Wall Street Journal article | Desperate Venezuelans Dig Up Paradise in Search of Gold

Desperate Venezuelans Dig Up Paradise in Search of Gold

Open-pit gold mines proliferate in the remote savanna around Angel Falls, imperiling a national park and an indigenous way of life

By Kejal Vyas | Photographs by Oscar B.Castillo/FRACTURES COLLECTIVES for The Wall Street Journal
Nov. 20, 2018 5P30 a.m. ET

CANAIMA NATIONAL PARK, Venezuela— The indigenous Pemon people have long served as stewards of this park that embraces cloud-covered tabletop mountains and Angel Falls, the worldʼs highest uninterrupted waterfall.

Now Venezuelaʼs economic calamity has pushed them away from their former livelihoods as tourist guides and into digging for gold, marring the surrounding area with massive open-pit mines.

“We the Pemon were always ecologists, the protectors of this land,” said Abrahan Sandoval, the 33-year-old captain, or mayor, of the nearby hamlet of Kamarata. “But the situation has turned us into the destroyers of our own habitat.” In September residents dug a hole there wider than two football fields, hunting for gold.

Abrahan Sandoval, an official of a local settlement of Pemon people, says the economic situation ‘has turned us into the destroyers of our own habitat.ʼ

President Nicolás Maduro sees gold as Venezuelaʼs salvation, promoting it as an offset to plummeting oil revenue and the remedy for the worst economic crisis in his countryʼs history. Amid deepening food shortages and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, Mr. Maduro designated a 43,000-square-mile swath north and south of the park as the Orinoco Mining Arc, opening it for mining gold and other precious minerals.

“I think the most notable, enticing and popular gift next Christmas will be a gold certificate,” Mr. Maduro said in a recent speech. “Gold! Gold! Itʼs always worth the same or more, never less.”

With inflation slated to exceed 1.3 million percent this year, gold has supplanted the worthless national currency, the bolivar, for the Pemon Indians living in hamlets inside the park. In Kamarata, shopkeepers weigh flecks of gold at the counter, charging the equivalent of $4 for a pound of rice or $7 for a gallon of gasoline. There is also active mining in the region for diamonds and coltan, a metallic ore that yields the rare-earth element tantalum used in cellphones.

An aerial view of a gold mine known as ‘La Guarimbaʼ in Canaima National Park. In recent years, as Venezuelaʼs economic crisis has grown, so has the exploitation of the parkʼs natural resources.

A gold mine area in the hamlet of Kamarata, near the important Auyan Tepui Mountain in Canaima National Park.

The U.S. Treasury Department recently issued sanctions to ban American participation in the gold sector, saying the sales are helping Mr. Maduro and close aides loot the countryʼs last riches to buoy their embattled regime.

Mining is illegal in Canaima National Park, a Unesco world-heritage site that covers a lush, Belgium-sized territory renowned not only for Angel Falls, but also for rock formations that have provided geologists with evidence that South America and Africa were once one continent. It is home to rare plants and fauna like giant anteaters and trunked tapirs. The unique pillars 500 million years of erosion carved onto the mountaintops inspired the animators of Disney ʼs 2009 hit movie, “Up.”

But the new economic realities are pushing the Pemon away from green tourism and into a gold rush that environmentalists say may cause irreparable damage to Canaima. The mining occurs on multiple fronts. On land, pits extend for several acres, filled with turquoise water laden with contaminants. On waterways like the Carrao River, a tributary of which cascades over the falls, gold hunters huddle onto rafts to scoop silt into tubs before lacing it with mercury to draw out tiny quantities of gold. Wearing headlamps, miners said they often work at night to avoid military-led park patrols.

Marbella, 32 years old, arranging her wares at the small store in Kamarata, where the usual currency is gold.

“The prediction is that this onslaught will continue to intensify in the years to come,” SOS Orinoco, a group of Venezuelan ecologists and environmental activists, said in a 79-page report recently submitted to Unesco. The group urged the United Nations agency to declare Canaima a heritage site in danger —like Aleppo in Syria, Sana in Yemen, and Everglades National Park in Florida—as a way to embarrass the government into curbing the mining.

A Unesco spokesman said the organization has asked the government whether the mining has affected the special features that qualified the park as a heritage site, including the Pemonsʼ role as conservationists. Unesco hasnʼt received a response from Caracas. Venezuelaʼs information, mining and tourism ministries didnʼt respond to emails seeking comment.

