Venezuela's uncharted Amazon

Venezuela's uncharted Amazon

Page last updated: 15 May 2008

by Carlos Chirinos, BBC Mundo correspondent in Caracas

In Venezuela the Amazonian region is relatively small, isolated and very much uncharted territory.

These factors have largely guaranteed its conservation.

The Amazon basin touches Venezuela at its southernmost point - the tip of the state of Amazonas.

It measures 51,000 kilometres squared, that is less than 5% of Venezuelan territory.

It is sparsely populated and extremely under-developed, in spite of its vast natural resources.

Communication is also limited, both internally and with the rest of the country.

There are no decent highways to connect the capital, Puerto Ayacucho, in the north, with San Fernando de Apure, on the Venezuelan plains.

The majority of communication is made by river and air.

Low impact

In environmental terms and compared to other parts of the Amazon, its isolation shows signs of relative low impact.

The region is home to a number of national parks and monuments as well as conservation areas, covering almost half a million hectares.

Human activity is strictly controlled by law - in order to avoid a negative impact on the eco-system.

Institutional instability and a lack of law enforcement resources makes isolation the best chance of survival for the region.

Problems

However, this does not mean that the Venezuelan Amazon is not without its problems.

"The problems lie in mining the forest area and agricultural border, and in some specific cases, tourism", says Franklin Rojas, the Director of Institutional Development, an environmental NGO.

Environmental groups claim that indiscriminate working practices by miners from Brazil and Colombia are contaminating water sources with mercury.

The situation has been controlled by the National Guard, who are responsible for the protection of the environment.

But in many places the damage has already been done and it will take a long time to clear.

This is why the greatest challenge facing the region is to ensure sustainable ecological and human economic growth.

"We need to take account of what is conservation of biodiversity and what is conservation of cultural diversity", says Rojas.

"We need to evaluate and reconcile the different ethnic groups present in the area with the conservation areas and social problems that exist because of poor quality of life and lack of services", he added.

Governing the Amazon - New Tribes

According to the MP Eddie Gómez Abreu, who is also Vice President of the Amazonia Parliament, the greatest threat to the region is "the US government".

"We know they are interested in energy resources, minerals and water", he declared.

The Peruvian government created the Amazonia Parliament 30 years ago.

It is made by up of seven countries in the region: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Surinam, Guyana, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Their remit was to create the legal framework in order to guarantee the conservation of the area.

Eddie Gómez speaks of a network of organisations which he calls "pseudo environmentalist" or "pseudo religious", which are financed by western powers "in order to take control of those energy resources".

The most controversial case in Venezuela is that of the New Tribes.

They were a US evangelical mission that had been working in the region for 40 years.

They were expelled from the country three years ago by President Hugo Chávez.

New Tribes was part of the Summer Linguistic Foundation, a US outfit dedicated to translating the Bible into indigenous dialects and, it is claimed, receives funding from the big trans-nationals - some of which are linked to power and defence industries.

In the 1970s the group - which at one point had some 200 missionary members - was accused of supposed mineral prospecting as well as forcing western culture and evangelism on the indigenous people.

However, the missionaries denied the accusations and always claimed their work was purely evangelical and that they respected the identity of the indigenous people.

Controversial gas pipeline

Further controversy was raised in 2006 when President Chávez proposed the building of a gas pipeline to link Venezuela with Argentina, the so-called Great Southern Gas Pipeline.

The project remains on hold because of the high costs involved and also due to concerns that were raised by environmental groups.

The 8,000 kilometres of pipeline would involve cutting through the Amazon and other fragile areas like the Brazilian Swampland.

In the case of Venezuela, the most practical way and less costly in the monetary sense of constructing the pipeline would mean damaging the Amazon region.

"It would have to be placed in the lower areas, in the virgin forest areas, the impact on the environment would be tremendous," declared Franklin Rojas, Director of Institutional Development.

Ecologists say these projects must be centred on small scale activities and managed by local communities, rather than on a largely invasive and potentially destructive scale.