Assault on Venezuela's Protected Areas

Former Minister for the Environment, Enrique Colmenares Finol, yesterday labelled the Caldera administration the "Garimpeiro cabinet of the Americas" in an unprecedented attack on government plans to turn 1,200 million hectares of the Imataca Forest Reserve over to mining concessions.

Colmenares Finol claims the government wants to make Imataca into a showpiece for the new "Apertura Minera" - Mines Opening -- by getting public opinion behind the awarding of concessions to mining companies.

Rafael Caldera's government has sought to persuade the public that there are valuable revenues to be gained from the mining sector, despite evidence that as little as 5 tonnes of gold of the 40 extracted from Venezuela's gold-rich Bolívar State was actually taxed last year.

Sources close to the Ministry of the Environment and Non-Renewable Resources (MARNR) say the new plan for Imataca is nothing compared to the new long-awaited Mining Law. The Mining Law promises to open up even more of Venezuela's protected areas, superseding previous legislation. Combined with the present Apertura Petrolera, it seems Rafael Caldera's government has bent under the pressure from the mining and energy lobbies to let them solve the country's economic crisis.

According to Colmenares Finol, the new Imataca Management Plan sets a grave antecedent. "If Parliament fails to intervene, every cabinet from now on will be able to do what it likes with protected areas."

The ex-Minister for the Environment also criticised the government for passing the new Management Plan through the back door, effectively bypassing Congress, and claimed the government had shown its true colours by not permitting any agricultural development in the new plan, while allowing damaging artesanal and large-scale mining to continue.

The debate over the 3.2 million hectare Imataca Forest Reserve in southeastern Venezuela has heated up since the President of the Chamber of Deputies' Environmental Commission, César Pérez Vivas, declared last week that Congress would be forced to take the case to the Supreme Court if the government refused to reverse its decision.

On Monday, the important Venezuelan NGO Fudena declared its opposition to the new plan, stating it contravened the Washington Convention of 1941 on Biodiversity which Venezuela signed. Only Congress can alter the status of protected areas such as the Imataca Forest Reserve.

Fudena also claims the Environment Law's article 3 paragraph 8 and the Territorial Management Law on public consultation have been violated, since the Venezuelan cabinet passed the management plan a full two weeks before the deadline for public consultation had expired.

"The most worrying aspect of Imataca is that it seems to provide another example of how this government seeks short-term means to rescue the country from its present economic crisis with no thought for the future. You have to ask : What will be left of Venezuela to guarantee its existence tomorrow?" stated the NGO.

Seventeen leaders of the Pemon indians of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro States from Venezuela's southeast, representing 14,000 people, are in Caracas this week to lobby the government on the issue of the plan to lay powerlines through their ancestral lands and Canaima National Park World Heritage Site. The Pemon have also declared their opposition to the new Management Plan for Imataca.

"Mining in Imataca means our death, that's why we're against it. We're fighting miners for access to clean water and fishing sites," stated Alexis Romero, director of Indigenous Participation in the Gran Sabana municipality of Bolívar State.

The Pemon and hundreds of environmentalists and public figures will be at the demonstration against the new Management Plan for Imataca at the Ministry of Environment and Non-Renewable Resources (MARNR) tomorrow.