The Assault on IMATACA
Julio Cesar Centeno, PhD
August 10, 1997
A Venezuelan government plan to mine a Forest Reserve the size of Holland has generated a heated national debate, due to resistance encountered among the general public, political and academic circles, and environmental and social groups.
In an unprecedented measure, the Executive Branch of Government distributed the Forest Reserve of Imataca among loggers and miners, condemning local indigenous people to be prisoners in their own land, violating national regulations and international agreements on human rights and environmental protection.
Part of the indignation stems from the Government's attempt to mislead public opinion through a farcical "public consultation", in violation of established national regulations, and of fundamental ethical and democratic principles. The case is before the Supreme Court of Justice.
What is Imataca?
Imataca is a forest reserve of 3.6 million hectares, the size of Holland, and nearly as large as Switzerland. It is located at the foot of the Guayana Shield, in the Northeast of Venezuela. In the language of the Warao, Imataca means "Drop of Water in the Dark of Night".
It is covered with rich, pristine tropical forests. It is also rich in gold, diamonds, iron-ore, bauxite, manganese, and other minerals. Furthermore, its wealth of ecosystems, biodiversity, and genetic resources is rivaled by few places on Earth. It is one of the key legacies to future generations of Venezuelans. Its protection is a matter of national interest.
Part of this territory is also home to five indigenous groups, whose survival and cultural legacy depend on the surrounding natural environment: the Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemon.
Its geopolitical importance is enhanced by the fact that it includes about three-quarters of the Venezuelan border with Guyana.
In recognition of its natural wealth and fragility, the area was delimited as a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area in the early 60s. Such a legal structure is meant to permanently protect its natural resources and ecological processes, while allowing the selective harvesting of industrial timber and non-timber forest products, through long-term concessions, and 30 to 40 year management plans. About half of the reserve has been allocated in forest concessions.
During the 80s and 90s, a relatively small part of the region was invaded by thousands of small miners, seeking mainly for gold and diamonds. The anarchical nature of their activities, and the absence of law and government in the area, has resulted in the smuggling of some 10 tons of gold each year, plus a heavy toll on the environment and the local population. By the end of 1996, small gold miners had invaded about ten percent of the area.
The large deposits of gold and diamonds also brought the attention of international mining companies, encouraged by a government policy of "apertura minera". The official plan aims to increase the production of gold alone from 15 to 50 tons per year, turning Venezuela into one of the main producers of gold in the world. Gold deposits within the Reserve are estimated at 10,000 metric tons. But the expansion of mining in Imataca was hampered by applicable environmental regulations, given the character of the area as a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area. To overcome these difficulties, the mining lobby pushed for a modification of the legal framework controlling the reserve.
The Ministry of Mines and the Venezuelan Guayana Corporation came into play, quickly allocating nearly 700 concessions or contracts to mining companies, most of them on questionable legal grounds. While the Ministry of the Environment prepared a management plan for the reserve, which would allow for such activities, through the modification of existing regulations.
Public Consultation or Public Insult?
On May 7, 1997, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Mines called a meeting to present their Management Plan for the Forest Reserve of Imataca to public scrutiny, as required by law. Most of the selected group of people invited to the meeting received the document the day before. The Governor of the State of Bolívar, within whose jurisdiction is most of the reserve, expressed his annoyance and concern for not being consulted in advance, receiving the document only two days before. The official representing the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (CVG) expressed the same sentiments, as almost everyone else in the public. It was agreed the participants would have until the 30th of May to present their observations.
But, surprisingly, on the 14th of May the Plan was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, revealing that the "public consultation" of the 7th of May was a farce, a parody of what such a consultation would be in a truly democratic country. The decision by the Cabinet of Ministers came into effect on May 28, with the publication of Presidential Decree 1850, in the Official Gazette No. 36.215.
The Management Plan surreptitiously approved by the government in record time, seems nothing more than a manipulation of national interest to exploit the natural riches of the Forest Reserve of Imataca for the benefit of a few. It also exposes the limited respect for public opinion, and a submission to commercial interests, regardless of the environmental and social costs incurred. Public reaction was severe, and seems to have caught the government by surprise.
What went wrong with the Decision by the Council of Ministers?
The Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance assigns to the Legislative Power the competence of determining the modality of use of the national territory. Mining implies a change in the nature of use of the Forest Reserve of Imataca, without authorization from Congress. The Council of Minister is thus assuming a role that corresponds to the Legislative Power. This is one of the arguments presented by the Congressional Commission on the Environment of the Chamber of Deputies to demand the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850 at the Supreme Court.
