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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.

Phallanx of Kukenan (Matawi)
A unique landscape formed from the oldest rocks on Earth

Artwork by Stephen Nelson, see Links SectionThe 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.

Wadaka Piapo Tepuy -- detail by Santiago RamosThe 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 extent granites.

On the river CarraoThe 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 or cultivation.

One third of the plants are found nowhere else on the planet.

Pemon boys

The Pemón: traditional inhabitants of Canaima

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 national park.

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 SectionArtwork 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.

Mission at KavanayenThe 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 1995).

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.

View near Wonken -- Santiago Ramos

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 electricity.

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.

Bienvenido, a friendly Inparques warden at Kama Meru 1997Thirty-five years 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.

Not-so-mobile touristOn 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.

Mining in IkabaruIn 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 it serves.

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".

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Información sobre Canaima en Español

The authors

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

Contact the authors via email at

Further references:

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.

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