Following last week's demonstration in Caracas, the Venezuelan Senate has taken the dramatic step to recommend the government revoke the new Management Plan for the Imataca Forest Reserve.
President Rafael Caldera's administration faces an embarrassing few weeks as the issue is also to be investigated by the Supreme Court and the Attorney General has promised to look into the matter. Representatives of the European Union and IUCN-Netherlands are in Caracas this week, talking to the Minister of Planning, Teodoro Petfkoff and the Ministry of Environment and Non-Renewable Resources (MARNR) about Imataca and Venezuela's sudden transition from good conservation practice to gold-rush policy.
Pressure from international institutions could be decisive in the outcome of the furore over Imataca. A petition of more than 10,000 signatures was handed in by the protesters on Thursday, and much to the delight of the Coalition for Orinoquia-Amazonia (COAMA), the umbrella group representing over 30 NGOs which organised the demonstration, the President of Congress has since promised the issues must now be discussed fully by Senators.
Juvencio Gómez, leader of the Pemon indians of southeastern Bolívar State, who are in the Venezuelan capital at the moment stated "We are not against development per se, but we do reject mining and electricity projects which put our communities and environment at risk - especially when we are not informed about them and not consulted. We are tired of the government's aggressive exploitation of natural resources which do not take Venezuela's traditional inhabitants into account. Finally, we demand that our own rights as indigenous people be recognised."
Thursday's demonstration was the culmination of growing concern over a series of highly unpopular and legally dubious decisions regarding the mining sector and Venezuela's protected regions. Caldera's administration seems convinced opening up new areas to tap the country's vast mineral reserves will provide the revenues to rescue it from its present economic crisis.
In October last year, moves by the governor of southern Amazonas State, Bernabe Gutierrez, to reverse the Presidential Decrees prohibiting mining and logging in the state received a barrage of criticism both at home and abroad, and the threat to one of the Amazon's least affected regions is still far from quashed.
Voices of concern were also raised earlier this year over the planned high tension powerline which is set to traverse Canaima National Park, home to the Pemon indians and a World Heritage Site since 1994. The powerlines are likely to spell increased mining operations to the south and north of Canaima Park and threaten the hydrographically essential Caroní watershed. The Pemon have vowed to oppose the project and take their case to the UN if necessary.
However, the recent move by the Venezuelan cabinet to change the Management Plan of the gold-rich Imataca Reserve by the back door has caused the greatest uproar, and might well backfire on the administration, jeopardising its plans for a new Mining Law.
Article 7 of the Mining Law states the use and development of land for mines and energy production cannot be prohibited or restricted by the establishment or the judicial status of ABRAES (Areas Under Special Administration). About three quarters of Venezuela's Bolívar State is under special administration, and would be 'fair game' to the mining sector if the law is passed.
The control of the MARNR would also be effectively curtailed by the new Law. "Mining activities likely to degrade the environment according to the Environment Law" states Article 6, "will be under the control of the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MEM)."
With the MEM's previous history of corruption and incompetence, and the government's failure to control mining activities in Bolívar State to date, Article 6, and most of the new Law, is seen by environmentalists as a recipe for disaster.
It is now more than possible the Venezuelan government, despite its protestations of "green extremism" and media distortion, will be forced into a face-losing U-turn by either the Senate or the Supreme Court. Pressure from the mining lobby and foreign multinationals eager to get their hands on Imataca's estimated $20 billion reserves of gold might not be enough to prevent the administration from caving in to public pressure.
However, despite the apparent victory of the environmental lobby in this first stage of opposition to the new Management Plan for Imataca, it will be extremely hard for mining to be outlawed in the area altogether. An earlier version of the plan delimited 300,000 hectares - as opposed to the present 1.2 million - for mining activities, and the government could well fall back on this compromise figure to placate opposition.