The SOS Orinoco report, using satellite imagery, identified more than 30 mines inside and along the edges of the park.The armed forces dominate the gold trade and the government has shown no political will to contain the devastation of pristine areas, the report said. The Defense Ministry declined comment.

Gold Dust for Goods:

What the Pemon people pay in grams of gold for staples

Mr. Maduro has put the military in charge of security and overseeing mining outside the park. Inside it, the army manages the fuel that miners use to work pumps, generators and conveyor belts.

“The military is the main beneficiary and, not to mention, the author of this disaster that we are living,” said Americo de Grazia, an opposition congressman from this region.

Soldiers periodically run raids seizing gold from wildcatters. But some park residents said soldiers keep that gold and therefore have little incentive to halt mining.

“The regime has basically awarded itself control over a huge percentage of the country and is now stripping this gold and dumping massive amounts of chemical and mercury contaminants in water supplies,” Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. Treasuryʼs deputy sanctions chief, said recently in Washington.

A Peopleʼs Imperiled Livelihood Below Venezuelaʼs Angel Falls

The indigenous Pemon people long served as tour guides in Venezuelaʼs Canaima National Park, but the countryʼs economic crisis has left them scrambling—and sometimes digging up the landscape in search of gold.

Dawn over Auyan Tepui—the Devilʼs House, in the indigenous Pemon language—the largest of the tabletop mountains in Venezuelaʼs Canaima National Park and the site of Angel Falls, the worldʼs highest waterfall.

Oscar B.Castillo / FRACTURES COLLECTIVES for The Wall Street Journal

The gold extracted from southern Venezuela is bought up by government brokers and shipped by Venezuelaʼs central bank to Turkey, where Caracas says it is being refined and safeguarded from intensifying U.S. sanctions. Turkey has received nearly $1 billion in Venezuelan gold so far this year since strengthening ties with Mr. Maduroʼs isolated government. Turkeyʼs embassies in Washington and Caracas didnʼt respond to requests for comment.

The gold boom is attracting not only wildcatters but also criminal gangs and the National Liberation Army, a violent Colombian rebel group steeped in criminal activity, Venezuelan opposition figures and dissident military officers say. That has led to turf wars that cost 17 lives in October, mostly of miners. Three National Guard soldiers died in a clash earlier this month.

Elio Rivero of the small community of Santa Marta standing where he and his family produce cassava and other products. The Santa Marta community has forbidden gold mining in its area, seeing it as polluting and destructive.

In public statements, Venezuelan officials have reiterated that mining in Canaima is prohibited and should be concentrated in the Orinoco Mining Arc. But when The Wall Street Journal visited the park last month, Pemon leaders said the government had offered them no alternatives to mining, and many plan to continue.

Army officers have brought in bags of cheap pasta, flour and cooking oil meant to alleviate food shortages and deter mining. But few residents could pay for the food because the soldiers charged in Venezuelan bolivars, which are virtually nonexistent here.

For the moment, Pemon lives revolve around gold. In September, the people in Kamarata pulled about 60 ounces of it from the big hole that was dug between cinder-block shanties, a stoneʼs throw from the office of Mr. Sandoval, the captain. Mr. Sandoval said it helped pay for charter flights that charge more than an ounce of gold—worth about $1,200 internationally and about $600 in Kamarata—to bring in food and supplies. Dirt airstrips that once welcomed nearly 100 tourists a week in Kamarata are now used by charter operators to haul out gold.

Mining has divided the Pemon between those who see it as a necessity and those who fear the damage will ruin tourism for good.

Hortencia Berti, a Pemon social leader and former captain of the Kamarata Valley, standing at the lodge she helps manage there.

“Weʼre not going to be mining forever,” said Elio Manrique, a park ranger and Kamarata resident. “Itʼs just temporary.”

But the social costs have already been high. Carlos Abati, who has taught high- school English for 19 years, said parents are opting to send their kids to the mines instead of language classes that once were sought out by those who wanted to be tour guides.

A former captain here, Hortencia Berti, said she was struggling to run a tourist lodge of traditional huts made of palm husks because the mining and the governmentʼs food handouts are making people in her hamlet lazy. She would prefer to see the Pemon returning to their conucos, small plots of vegetables that they have long cultivated, until tourism is reactivated.

“Everyone here just wants to get rich quickly,” Ms. Berti said. “This isnʼt what our grandfathers would have expected of us. There is a mine already on our patio. Where does this end?”

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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