Gold mining in Venezuela’s Yapacana National Park is destroying tepui


3D rendering using Planet imagery
3D rendering using Planet imagery (Janice Kai Chen/The Washington Post)

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Unauthorized gold miners are illegally stripping the top of a sacred mountain in a protected national park in Venezuela — and the government in Caracas is turning a blind eye as some officials allegedly take a cut.

The Cerro Yapacana, a sandstone butte reaching 4,415 feet above sea level in Venezuela’s corner of the Amazon rainforest, is home to wildlife that can be found nowhere else in the world. With its distinctive tabletop shape, the geological landmark is known by Indigenous communities in this region of South America as a tepui, or “House of God.”

Now heavy machinery rips into the mineral-rich earth. A city of illegal miners, armed groups and Venezuelan state forces has turned Yapacana National Park into the largest illegal mining site in this section of the Amazon, an operation that threatens the rainforest scientists say is crucial to mitigating global change.

“They’ve turned the mountain into sand,” said William, a former miner who still works in the area, who spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld out of fear for his safety. “A tree will never be able to grow there.”

The Yapacana has long been a hub for illegal gold extraction. But new satellite imagery provided to The Washington Post reveals just how entrenched the mining has become, from the foothills to the hard-to-reach top of the tepui. More than seven square miles of the park have been impacted by gold mines.

The nonprofit Amazon Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, used high-resolution imagery to identify at least 8,000 mining camps or pieces of machinery in the park’s lowlands. The group found 425 more camps or pieces of machinery at the top of the tepui.

“What we typically see is a smattering of dwellings and equipment,” said Matt Finer, a senior research specialist with Amazon Conservation. “But when we zoomed in on Yapacana it was like … ‘What is this?’”

A Post analysis of separate satellite imagery confirmed the presence of mining camps and equipment.

The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Finer, who has studied mining across the Amazon, said he was stunned by the density of the operations. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it in a supposedly protected national park.

“It’s really the lowest hanging fruit, protecting national parks,” Finer said. “If you can’t clean up your national parks, you’re really in trouble.”


Suspected mining activities

on the sacred mountain have

increased beginning in 2020.

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest

regrowth.

Satellites detect dense

mining towns on the tepui.

Note: Close-up imagery from April 2022.

Source: Planet monthly composite, Maxar

Suspected mining activities

on the sacred mountain have

increased beginning in 2020.

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest regrowth.

Satellites detect dense mining towns on the tepui.

Note: Close-up imagery from April 2022.

Source: Planet monthly composite, Maxar

New mining activity

since January 2022

Suspected mining activities

on top of the sacred mountain

have increased beginning in 2020.

Satellites detect dense mining towns on the tepui.

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest regrowth.

Note: Close-up imagery from April 2022.

Source: Planet monthly composite, Maxar

Here, analysts and locals say, Venezuelan authorities are not only allowing illegal mining and armed groups in a protected national park — some are profiting from it.

Guerrilla groups from across the border in Colombia have for years exploited the Yapacana for gold. After Colombia’s 2016 peace accords reduced violence between government forces and the guerrillas, their presence in the park grew, the International Crisis Group reports.

Now the National Liberation Army, a rebel group that did not sign the accords, controls local justice and taxes residents, according to Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group who has visited the mines in recent years.

Some of the gold is given to Venezuelan authorities who fly in on helicopters to collect their cut, Ebus said.

Maduro, appearing at the COP 27 climate conference in Egypt last month, called for the protection of the Amazon.

“Millennia of existence have left an irreparable mark on the Amazon,” he said. “We believe that it is…



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