by Christopher J. Sharpe
& Iokiñe Rodríguez
Canaima National Park is located in
the south-east of Venezuela in Bolívar State close to the borders
with Brazil and Guyana. The park protects the north-western section
of the Guayana Shield, an ancient geological formation shared with
Brazil, the Guianas and Colombia. The park was established in 1962
with an area of 10,000km², but its size was increased to 30,000km² in 1975 in order to safeguard the watershed functions of its river
basins. At that time it became the world's largest national park,
its area being equivalent to that of Belgium in Europe, or larger
than the State of Maryland.
In recognition of its extraordinary
scenery and geological and biological values, the park was conceded World Heritage Status in 1994, forming one of a
select list of 126 natural and natural-cultural World Heritage Sites
worldwide. Canaima actually fulfilled all four of UNESCO's criteria
for qualification as a World Heritage property. Ironically, the
name of the park, which derives from the novel "Canaima"
by Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos, means "spirit of evil"
in the language of the Pemón, local inhabitants of the park.
A unique landscape
formed from the oldest rocks on Earth
The best-known feature of Canaima
National Park are its characteristic flat-topped mountain formations
known as tepuis from the local indigenous name. These mountains
were popularised in several novels from the early part of this century,
many of them inspired by the 19th Century British botanist Everard
Im Turn who lectured throughout Europe on his return. The most widely
recognised of these novels is The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author
of the Sherlock Holmes novels, which describes the ascent of a South
American plateau inhabited by prehistoric plants and dinosaurs.
Artwork above by Stephen Nelson, see LINKS.
The geological history
of the area is only superficially understood. There are three main
geological formations. The oldest is an underlying igneous-metamorphic
basement formed some 1.2-3.6 billion years ago whilst South America
was joined to Africa as the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Between
1.6 and 1 billion years ago, this was overlain with a sedimentary
cover. The first of these formations is too deeply buried to be
visible within the park, but second (known as the Roraima Group)
forms the basis of the area's extraordinary topography (Huber
1995). It consists of quartzite and sandstone strata which were
probably laid down in shallow seas or large inland lakes (Briceño
et al. 1990) during the Pre-Cambrian period. Lastly, during Palaeozoic
and Mesozoic times magma repeatedly penetrated the existing sediments
forming intrusive rocks which are typically diabases, and to a lesser
tepui formations, not unlike those found in the deserts of northern
Arizona, came into being by a process of erosion of the surrounding
lands over millions of years. The tepuis are sandstone massifs,
and it is thought that what are today mountains once formed harder
or less faulted strata which were more resistant to erosion.
There is an impressive array of different soil types.
The low mineral content of the parent rocks of the Guayana Shield,
the high rates of weathering that occur in tropical climates and
the age of the sediments has produced soils which are generally
acid and nutrient poor. Only where there are more basic igneous
intrusions are the soils capable of supporting luxuriant forests
One third of the plants are found nowhere
else on the planet.
The Pemón: traditional inhabitants
The traditional inhabitants of the south-east of
Venezuela, including Canaima National Park, are the Pemón indigenous
people, part of the Carib linguistic group. Their entire population
approaches 20,000, with about three quarters of these within the
The date of first occupation of the Gran
Sabana is not known, but the Pemón are thought to have immigrated
into the region some 200 years ago (Thomas 1980), although there
are archeological remains of human settlements which date back 9000
years (Schubert and Huber 1989). Perhaps this 'late colonisation'
of the Gran Sabana is a function of its poor soils: there is certainly
some evidence to suggest that low productivity is responsible for
the relatively low population density of its present day inhabitants
in relation to the indigenous inhabitants of, for example, the Amazonian
lowlands (Huber and Zent 1995). Despite this short history of settlement,
the Pemón have an intimate relationship with their landscape environment.
The names of rock formations, waterfalls, rapids, lakes and streams
all have their origins described in myth. Some of these names date
from the time of the culture heroes; some from other mythological
sequences (Thomas 1982).
Artwork by Stephen Nelson, see LINKS
In particular, the Pemón relationship with the tepuis (actually the Pemón denomination of "table mountain")
is complex and profound. The tepuis are sacred mountains for the
Pemón. They are the "guardians of the savannah" where
the "Mawari" - 'spirits in the form of men who may steal
the souls of the living' (Thomas 1982) - make their home, and for
this reason they are not to be ascended according to the norms and
traditions of Pemón society. Only in the last two decades, with
the increase in visits from tourists, have some Pemón begun to disregard
these traditional beliefs by taking groups of hikers to some of
the more accessible tepuis, such as Roraima, Matawi (Kukenan) and Auyantepuy.
The traditional subsistence activities of the Pemón are swidden
agriculture, hunting and fishing. Today there is increasingly more
work to be found in mining and tourism. The settlement pattern of
the Pemón has changed since the Catholic missions arrived at the
beginning of this century. Formerly living in disperse communities
along watercourses (Thomas 1980), they now tend to concentrate in
larger groups of 100-2000 people. The new road through the Gran
Sabana has also attracted larger settlements. This concentration
has brought about many changes in lifestyle, some of which affect
their relationship with the environment. The traditional swidden
plots, for example, once sited only on the richer, more alkaline
diabase outcrops where forest regeneration is apt to be swift, are
now often cut on poorer acidic soils. The result is that in some
areas forest is being lost to secondary scrub or savanna (Fölster
The formation of savanna is also accelerated by
the traditional practice of burning amongst the Pemón. Burning is
practised for a number of sociocultural reasons including communication,
maintaining paths clear, eliminating dangerous animals (mostly rattlesnakes),
hunting, removing weeds, stimulating new growth of pasture for grazing,
and - more recently -as a protest against unpopular management decisions.