Presidential Decree 1850 also violates Article 57 of the Forestry Law, which does not allow for the change of use of the whole or part of a Forest Reserve without previous authorization from Congress. Forest Reserves are part of the Areas under Special Administration, in the terms established by Article 15 of the Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance. Mining is not contemplated as an acceptable form of land-use in such areas.
Presidential Decree 1850 also violates the Washington Convention of 1941 on the protection of flora, fauna and the scenic beauties of America; the approbatory Law of the Convention on Biological Diversity, subscribed by Venezuela at the Rio Summit in 1992; and Convention 107 of the International Labor Organization on the protection of indigenous people. According to the Washington Convention of 1941, a change of use of protected areas can only occur with previous authorization from the National Congress of the respective country.
Presidential Decree 1850 also contradicts Presidential Decree 2214 of April 1992, on the "Norms for the Administration of Forestry Activities in Forest Reserves, Forest Lots, Forested Areas under Protection and Forest Areas in Private Property Destined for Production". Such dispositions have the character of Technical Norms under the Penal Law of the Environment.
Presidential Decree 1850 also violates Articles 27,28,30,32 and 38 of the Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance, relative to the right of civic society to be informed and consulted in matter related to decision of this nature. It also violates Article 3 of the Organic Law on the Environment, establishing public participation as a pivotal principle for the conservation, defense and improvement of the environment. Such a right derives as well from the Principle of Participative Governance, developed in Articles 2 and 3 of the National Constitution.
Presidential Decree 1850 also violates Article 25 of the Law on Civic and Political Rights, establishing the need for public participation in the management of public matters.
What are the Main Deficiencies of the Management Plan?
The Management Plan presents the following key deficiencies and omissions:
1) It contravenes Presidential Decree 2.214, on the ''Regulations for the Administration of Forest Activities in Forest Reserves, Forest Lots, Forest Areas Under Protection, and Forest Areas on Private Property Destined for Production''.
2) It ignores territorial and other fundamental rights of indigenous communities, who have inhabited part of this territory since ancestral times.
3) It excludes the establishment of totally protected areas, where forestry and mining activities are not allowed.
4) It constitutes a clear threat to the biodiversity and ecological stability of the region.
5) It excludes the participation of the local populations, environmental groups, and other citizen organizations, from control mechanisms.
In the Management Plan, land-use areas are defined in contradiction to those established in Presidential Decree 2214. Such is the case of the Totally Protected Areas, defined in article 4 of this decree as follows:
"It is formed by fragile ecosystems and biotopes requiring absolute protection, where modifications to the natural environment are not allowed. Therefore, no human intervention or public use is permitted. In these areas, only protective activities and scientific research will be allowed, with prior authorization and under regulation"
The need to establish totally protected areas, to conserve fragile ecosystems and their biological diversity, has been ignored in the new Management Plan, establishing a dangerous precedent, which could be extended to the rest of the country. Thus, in Article 7 of the new Management Plan, not only the so-called "totally protected area" is limited to 1.6 percent of the territory, but it is also limited to one corner in the extreme south of the reserve. Ironically, the plan also allows there the exploitation of timber and other forest products, military installations (Articles 7, 51 and 53), as well as tourism and recreational uses, including the construction of docks, refuges and tourist camps (Article 47). This is not only a violation of Presidential Decree 2214. It also absurdly presumes that in the whole of the Forest Reserve there is no need for truly totally protected areas.
The Management Plan also defines the island of Corocoro (68.500 hectares, equivalent to 1.9 percent of the reserve), a periodically flooded area, as a "Coastal Protected Area". Nevertheless, it establishes that here, also, timber extraction is allowed, as well as military activities, tourism, recreation, and rural settlements.
According to the analysis of the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of the Andes: "The Management Plan is based on information at the scale of 1:250000. Therefore, there is no guarantee that all the ecosystems present in the region have been included in the areas delimited for research or protection. In Imataca there are ecosystems not included in other protected areas of the country, such as National Parks or Natural Monuments. Therefore, the exploitation of resources should be prohibited in the areas identified for research or protection, as well as in other areas to be determined by further analysis. It is recommended that all such areas be unified in a System of Areas for the Conservation of Biological Diversity".
