lowest hanging fruit, protecting national parks. If you cannot clean up your national parks, you are really in trouble.”
Analysts and locals are saying that the authorities are letting illegal miners and armed groups operate inside the protected national park. Worse, allegedly, some Venezuelan authorities are benefiting from it.
Guerilla groups exploited the area for gold
For years, guerilla groups from the border in Colombia have exploited the area for gold. After the peace accords in 2016, violence between government forces and rebels has reduced, prompting their presence inside the national park to swell, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported.
Bram Ebus, a consultant to the ICG, said that one rebel group that did not sign the peace accords – the National Liberation Army controls local justice and taxes residents. Ebus added that some of the precious metal is given to authorities who fly in on choppers to get their share.
SOS Orinoco’s founder, Cristina Vollmer Burelli, said that since 2018 their group has been warning about the destruction and impact of these illegal activities while the rest of the world concentrates on other parts of the Amazon.
President Maduro, who was at the COP27 Climate Conference in Egypt last month, called for the protection of the Amazon.
“Millennia of existence have left an irreparable mark on the Amazon. We believe that it is the original peoples who should teach us how to save and how to live with nature.”
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He points out that great damage is being caused to the rainforest due to capitalism. He did not, however, mention the role the Venezuelan government is allegedly said to have played by allowing illegal gold extraction.
The head of the National Parks Institute, Hildebrando Arangú, said that the expansion of mining atop the mountain is causing “irreversible damage.”
How these miners are making it to the tepui is unclear. “When I worked there,” Arangú who served the institute from 2004 to 2009 said, “the only way to do it was with the support of the Armed Forces, by helicopters.”
William said that the machines were carried by hand, part by part, by trekking on the mountains for at least 5 hours.
Charles Brewer-Carías, a Venezuelan explorer, identified activity at the top of the mountain in the 80s. During that time, he took a photo of a rare flowering plant, Navia Saxicola. This bromeliad can only be found at the top of the tepui and is probably going to be pushed into extinction.
The demonic poison frog is a small red amphibian that makes it home in the bromeliad and is probably lost forever. Venezuelan herpetologist, Josefa Celsa Señaris said “I wonder if it’s already extinct.”