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by Christopher J. Sharpe & Iokiñe Rodríguez

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.

Carlos Lambos on the River KaruayThe 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).

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 savanna" 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. Boys at play in Liwo Riwo

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 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.

Pemon house in El PaujiAlthough 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.

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