The Management Plan proposed by the Government also excludes the establishment of Gene Reserves, as required by Presidential Decree 2214, and despite Venezuela being a contractual party of the Convention of Biological Diversity of the United Nations.
The Management Plan surprisingly does not contemplate, or recognizes, the territorial rights of indigenous communities, despite this being an area inhabited by the Warao, Kariña, Arawako, Pemon and Akawaio people since ancestral times. The treatment of the rights of indigenous communities is shamefully deficient, limited to their importance as tourist attractions, and as labor for the "developments" proposed.
The Management Plan distributes more than three and a half million hectares for commercial activities, including the right to establish infrastructure for the exploitation, processing, and commercialization of the natural resources of the reserve. But the indigenous people, traditional inhabitants of the area, whose rights would be recognized in any civilized country today, not only find their territorial right ignored. The Management Plan explicitly forbids the expansion of the subsistence activities they now practice (Article 64). In this manner, the indigenous communities are condemned to become impoverished prisoners in their own land. They could only improve their well being if they become labor force in the processes of "development" conceived by bureaucrats in Caracas, aimed at the exploitation of timber and minerals, without consulting local people with the anticipation and respect they deserve.
On June 9, 1997, the Federation of Indigenous People of the state of Bolívar disclosed a public statement opposing the Government's proposal to mine the Forest Reserve of Imataca: "The recent approval by the Council of Ministers of a management plan for the Forest Reserve of Imataca reaffirms, one more, the discriminatory policy of the Venezuelan State, as well as its violation of the human rights of indigenous people. The Presidential Decree totally changes the nature of the Forest Reserve of Imataca, facilitating mining, tourism, industrial development, forest exploitation and settlements, without any consultation with those mainly affected, the indigenous people Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemon"
In a forum at the Central University of Venezuela on June 2, 1997, the coordinator of the Indigenous Federation of the State of Bolivar proclaimed, both in Pemón and Spanish: "The forest is our home, our laboratory, our hospital, our university. It is the source of the knowledge we need to survive. Our fight against the Decree is a fight in defense of life"
The Management Plan, contrary to established regulations, includes an "Area of Mixed Management", with the explicit intention allowing for the exploitation of gold and other minerals, through small, medium and large scale operations. The "Mixed Management Area" extends over 1.4 million hectares, or 38 percent of the reserve. The mining activities allowed include not only exploitation, but any other industrial activity related to the processing and transformation of any mineral, metallic or non-metallic, found in the area. It includes industrial installations for the storage and processing of these minerals, or for the disposal of toxic and residual waste, within the limitation established in other laws and regulations.
It is further up to the discretion of the National Government to allocate new logging and mining concessions anywhere within the reserve, explicitly including the "Research Area", which covers 7 percent of the land.
According to the Management Plan, the administration of the Reserve is in the hands of the Forest Service (SEFORVEN), an organization that has proved itself incapable of monitoring or controlling the limited activities of the timber industry. Its pronounced deficiencies and corruption practices are notorious, placing in doubt the disposition of the Government to effectively implement the limited commitments of the Management Plan, or any other applicable laws and regulations.
In a public announcement published through the national press on June 4, 1997, the Minister of Planning tried to mislead public opinion indicating that the management plan for the Forest Reserve of Imataca was supported by the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of the Andes.
However, this same Faculty published a few days later a document highlighting the erroneous nature of such a claim. "The Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Science responsibly clarifies that it did not participate in the preparation of the management plan for the Forest Reserve of Imataca, and expresses its disagreement with it, considering it defective and lacking consultation"
In that same statement, the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of the Andes requests from the President of the Republic the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850.
It further considers that the Council of Ministers violated articles 27,28,30,32 and 38 of the Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance, which guarantee the right of the general public to information and participation in decision making.
It also indicates that the management plan ignores the differences between the several types of mining activities. "For the Ministry of the Environment there is only one king of mining, with similar consequences regardless of how it's practiced. This is an inadequate and absolutely unrealistic consideration"
The public announcement of the Faculty of Forestry continues: "The Faculty believes that a mining macro-project of the enormous economic implications as the one proposed for Imataca must seek a better environmental, economic and political consensus, in the country and among those directly affected; it should not be arbitrarily imposed".
The Process leading towards the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850 was initiated through a letter presented on May 17, 1997, to the President of the Republic by a group of 20 environmental groups and a larger number of private citizens, requesting from the Executive Branch to leave without effect the decision to open the Forest Reserve of Imataca to mining activities, and to initiate an transparent, democratic and participatory public consultation on the subject, as required by law.
