A Tapir Gallery Ecology Alert
OPENS NEW PATHS FOR
Not only tapirs, but other animals, plants, soil, water and humans are in for trouble. The Venezuelan government has made several moves recently that environmentalists say will devastate portions of that country. For one thing, mining with mercury is likely to be approved. For another, a new ruling has been set in place allowing mining rights to be approved AUTOMATICALLY if the government does not respond to the application within 30 days. And, this will be allowed in some of the most ecologically fragile areas of Bolívar state. Citizens questioned about the government's new policies were, for the most part, unaware of their existence.
The state of Bolívar is home to such natural wonders as Angel Falls (Salto Ángel) in the Guiana Highlands. Aside from its exquisite beauty, it is the highest waterfall in the world, dropping from Devils Mountain 3,212 feet (979 m), into the dense jungle below.Mining rights have already been granted in Canaima National Park and other areas such as forest reserves that were supposed to have been protected by the government. Should we be surprised? Venezuela was recently labelled the most corrupt country in Latin America by a poll of international business experts.
Mining is profitable in Venezuela, with its rich deposits of gold and diamonds, iron ore, coal, lime, manganese, nickel, bauxite and kaolin. In the past, small, often family-owned, mining companies operated illegally, using the poisons cyanide and mercury along with physically destructive processes such as hydraulic mining. As the big companies - now officially sanctioned - move in, the smaller ones will be forced out. Will they stop mining altogether? Probably not. More likely, they will move on to virgin territory.
"Latin America has become a land of opportunity for entrepreneurs, investors and businesspeople from around the world. Firms from the United States, Europe and Japan are . . . setting up factories and developing mining complexes."The Venezuelan government gives the following reason for allowing big mining companies to take over: they are easier to control than the smaller illegals, and easier to tax. But there is a big catch here. The large companies will answer not to an environmental agency, but to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and to the State Mine. Their interests are not conservation, but mining. Already one company under their supervision has poisoned a major river with mercury. In addition, what has happened in other countries that have enacted similar laws to the ones being adopted by Venezuela, is that mining companies have lobbied to cut funding to environmental agencies - and the lobbyists have met with success.
~ Bolívar Program, doing business across borders
Mercury, which has been used illegally until now, may soon become legal for use in mining operations in Venezuela, even though government-commissioned studies have pointed out the dangers. The Caroní River supplies water for 80 percent of the state of Bolivar. Already the Caroní is poisoned by mercury, and more than half of the people living in the vicinity of the Caroní River Basin (a large lake formed by the Raul Leoni hydroelectric dam) have detectable signs of poisoning. Most of the people in the state engage in mining, thus living close to the mines and to the poisoned water. The settlements in which they live are technically illegal (as is the mining). For this reason, no one looks after the miners, their families and their pollution-related illnesses. The government argues that the new, larger, legal mines will regulate or clean their discharge into the river. But, as one native Venezuelan says, "We know that never happens, not even in the U.S."
The Caroní River (Río Caroní) flows 430 miles (690 km) through the state of Bolívar, from the slopes of Mount Roraima, where Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana meet, emptying at last into the majestic 1,700-mile (2,740 km) Orinoco River at San Félix. On its route, the vast Caroní covers much of southeastern Venezuela. It is a black-water river, meaning that very little sediment is suspended. This quality gives its hydroelectric dam - one of the largest in Latin America - a long life expectancy. Or rather, it did. Mining has added sediment to the water, and that affects the dam. Part of the idea of legal mining is to put additional dams upstream to "remove" the tails before they affect the hydroelectric dam and the people.In humans, mercury poisoning can cause such symptoms asmuscular atrophy, mental deterioration, and various disturbances connected with central nervous system function. More Down Syndrome babies are born in Bolívar than in any other state. Incidence of other birth defects is also high. No longer can the people of Bolívar state harvest fish, which had been a staple, from their contaminated river.
How does mercury poisoning affect the wildlife? No one knows. Ecologist Leonardo Salas concludes, "Since it affects our genes, it will most likely affect the genes of every other creature, plants included. The problem is detecting long-term effects, not the immediate ones."
All of this is just the beginning. Now that mining is proliferating and the use of mercury may be legalized, conditions can only become worse.
We sincerely hope that a Non-Government Organization (NGO) can be formed in Venezuela to study and address this serious problem.
February 26, 1997
UPDATE: The Audubon Society of Venezuela has been working on this problem. They can be contacted at:
Sociedad Conservacionista Audubon de Venezuela
Apartado N 80 450
Caracas 1080 A
Sources used in writing this article:
- The New York Times
- Leonardo Salas
- Britannica Online
- Bolívar Program, doing business across borders
Canaima National Park
Photos: Canaima National Park
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