PEMON INDIANS PARALYSE POWERLINES

In a dramatic twist last week, Pemon Indians affected by the high-tension power lines set to cross their traditional lands twice paralysed work near the villages of San Rafael de Kamoiran and San Francisco de Yuruani in Venezuela's southeastern Bolivar State.

The action came as a result of the state-owned company CVG-EDELCA and INPARQUES failing to reply to letters from the Pemon pleading for information and consultation. Government institutions have in fact broken the Venezuelan Law of Administrative Proceedings by failing to reply within fifteen days.

Kenton Miller, the director of the prestigious World Resources Institute has voiced his concern over the proposed high-tension powerlines plan which will affect the reknowned World Heritage Site of Canaima National Park in southeastern Venezuela.

In a letter to the Venezuelan Parks Institute (INPARQUES) president, Luisa Himiob de Rojas, Kenton Miller asked for more information regarding the plans and for the institute's position to them, Himiob having already voiced her support for the project.

Pemon leaders stated they would continue to stop the project until they are presented with detailed plans regarding the positioning of vertices, and involved in all consultation. The Pemon General Captain is concerned the lines will open Pemon traditional lands to mining and other extractive activities which have already caused serious damage in the region.

In a leaked report by the consultancy firm involved in the powerlines project, the budget for the southern half of the powerlines' trajectory alone could cost Venezuela up to $30 million, and will be completed by August 1998, just in time for national elections in both Brazil and Venezuela. Work is set to begin in July of this year and leaves little time for consultation or for an adequate Environmental Impact Assessment to be carried out.

The section of powerline affecting the huge Canaima National Park is a 230kV line running 204km from the proposed Las Claritas substation to the north of the park to the town of Santa Elena de Uairen close to the border with Brazil. This section incudes a substation in the mining settlement of Las Cristinas. The entire route falls within protected areas: 80% in Canaima National Park (60% of this within the strict protection zones), 15% in the Imataca Forest Reserve and 5% in the Sur del Estado Bolivar Protection Zone.

The impact of the powerlines on what is an extremely fragile and varied ecosystem, with an extremely high proportion of species found nowhere else in the world will be extensive. The area forms part of the world's largest tropical wilderness area.

The leaked plan describes the service corridor, which runs the length of the line, as being between 12m wide in savanna and 33m wide in forest, including a 3-6m wide track on either side of the lines to allow travel in 4WD vehicles. The access roads will be 3-6m wide to allow penetration of heavy machinery and 4WD vehicles. The sites for pylons will require the clearing of 50-100sq.m. of vegetation.

Environmentalist groups in Venezuela are particularly concerned by the impact on the mountain range of the Sierra de Lema which is still largely unexplored and known for the endimism of its plant life. It is feared damage inflicted will seriously affect animal life within the range which is largely untouched, situated as it is on the northeastern edge of the park.

The chief beneficiary of the powerlines is certain to be the mining industry based in Las Claritas the north of the National Park, but also, and more worryingly, mining activities which are increasing on the park's southern border north and west of the town of Santa Elena de Uairen. Despite legislation protecting this southern region, damage due to small- and medium-scale mining has increased dramatically over the last years due to the complicity of government instiutions such as the Guardia Nacional and Ministry of Mines and Energy. It is rumoured the government hopes to open up all the area to the south of the Park to large-scale mining, for which large amounts of electricity will be a prerequisite.

Confusingly, the leaked document also states benefits of the plan as providing electricity to the Pemon communities along the road and proposed route, despite these already posessing adequate hydropower installations.

It is doubtful whether the Pemon's protest will stop the project completely at this late stage, but it is hoped their resistance will at least diminish the potentially disastrous impact of the powerlines on their land.