In Venezuela, damage from party on sacred mountain spurs outrage

Aerial view of the Gran Sabana, the high plain, in Canaima National Park located in southeast  Venezuela in Bolivar State close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana
An aerial view of the Gran Sabana, the high plain, in Canaima National Park located in southeast Venezuela in Bolivar State close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana, January 13, 2005. REUTERS/Jorge Silva REUTERS

PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela, Feb 10 (Reuters) - A birthday party held on a mountain sacred to indigenous Venezuelans has generated outrage over damage to the area in an episode critics see as entitled excess playing out amid Venezuela's prolonged economic collapse.

Last week, party-goers celebrating the birthday of businessman Rafael Oliveros were ferried in helicopters to a pristine flat-topped mountain known as Kusari, located in the Canaima national park in southern Venezuela's ecologically rich Amazon region, according to a statement by environmental group SOS Orinoco.

In the indigenous Pemon language, such mountains called "tepuy," are revered, including for their extremely rare and fragile plant life.

"This was a violation of Mother Earth because these are sacred, untouchable mountains that we've traditionally watched over, conserved and respected, just like our ancestors," Nazario Rosi, a 63-year-old Pemon elder, told Reuters.

"They totally cleared the local plants," Rosi said, referring to those who attended the party, adding that the area has been left as if harshly raked. He stressed the Pemon culture forbids reaching the Kusari summit.

The invitees sporting tuxedos and colorful dresses posted photos and video of the overnight bash on social media, although many deleted the posts as indignation mounted.

Oliveros' business did not respond to a request for comment, and Reuters was not able to communicate directly with him.

Venezuela's information ministry also failed to respond to messages seeking comment, but the country's attorney general wrote on Twitter on Thursday that he has ordered an investigation into damage caused by the party.

The gathering was in violation of local access rules, according to Rosi and Roberto Simon, another indigenous leader, who explained the required permission for the event was never requested, as is normally done for scientific research projects in the national park.

More than 100 flat-topped mountains like Kusari dot southeastern Venezuela, which geologists say were formed when the African and American continents cleaved apart millions of years ago.

The chain of "tepuy" mountains in the Canaima park were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

"The grasslands there grow on extremely poor and rocky soils, which makes them very sensitive and difficult to recover once they're impacted," the SOS Orinoco group said in their statement. The group said it has also reported the damage to UNESCO officials.

The potential for irreparable harm to the Kusari summit's landscape is especially worrisome, according to Gabriel Figueroa, also a Pemon community member.

"We feel that anyone who doesn't comply with our rules puts this equilibrium at risk, and this is an insult," said Figueroa.

Reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Karishma Singh

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