The gold-mining city that is destroying a sacred Venezuelan mountain

Three-dimensional model of a tabletop mountain in Yapacana National Park, Venezuela. Bright white and beige mining scars surround the mountain. Some scars are seen on top of the mountain.
3D rendering using Planet imagery (Janice Kai Chen/The Washington Post)

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.

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 that 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 and 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.”

Detail

Caracas

VENEZUELA

GUYANA

Yapacana

National Park

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

300 MILES

Detail

Caracas

VENEZUELA

Yapacana

National Park

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

300 MILES

Detail

Caracas

VENEZUELA

Yapacana

National Park

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

300 MILES

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.

Yapacana

National

Park

Areas affected

by mining

10 MILES

July 2022

Mining

site

1/2 MILE

Sources: Landsat, Planet

Yapacana

National

Park

Areas affected

by mining

10 MILES

July 2022

Mining

site

1/2 MILE

Sources: Landsat, Planet

July 2022

Mining roads

Yapacana

National

Park

1/2 MILE

Areas affected

by mining

July 2022

Mining

site

10 MILES

Sources: Planet, Landsat

The advocacy groups Amazon Conservation Association in Washington and SOS Orinoco in Venezuela 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 had not 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.

July 2022

1 MILE

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest

regrowth.

200 FEET

Satellites detect dense

mining towns on the tepui.

200 FEET

Note: Close-up imagery from April 2022.

Source: Planet monthly composite, Maxar

Suspected mining activities

on the sacred mountain have

increased beginning in 2020.

July 2022

1 MILE

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest regrowth.

200 FEET

Satellites detect dense mining towns on the tepui.

200 FEET

Note: Close-up imagery from April 2022.

Source: Planet monthly composite, Maxar

July 2022

New mining activity

since January 2022

Suspected mining activities

on top of the sacred mountain

have increased beginning in 2020.

1 MILE

Satellites detect dense mining towns on the tepui.

Gold mining leaves

toxic ponds behind,

hindering forest regrowth.

200 FEET

200 FEET

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, but some are also 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.

Cristina Vollmer Burelli, the founder of SOS Orinoco, said the group has been issuing warnings about the destruction since 2018, while “the world focused in other parts of the Amazon.”

Maduro, appearing 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,” he said. “We believe that it is the original peoples who should teach us how to save and how to live with nature.”

Maduro blamed the “great damage” to the rainforest on capitalism. He didn’t mention the role his government is said to have played by allegedly allowing illegal mining.

William, the former miner, said Venezuelan forces once protected the site.

“Before, the National Guard wouldn’t let you in,” said the man, who grew up in the park and continues to transport miners across the border by boat. “Now it’s turned into a business.”

Karen, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld out of fear for her safety, once helped run a convenience store near the mines. She said everyone from the miners to local shopkeepers was expected to pay taxes in gold to three groups: the guerrillas, Indigenous authorities and the army.

Hildebrando Arangú, the head of Venezuela’s National Parks Institute from 2004 to 2009, said the expansion of mining atop the tepui is causing “irreversible damage.”

How miners are making it to the top is unclear. “When I worked there,” Arangú said, “the only way to do it was with the support of the Armed Forces, by helicopters.”

William said most machinery is carried up the mountain in parts by groups of men on foot. The trek takes at least five hours. He said he has done it twice: “You have to climb up like a spider at times.”

The destruction of the ecosystem is threatening species that have evolved in isolation on the mountain.

Venezuelan explorer Charles Brewer-Carías identified mining activity at the top of Cerro Yapacana in the 1980s. During that trip he photographed a Navia saxicola, a rare flowering plant. He said the bromeliad, which can be found only at the top of the tepui, is probably lost forever.

The same could be true of the so-called demonic poison frog, a tiny red amphibian that makes its home in the bromeliad. Josefa Celsa Señaris, a Venezuelan herpetologist, said it is impossible for researchers to access the park to know for sure.

“I wonder if it’s already extinct,” Señaris said.

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