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Canaima National Park: Ecocide, Malaria, and an Unpostponable Conversation

Photo by Laura Moncada: Waterfall in Canaima National Park

Located in southeastern Venezuela, close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana, is where one of the greatest natural wonders of the globe lies: the Canaima National Park (CNP). Commonly known for its appearance in the Disney movie “Up”, this park is simply a second-to-none landscape, considered one of the richest biodiverse areas, and biggest mines, worldwide. But what you probably don’t know is that all of the abundance of natural resources there is being put in danger as you’re reading this.

Back in 2016, and in the face of what is acknowledged as one of the worst economic and humanitarian crisis of Latin America’s recent history, the Venezuelan government decided to section off 12,2 percent of the country’s territory, calling it “AMO” (the Arco Minero del Orinoco or Orinoco Mining Arc in English). This Arc—which contains some of the most biodiverse zones of the Amazon rainforest and also borders the CNP—encompasses a valuable range of mineral resources including, but not limited to, bauxite, coltan, diamonds, and, particularly, gold, and is approximately the size of Portugal, expanding across the Amazonas, Bolivar, and Delta Amacuro states. It is the vast resources and biodiversity that made this region attractive to armed non-state actors from Colombia and Brazil, local gangs, and foreign corporations from countries like China, Canada, and the Republic of the Congo, who looked to carry out illegal mining activities that today have extended beyond the AMO and into the Canaima and Yapacana National Parks, alongside other protected areas nearby.

To this day, the mining activities in the AMO have become one of Venezuela’s main revenue sources, almost to the point of becoming the main option for the replacement and overcoming of our traditional oil rentier model—a model Venezuela has depended on for more than a century and that represents 98% of the foreign exchange that enters the country. However, the most daunting part about this complex situation is the lack of governmental control, a huge pile of supposed “legal excuses,” foreign exploitation of our national resources, and how the latter are neglecting the negative, irreversible effects that these activities have on our cultural heritage and the existence of its biodiverse ecosystems and indigenous communities. Frankly, as a Venezuelan citizen and advocate for justice, I don't think this is a conversation we can have the luxury of avoiding or hiding from anymore.

Since the beginning of the AMO national decree, the steps taken haven’t been entirely legal; on December 8, 2016, representatives of the Venezuelan State, led by the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Council, Larry Devoe, admitted at the hearing on the Orinoco Mining Arc held in the 159th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), that on that date "the environmental impact studies required by the constitution and the law...were still planned and that...more than 58 consultation processes have been carried out with indigenous communities.” This statement revealed the absence of impact studies prior to the promulgation of the decree and alleged "consultation processes" carried out without such impact studies and reports, which indicates non-compliance with the regulations established in national and international laws. Viz, the AMO decree—which seeks the extraction and commercialization by national, transnational or mixed capital of the miscellaneous on-site minerals—was approved without presenting environmental and sociocultural impact studies. Moreover, there is no existing public information in this regard and the existence of the studies reported by government officials is unknown. On top of this, the mining activities in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, which is part of the AMO, has been illegal since 1989 when the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve and other national parks were created, but this fact hasn’t stopped the aforementioned activity from dominating the region's economy. By and large, if the whole decree compliance and promotion started with violations to the most basic and sane written legal promises, then we can all infer the subsequent—and selfishly ambitious—actions that have been taken ever since.

Photo by FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images: Aerial view of an illegal mine located in Canaima National Park, Bolivar State, Gran Sabana Region, South-Eastern Venezuela.

In short, the current situation looks something like this: paramilitary organizations, criminal groups, and security forces are competing for control of the gold mines in the region, the Amazon and the communities are facing serious danger because of the violent situation regarding deforestation as a consequence of the mining activities that are constantly arising, and—as oddly and unrelated as it may sound—an increase of 84% of Malaria cases from 2016 to 2017, and growing. The latter is interconnected with the mining activities because the backhoes drilling into the ground leave holes that are then filled with rainwater, which in turn attract Anopheles mosquitoes whose females carry the disease; the combination of the lack of prevention efforts, the shortage of medicines, and the migrants that come to the mines from states that haven’t necessarily been hit by malaria, who therefore with immune systems unfamiliar with that disease and are sleeping in makeshift camps and hammocks around infested waters, set the base for the prolongation and promotion of malaria. The issue of increasing malaria should be recognized and further tackled because the indigenous communities, to which this disease mainly affects, portray the origin of our people, untouched by technology, globalization, and other factors that have slowly jeopardized the beauty of our human nature.

It is time to connect the Arco Minero del Orinoco, the Canaima National Park, and the Orinoco region as a whole to its importance of the sustainability in Venezuela and the world. To start off, AMO is located in the south bank of the Orinoco River, the main source of water in the country, which today is being affected alongside other rivers in the Orinoco area by the consequent migration of sediments to these rivers, producing changes in the ecosystem of the 1,200 species of fish, 850 of birds, 257 of mammals, 205 of amphibians, 204 of reptiles, and 16 indigenous communities that dwell in that area. The consequences of this “ecocide” surpasses our borders; according to a 2016 prediction, studies led by a group of scientists from the Institute of Zoology and Tropical Ecology of the Faculty of Sciences of the Central University of Venezuela found that "all sediments and chemicals produced by mining would flow into the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea through the Orinoco Delta, which will cause important implications in other coastal and oceanic marine ecosystems, within and outside our borders, reaching the region of the South Caribbean (not only our coastline and oceanic islands, but could reach the Netherlands Antilles) and the eastern Caribbean (from the Lesser Antilles to Puerto Rico).” With that in mind, the situation in AMO should not only be the concern of Venezuelan, but the concern of the world.

On the same note, the CNP does not stay untouched by the consequences of mining, and we shouldn’t be calm about it. This park not only contains the world's highest uninterrupted waterfall, Angel Falls, but is also an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994, and if that wasn’t enough, it is one of the largest national parks worldwide, with an area of ​​30,000 km², and enjoys great geological interest as it is considered one of the oldest areas on the planet, because it has especially steep plateaus with some of the most unique characteristics found on Earth called tepuis, which date back millions of years. Ergo, because this park is an awe-inspiring, incomparable World Heritage site, the loss of any of its many valuable natural wonders would represent an invaluable loss to humanity as a whole.

The alarming and arising humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela has overshadowed national emergencies, like the seemingly unstoppable one happening in the Orinoco region. I myself, as a Venezuelan citizen, was disconnected from this situation for a very long time—even having gone to the Canaima National Park itself back in 2018. So, in that regard, how can we hope for other Venezuelans that have never been to the CNP to understand the situation, as well as those whose conditions and circumstances further them away from realizing the existence of one of the scariest "ecocides" in Venezuela and the world? Even worse, what about the international community outside our borders? The day has come for us to start speaking up about it, to educate ourselves about the consequences of the situation, to start searching for answers, to demand and hold the people of power accountable to their promises and duties, to embark ourselves on a limitless venture of spreading awareness of the international issues that call for global cooperation and the leaders of our country to come out, take a stand and make changes. To conclude, as citizens of the world, we have inherited the responsibility to care about these types of issues, issues that threaten both our presence on earth and our only possible home: planet Earth.



Laura Moncada, Venezuela


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