Although burning is more frequent in savanna, fire
often reaches forest, shrublands or scrub. Where there is extensive
burning of this type of vegetation, the poor soils impede regeneration
and a savanna or secondary scrub results (Fölster 1995).
According to some Pemón, burning is today practised
with less awareness of its environmental consequences than in the
past. The cultural aspects of burning in the Pemón have not been
studied, but it would be interesting to ascertain the extent to
which burning is influenced by the effects of transculturation which
has occurred since the 1930s.
Management: reconciling local
needs with conservation goals
The Canaima National Park was created in order to
safeguard the geological, biological and cultural values described
above, but its major economic importance has been the production
of water for the Guri Dam, which provides some 77% of the nation's
There were no management activities until 1981,
when EDELCA a government electricity company, began a fire-fighting
programme. Only in 1990 did the park receive its first park warden,
and it remained with only one staff member until 1992 when eleven
more staff were assigned and a Zoning and Use Plan for the Eastern
Sector was approved.
after the creation of Canaima National Park, the area continues
to be managed on a shoestring budget: the operational management
allocation for the Eastern Sector during 1996 was $1,171.
Although the conditions for staff have improved in the last five
years, the budget does not cover even the most basic management
necessities: for example, the Gran Sabana has one vehicle in poor
condition and there is no radio system. The Western Sector of the
park is still lacking a Zoning and Use Plan.
Active park management has become more of a necessity
in recent years given the growing threats to Canaima National Park.
These threats have been analysed in participatory rural appraisal
(PRA) run by a non-governmentl organisation together with several
Pemón communities and parks agency personnel. A resume of threats
is shown in Table 1.
The main pressures on the park come from two sources.
On one hand the demands of the Pemón population resident in the
park have increased. The Pemón population has quintupled over the
last twenty years, and there is clearly a demographic effect of
sheer numbers, which has brought about increasing demands on the
parks natural resources. However, the situation is more complex,
as changes in settlement pattern have led to new land-use regimes
and changes in resource consumption. The best management approach
must surely be found in adjusting to recent patterns of resource
use by addressing the underlying causes of current resource use
and identifying ways in which resources can be more sustainably
used, rather than prohibiting undesirable activities.
On the other hand the tourism industry, which almost
doubled between 1991 and 1995, continues to develop within the park
without adequate planning control. As the Pemón have become more
dependent on income generated from tourism, the problem of tourism
management has increased, as have its environmental and cultural
impacts. Two urgent priorities are to develop management
guidelines for tourism in the national park, and to strengthen
the capacity of the Pemón to manage and take advantage
of tourism in a way compatible with the conservation objectives
of the area.
In addition to this is the latent threat
of gold and diamond mining. Mining is one of the major activities
in the lands adjacent to the park, and it is well known that the
park itself has considerable mineral wealth. Although mining is
currently prohibited, there have been sudden illegal 'booms' in,
for example, the Kamarata Valley in 1994. The physical presence
of mining operations on the park's borders provides a constant reminder
to the park's inhabitants of what may be obtained from their lands
in the short-term. With government policy now aimed at promoting
mining throughout the region, the park will require increased vigilance
to safeguard its natural resources over its 3 million hectare extent.
One particular project which is shortly to be realised
is the construction of a high-tension powerline through the national
park in order to supply electricity to mining operations to the
north and south of the park. Although the project is opposed by
local inhabitants and considered unwise by conservation scientists,
it seems likely to succeed due to the powerful lobby whose interests
With moves to open Venezuelan protected areas to
mining already under way, perhaps the legend of El Dorado will finally
come true in the Canaima National Park as mining proponents would
wish. However, standing in this, one of the world's last remote
wildlands, surrounded by vistas of table mountains, one cannot help
but feel that the riches conserved by Canaima National Park are
worth incalculably more than all the gold or diamonds that can be
extracted from its sub-soil. Hopefully, the efforts of the
many individuals and organisations dedicated to conserving Canaima
National Park will ensure that future generations will not blame
us for having lost the "Lost World".
See Maps or More on Canaima
Información sobre Canaima en Español
Sociologist Iokiñe Rodríguez directed the Venezuelan
NGO EcoNatura's Programme in Conflict Resolution in Canaima National
Park, financed by the US NGO The Nature Conservancy. She has a PhD at Sussex University (UK) and works on various conservation programmes in Latin America and Venezuela.
Ecologist Christopher Sharpe was a consultant to this programme.
Both have worked in Canaima National Park for a number of years. Chris is an expert birding guide. See birdvenezuela.com
Contact the authors via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Using PRA for conflict resolution in National parks: lessons from a venezuelan experience in Canaima National park. Iokiñe Rodriguez. (1998). PLA Notes (33), IIED, England.
Hernan Dario Correa y Iokiñe Rodríguez (2005). Encrucijadas Ambientales en America Latina. Entre el Manejo y la Transformación de Conflictos Socio Ambientales. Universidad de la Paz, Costa Rica.
Available also in English
Hernan Dario Correa y Iokiñe Rodríguez (2005. Environmental Crossroads in Latin America. Between managing and transforming natural resource conflict.
Conocimiento Indigena vs Cientifico: El conflicto por el uso del fuego en el Parque Nacional Canaima (2004). Interciencia 29(3):121-129.
Pemon Perspectives of Fire Management in Canaima National Park, South-Eastern Venezuela (2006 in Press). Human Ecology.
This article can be found on the
excellent Planeta.com website