The long thin wooden trunk came crashing down, thumping into the bush with a thud. Then the woman swung it down again, and we all closed in to see what the result was. The young rattle snake was hoisted into the air on the end of the trunk, limp and uncoiled. A minute earlier it had sat flicking its tongue and shaking its tail menacingly. Now it looked decidedly meek and pathetic.
Finding a snake wasn’t on the agenda that day. In fact grasses and flowers were more what the workshop was looking for. But I think we all thought of it as a bonus of some sort.
I was in the village of Liwo Riwo, in the east of Canaima National Park. I had tagged along with some people I knew from the Venezuelan NGO EcoNatura who were carrying out workshops with the local Pemon indians on ‘conflict resolution’ and the future of tourism. On the second day it was decided groups would go out into the savanna and come back with as many grasses, flowers and plants that they could name. That’s when the snake made its guest-star appearance.
The Pemon are confused about tourism. In fact it would be fair to say few of them even understand the nature of the beast. At one point I was called in to tell them why people came to the Park, revealing just how fragile their concept of the tourist and the industry really is. It’s a bit like having a football stadium and asking why people come to play football there.
So I told them : for the women. That got a laugh - cheap as it was. Then I explained (seriously) that in my country it was cold and wet; that there were no table top mountains puncturing the horizon, no kilometre-high waterfalls vaulting into space, no savannnas, cloud forests, orquids or natural jacuzzis (that you could comfortably swim in…), and no indian people. They seemed content with my reply, and I went back to teaching the young kids how to juggle oranges.
Tourism is taking off in Canaima. Figures aren’t particularly reliable, but an estimated 63,000 national and 14,000 international tourists visited the eastern part of the park in 1993-4 (Ruta Gran Sabana - accessible by road), and a further 17,500 international visitors flew to Canaima village and Angel Falls in the same period. Between 1991 and 1994, national visitors increased by 50%, so 1997 figures are probably in the 80-90,000 region for the Ruta Gran Sabana.
The national park was created in 1962 and later enlarged to cover an area the size of Belgium, 3 million hectares. However, only the eastern sector - the Ruta Gran Sabana area - has a management plan which determines what kind of activities can take place and the norms for these. The western region, where Angel Falls and Canaima village are, still languishes without any coherent plan at all - one reason for Canaima’s disorderly and damaging development to date. The conspiratorial would put that down to the cosy relationship between Aerotuy, the airline company which works a lot in Canaima, and the National Parks Institute (INPARQUES), but that’s another story.
Liwo Riwo meanwhile sits in plum position. Half an hour from the village the Chinak Meru (also called Aponwao incorrectly) waterfalls thunder down for a hundred metres. In the high season, around Christmas and Easter, up to three thousand people pass through the village in a month. The Aponwao river ("never dries" in Pemon) flows past the village and over the falls. Initially the villagers used to take tourists in dug-out canoes downriver to within five minutes walk of the falls. Until disaster struck in 1993 and six people died when a canoe’s engine failed and it went over the edge.
Now they just take the tourists across the river and guide them the half hour walk to the falls - a service for which they charge B$2,000 - under $5. The problem is many people resent paying the money. Some decide to swim across the river and make their own way to the falls. The Pemon have been known to let down these people’s tyres. Even if visitors don’t take it upon themselves to swim, the obligatory payment causes quite a bit of friction, and the Pemon and the park’s authorities worry about this.
The question of payment is all tied up with tourism and what the Pemon are going to do to direct the future of their land. The general feeling from the workshop was that tourism was a good thing. 3,000 times $5 is a lot of money for a small village. It brings them revenue which their subsistence agriculture can’t provide, allowing them to buy clothes, medicines and save up for cars. They’ve been building a new village away from Liwo Riwo and tourist revenues are essential for this.
My favourite of the workshop’s activities involved the participants drawing Liwo Riwo in the past, present and future. The future was full of hotels and restaurants and parking areas. No one drew the village without tourism. In many ways the development of tourism is inevitable. The only way they could stop it would be barring the road to the village (as Wonken’s villagers thought). I doubt they would even be allowed to do that.
The negative impacts of tourism were discussed - the litter, the noise, the obnoxious Venezuelans, the cold Europeans, the loss of their culture. Ways of improving the village’s infrastructure were also debated, improving signing, building new houses, keeping the village clean, and the reason for collecting flora from the savanna, a visitor’s centre. INPARQUES and the NGO EcoNatura will help with all of these, and one could hope the future of the village and its inhabitants will be as bright as we’d like.
Tourism in Canaima is particular in that only Pemon are allowed to live in the park. That means all the services they provide, whether restaurants, guides or canoes, are run by them, for them. They have a certain amount of autonomy. If they don’t like a tour operator, and had good cause not to, they could feasibly ban him from the village. They can tell noisy tourists to go somewhere else, or call the park warden and ask him to sort them out. As long as they stay within the park’s management plan, they can development the village the way they want to. Although the two aren’t always compatible, - thus the ‘conflict resolution’ - my opinion of the management plan is that it’s done a pretty good job of keeping tourism development on a sustainable course for the future. Better that than nothing at all, as Canaima village testifies.
However the Pemon will only really gain proper autonomy when they have their own tour operators within and without the park. That has to be their goal in the long-term, so they can control the use of their lands and work out problems internally. Although there is one such operator taking people on treks up Mount Roraima and around the Gran Sabana, until they get links with Caracas or abroad, they’ll remain small and little-known.
As the workshop came to a close, the participants were saying how constructive and helpful it had been, and how grateful they were for the support of outsiders. But then one of the village’s older women, white-haired, wrinkled and plump, spoke her mind. In Pemon it sounded pretty strong, and there were a few murmurs in the room as she continued for what must have been a good five minutes. When she finished someone translated her thoughts into Spanish. It emerged she was saying that white people had only brought problems to the village, that the young people were losing their identity and why was this any different? After all the words of good will and hope, the old woman’s words struck a cord with me. Just as the savanna is full of snakes in the grass waiting for unsuspecting passers-by, so, to the older Pemon, are the plans of white people, however well-meaning, young and enthusiastic they may be. The problem is, you can’t bash the life out of litter, noise and loss of culture with an old tree trunk.