The skin of the earth is in tepui Venezuela, an area of small, steep plateaus with vertical walls and flat tops that make up one of the most spectacular jungle landscapes north of the Amazon. An treasure which, according to geologists, ancient territories of our planet, originated in the Precambrian period, about 2500 million years ago. Now this place is in Canaima National Park exposed to the risk of illegal mining, but corrupted, which pollutes the surroundings and is associated with the so-called “mining arch” of the Orinoco. A call for help from this World Heritage Site He comes to us accompanied by images of his beauty through an exhibition that we can still see in the Casa de America in Madrid.
If there is anyone who knows the tepuye well, it is the Venezuelan photographer and adventurer Rodolfo Gerstl, who called the exhibition he brought “Skin of the Earth.” House of America in Madrid until this Sunday, May 14th. Thanks to his images, many taken from helicopters, it is easy to feel the wrinkles of the skin we live in, the radiant energy, the softness of its calm waters in the valleys, and the fury of waterfalls such as Angel Falls, with its kilometer-high free fall. According to Gerstl, “a unique exhibit in this museum of nature.” That is why it is so painful for her to know about the sores that hurt her.
Over 400 times he visited Canaima with his cameras. “When water falls, flowing from a height immediately after rain, magical moments are experienced. This spectacle will never be forgotten,” he explains, showing each of the fragments of the landscape that forever stole him. “But now the tepuis are in danger. This is a very fragile area, and gold, diamond and coltan mines pose a serious threat,” he condemns.
Added to this danger promoted by the government of his country is another enemy, which he tells us about in front of strange stone figures carved at the mercy of water and wind over millions of years: “There is also tourism that comes and destroys: I have seen devastated areas, because they crush stones to take quartz as a souvenir. Horrible. There is more and more plastic and garbage,” the photographer says, recalling a sad episode in February last year: a tourism mogul held a birthday party on top of one of Kusari’s protected tepuye, causing a big scandal in the country.
But the biggest and most subtle risk is mine looting. In front of the Roraima tepui, in part of the Orinoco basin, the surface area increases. The riverbeds, environmental groups say, are “muddy, flooded, dirty.” Only there, about 20 motors and motor pumps work day and night in an open gold deposit. About 700 hectares of devastated vegetation, and the Caroni, Aponguao, Kukenan and Tek rivers are polluted with fuel, mercury, heavy metals, oils… gold on the black market. With the advancement of this business, they found a very destructive lifestyle there,” says Gerstle.
SOS Orinoco, the organization with which the photographer collaborates, denounces that since the Maduro government approved the Orinoco Mining Arc plan in 2016, disaster has exploded in protected areas. In a recent report, they note that today it is the Amazonian country with the most illegal mines – 680 mining sectors on 51,286 hectares – ahead of Brazil or Peru. In Canaima National Park alone, 1,600 hectares of devastated land and 59 mining sites were discovered in 2020. Some, just 24 kilometers from the famous Angel Falls. In 2018 there were 1000 hectares.
“This is the dark side of paradise that Rodolfo shows. One of the most biodiverse places in the world, the Guiana Shield is the victim of a criminal offense and is not talked about. Arco Minero is now state policy and by promoting mining, armed groups of Venezuelans, Colombians and even Brazilians enter and control small local miners. Anyone with a pick and shovel opens a hole in the jungle. There are also mining rafts in the rivers. In such an ancient terrestrial space, the vegetation layer is very thin, and when it is removed, only sand remains, on which nothing else grows, denounces anthropologist Christina Vollmer de Burelli, director and founder of SOS Orinoco, from Washington, where he lives. “I had to leave my country to keep judging,” he says.
“For me, it’s drama,” adds the photographer. “In the mining industry, indigenous people earn in 15 days what tourism produces in a year, although they return to their communities malaria-infected and penniless because they eat and drink whatever they earn. This is cowboy country.”
When he first visited the tepuye, Gerstl did not think that he would become his visual representative around the world. At the time, he was a famous skydiver who competed in the World Ski Jumping Championships. In 1982, he decided to jump from the tepui and thus fell into the devil’s trap of these primeval rocks. He began to recognize them, make documentaries, explore their cracks, and marvel at the beauty of their bromeliads and orchids.
“I had many adventures there. First, it nearly cost me my life,” he recalls. “It was during my last visit to the tourists for whom I was a guide, in 2017. As soon as I got off the helicopter, it lost its balance and fell off a cliff, dragging me down. Fortunately, I caught one foot on a stone at a height of six meters along the wall, and 30 meters below, I watched the plane crash. He was finally rescued, and today he is only slightly limping, but dreams of returning. “It’s such a fragile place… There are stones that, if pushed a little, crumble. I made tourists wear socks so as not to damage it. It is sad to see that there is no control at all, ”he despairs.
In an attempt to stop this trend, the environmental NGO has submitted its reports to UNESCO, which has promised to send a monitoring mission in the last quarter of this year to check what is happening in and around tepui. “The authorities will try to minimize this, but the effect is very noticeable. For nature and indigenous peoples who suffer from mercury contamination of their food fish and the destruction of their culture; mining creates clashes in their communities between the young and the old, with women, there are many human rights violations,” Vollmer de Burelli says.
When the exhibition in Madrid ends, Rodolfo Gerstl will continue to travel with his photographs of “Skin of the Earth” to other cities in Europe. His images show beautiful skin with its 2500 million years. Even when?
PROTECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT, THAT MAKES EL ASOBRARIO SUSTAINABLE.
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