It’s been described as one of the world’s last virgin territories, but how safe is the Lost World from environmental threats?
No, these are not just back-packing, camera-toting tourists. These are the Gran Sabana’s native Pemón Indian population, too. Since the early 1980s, the park’s population has increased by a factor of five. Pemón farmers set seasonal fires on the savanna to clear forest from farm land and kill off rattlesnakes and spiders from pathways. As the population grows, savanna fires are becoming more frequent. At the same time, resident Pemón are increasingly dependent on tourism for their livelihood. No real plan for managing the impact of tourists on the Lost World yet exists. Within Canaima National Park, rules require tourists to bring down all garbage from the tepuis, but the remains of campfires have been found on the tepui summits — a worrisome sign since the mountain’s vegetation does not easily grow back.
Gold and diamond mining operations are extensive in the areas bordering on the Lost World. Miner hamlets exist throughout Canaima National Park. Though mining within the park itself is prohibited, great mineral wealth is thought to exist within its precincts. Mercury, the run-off from gold mining, has already contaminated Guri Lake to the north of the tepuis region and is feared to pose a threat to northward-running rivers that stretch through the Lost World. Once in the river, the mercury can poison wildlife and humans that depend on its waters for sustenance. Deforestation and disruption of these rivers’ water flow are additional concerns. Illegal mining is frequently practiced on the tepuis’s lower slopes, though, as yet, the inaccessibility of the mountains’ higher elevations has kept the practice relatively contained.
To sell electricity to Brazil and bring power to Venezuelan gold mines and logging companies, Venezuela is building a 470-mile long series of high-tension power lines that would stretch through Bolivar State and the Canaima National Park en route to Brazil. Pemón residents and conservationists worry that the $400 million project will only encourage mining within the park and contribute to the destruction of forest and endemic flora and fauna on the low tepuis of Sierra de Lema. This range of mountains to the north of the Canaima National Park remains largely unexplored. For the past several years, the Pemón have kept up a steady protest against the power lines, blocking work on the sites and, in 2000, knocking down seven of the power line structures.
The name of the Pemón group fighting construction of the power lines is:
Rally for Roraima
For all the Canaima National Park’s size and grandeur, no concrete plan has been drawn up to handle that most degrading of tourist imprimaturs: trash. During a 1999 clean-up campaign, participants collected some 794 pounds of trash from the route up Mount Roraima. The park stipulates that what goes up a tepui, must come down, but enforcement mechanisms are few. In a park the size of Belgium, there are reportedly only 12 park rangers.