José Gonzáles, Coordinator
Federation of Indigenous People of the State of Bolívar, Venezuela
Much of the South American country of Venezuela is swathed in tropical rainforest. The Imataca Forest Reserve in the northeast of the country—a vast and beautiful area of forest the size of the Netherlands—is home to five Indian tribes and a huge variety of wildlife. For over 30 years, in recognition of its fragility and environmental importance, Imataca has been a protected reserve.
But now this unique area of rainforest is under threat—from the very government that has been charged with protecting it for future generations.
The forest, and all the life that depends upon it, are about to be sacrificed for the potential wealth that lies below the ground—enormous reserves of gold and diamonds.
Last year, under pressure from the mining industry, the Venezuelan President and Cabinet decided—without proper public consultation—to divide most of the reserve up between mining and logging corporations. They ignored the protected status of the forest, ignored the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there, and ignored all the national and international agreements they have signed agreeing to protect the area.
Presidential Decree 1850, issued in May 1997, gave almost half of the entire reserve over to mining, and left less than 4% of the forest completely protected. There were nationwide protests by indigenous groups, environmentalists, social groups, the Catholic Church, the Venezuelan Congress and others at the government’s actions. At the end of last year, Venezuela’s Supreme Court suspended the implementation of Decree 1850, and ordered the Government not to issue any more mining concessions, while it decided on the legality of the Decree.
The Supreme Court is currently considering legal challenges to Decree 1850 which claim the Decree is illegal under Venezuelan law. While the Court deliberates, campaigners across the country are asking for international support to help protect Imataca. If loggers and miners are allowed free rein in this supposedly protected area, it will set a disastrous precedent for the rest of the country’s forests. The time to act is now.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Congressional Committee on the Environment is one of the groups pressing to have Decree 1850 repealed by the Supreme Court. It will greatly strengthen their position to be able to show worldwide support for protecting Imataca. Please write and tell the Committee that you support the call by Venezuelan groups to:
* Revoke Presidential Decree 1850.
* Recognise the ancestral rights of Imataca’s indigenous peoples.
* Set aside a substantial part of the reserve as a totally protected area.
* Begin a process of genuine public consultation to decide on the future management of Imataca.
Senadora Lucia Antillano, Presidente Comisión de Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio del Senado
The Imataca Forest Reserve
Imataca is one of the four largest forest reserves in Venezuela. Its total area is 3.6 million hectares—nearly as large as Switzerland. It is located in the Northeast of Venezuela, on the border with Guyana. The reserve is covered with rich, pristine tropical forests. Its wealth of ecosystems and biodiversity is rivaled by few places on Earth. In recognition of this, Imataca was made a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area in the early 1960s.
Part of this territory is also home to five indigenous groups—the Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemon–who have inhabited the area for centuries, and whose survival literally depends on the surrounding natural environment.
The Exploitation of Imataca
Imataca's protected status is intended to strike a balance between conservation and economics. Long-term logging and other industries have been allowed in parts of the reserve since its creation.
But the ground beneath Imataca is rich in gold, diamonds, iron-ore, bauxite, manganese, and other minerals, and in recent years mining interests have tried their best to exploit them. During the 1980s and 1990s, parts of the region were invaded by thousands of miners, looking mainly for gold and diamonds. Their digging and smuggling activities exacted a heavy toll on the environment. By the end of 1996, almost 10% of Imataca was being mined in this way.
But Imataca’s large deposits of gold and diamonds were also being eyed by big international mining companies. Gold deposits beneath Imataca are estimated at 10,000 metric tons. If they were fully exploited, Venezuela could become one of the world’s major gold-exporting nations.
But the fact that Imataca was a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area meant that such full-scale mining could not take place. The big mining companies’ response was simple: they pressured the Venezuelan government to change the law.
Early in 1997, in response to this pressure, the President and Cabinet acted. They hastily prepared a new ‘management plan’ for Imataca, without proper consultation with the Congress, the public, or with the indigenous peoples who live there. This management plan allowed a massive extension of large-scale mining throughout the reserve.
In an unprecedented decision taken by the Cabinet on May 14, 1997, the Government put this plan into action and distributed much of Imataca among multi-national mining and logging corporations. Presidential Decree 1850, issued a few days later, passed the new management plan into law. 40% of the entire reserve is scheduled to be mined, and only 4% of Imataca is set aside as ‘protection zones’, free from exploitation.
An Illegal Move?
The government’s shock decision to allow massive exploitation of Imataca contravenes many of Venezuela’s existing laws. For example, ‘The Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance’ says that any change in use of the national territory must be decided upon by the Congress, not the President and Cabinet. Article 57 of Venezuela’s Forestry Law also outlaws the change of use of the whole or part of a Forest Reserve without previous authorization from Congress.
Presidential Decree 1850 also violates the Washington Convention of 1941 on the protection of flora, fauna and the scenic beauties of the Americas, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which Venezuela signed at the Earth Summit in 1992. It violates Convention 107 of the International Labour Organisation on the rights of indigenous peoples, and it even contravenes one of Venezuela’s previous Presidential Decrees, intended to protect forest reserves.
The Campaign to Save Imataca
Opposition to the destruction of Imataca has been growing across the country. Indigenous groups, whose very future is threatened by the government’s actions, have protested strongly. In a recent speech, the coordinator of the Federation of Indigenous People of the State of Bolívar proclaimed, “The forest is our home, our laboratory, our hospital, our university. It is the source of the knowledge we need to survive. Our fight against the Decree is a fight in defence of life.”
Environmental and social groups have also been fighting to get Decree 1850 overturned. There have been public marches and demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and media attention on the issue. Many opposition political parties have protested to the government; the Catholic Church has also urged the government to repeal the Decree.
In November last year, in response to three separate cases brought before it by both NGOs and the Congressional Commission on the Environment, Venezuela’s Supreme Court announced an investigation into the legality of Decree 1850. It immediately suspended the issuing of any new mining concessions while it did so.
Campaigners in Venezuela are urging people around the world who are concerned about the fate of Imataca to help them in their campaign by writing to the Congressional Commission on the Environment expressing support for the overturning of Decree 1850. There is still time to save Imataca, but action is needed now.
For more information, contact:
Julio Cesar Centeno, PhD
Tel/fax: +58 74 714 576
Mary Lou Goodwin
Audubon Society of Venezuela
Tel: +58 292-2812 or 292-3268
Fax: +58 299-10716
“All That Glitters is Not Gold: Balancing Conservation and Development in Venezuela's Frontier Forests,” authored by Marta Miranda, is a report issued by the World Resources Institute. The report promotes sustainable development in Imataca and takes into account the long-term interests of indigenous peoples. The report is available from:
World Resources Institute
1709 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC, 20006 USA
Tel: +1 202 638-6300
Fax: +1 202 638-0036