Pallor over El Dorado

AFTER Latin America was plundered 400 years ago -by Spanish, conquistadors guided by the triple goals of "Gold, Glory and God", today, reckless exploitation of another El Dorado on the continent - Venezuela's Bolivar province - is threatening to destroy the unique Amazonian flora and fauna, besides subjecting the inhabitants to considerable health risks.

Untapped gold reserves down Venezuela's Orinoco and Caroni rivers are estimated at above 8,000 tonnes - roughly 12 per cent of the world's proven reserves. About 5,000 tonnes alone is found at the surface level, suitable for open-cast mining and panning operations.

Recent tests have verified that the extent of mercury pollution in both the rivers has long since exceeded all permissible limits. Freddt Bareat, head, ecology division of Edelca - the organisation responsible for developmental activit.ies on the Caroni river, said, "However, with new gold strikes, the number of prospectors has gone up tremendously over the past years, and despite the blanket ban on the'use of mercury near watefbodies, miners continue to use it with impunity."

The only group entitled to carry out gold mining operations is the state- owned Corporation Venezolana de Guay4n. But reports state that there are at least 15,000 illegal miners in the area.

"Unchecked mercury pollution transmitted to humans through drinking water and fish could be the cause of terrible health problems in the years to come," warns Brazilian expert Marcello Veiga. Mercury causes sight and speech defects, kidney problems and even brain damage. More seriously, there are apprehensions that birth defects among future newborns could also occur.

Surveys conducted in April 1995 on ,21-9 fish species in the Orinoco and Caroni rivers support Veiga's suspicions - at least 42 per cent of the fish displayed a mercury (Hg) concentration of 2.70 pprn Hg (five times more than the permitted upper limit of 0.5 pprn Hg in humans).

Experts speculate that mercury concentration in the Guayana highland may further decimate the already dwindling species of crocodiles, caimans, piranha and other marine species. The 3 1,000 ha of forests around the rivers are home to endangered parakeets and the tapir (a rare wild pig).

A clean-up programme has been jointly launched by the "environment ministry, Edelca. and the us Geological Service; limited fishing and reduced fish intake has been advised (especially of the "payara", displaying the highest metal concentrations), which, however, has not satisfied environmentalists. They demanded a strict ban on the use of mercury.