On May 02, 1997, the College of Sociologists and Anthropologists of Venezuela, together with Fundafauna, request the intervention of the Attorney General to leave without effect Presidential Decree 1850.
On June 8, 1997, the Federation of Indigenous People of the state of Bolívar publishes an announcement opposing the Management Plan for the Forest Reserve of Imataca, and requesting to revoke Presidential Decree 1850.
On June 12, 1997, the Congressional Commission on the Environment questions the Ministers of Environment, Planning, and Energy and Mines, regarding Imataca. The President of the Commission concludes that Congress would find itself in the need to bring the case to the Supreme Court to request the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850, if the Executive Branch does not voluntarily proceed to leave it without effect.
On June 14, 1997, the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of the Andes published a statement requesting from the President of the Republic to revoke Presidential Decree 1850.
On June 17, 1997, the Federation of Environmental Organizations, FORJA, and the Conservation Society of Guayana, announce their decision to initiate legal procedures at the office of the Attorney General against Presidential Decree 1850.
On June 30, 1997, former Minister of the Environment, Colmenares Finol, publicly requests the intervention of the Supreme Court to annul Presidential Decree 1850.
On the first of July, 1997, Chiefs and delegates from the indigenous communities of Waramasen, San Antonio de Morichal, Maurak, Agua Fria, Monte Bello, Paraitepuy de Roraima, San Francisco de Yuruani, San Rafael de Kamoiran, Tuauken, Kanayeutá y Kamarata, together with representatives of indigenous communities in urban centers of Bolivar state, presented a document to Congress rejecting Presidential Decree 1850.
On June 2, 1997, the President of the College of Sociologists and Anthropologists of Venezuela introduces a legal demand at the Supreme Court of Justice requesting the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850, for illegal and unconstitutional
On June 3, 1997, a public march takes place in Caracas demanding from the Government to revoke Presidential Decree 1850. That same day the Commission on the Environment of the Senate announces its decision to request from the President of the Republic the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850, for illegal and unconstitutional.
On June 13, 1997, the national authorities of the Catholic Church meet with the President and request the revision of Presidential Decree 1850.
On July 27, 1997, the Christian Democratic Party, COPEI, requests from the Government the revision of the norms applying to the Forest Reserve of Imataca.
On July 28, 1997, the Congressional Commission on Science and Technology Request a moratorium on Presidential Decree 1850.
On August 12, 1997, the political party Causa R, led by the former Governor of the State of Bolivar, Andrés Velásquez, introduced at the Supreme Court of Justice a request for the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850 for illegal and unconstitutional.
On August 2, 1997, the Supreme Court of Justice admits the request for annulment of Presidential Decree 1850, presented by environmental groups and the College of Sociologists and Anthropologists of Venezuela. The Supreme Court also admits a second resource with the same objective, introduced by the Commission on the Environment of the Chamber of Deputies.
OTHER ORGANIZATIONS DEMANDING THE ANNULMENT OF PRESIDENTIAL DECREE 1850
SOCIEDAD CONSERVACIONISTA DE GUAYANA; COAMA: Coalición Orinoquia -Amazonia; FUNDATROPICO; FUNDAFAUNA; AUDUBON DE VENEZUELA; GEOGRAFIA VIVA; SADARBOL; GIDA UNIVERSIDAD CENTRAL DE VENEZUELA; AVVA FRONTERA GRAN SABANA; FUDECI - Fundación Para el Desarrollo de las Ciencias Físicas, Matemáticas y Naturales; ACOANA - Asociación Venezolana para la Conservación de Areas Naturales; COORDINADORA ECOLOGICA ARTURO EICHLER; PROVITA; AMIGRANSA - Sociedad de Amigos en Defensa de la Gran Sabana; Sociedad Ambiental Araguaney; Frente por la Defensa de la Sierra de Perijá y su Gente; Cátedra Etica Ecológica, Universidad del Zulia; Frente Ecológico Aragua-Carabobo; PROVEA - Programa Venezolano de Educación y Acción en Derechos Humanos. Lucía Antillano, Senadora, Comisión del Ambiente; Julio César Centeno, Vicepresidente, Fundación TROPENBOS; Jorge Padrón, Asesor de la Comisión de Ambiente del Senado; Anna de Ponte, Asesor de la Comisión de Ambiente del Senado; Edgard Yerena, Asesor de la Comisión de Ambiente del Senado; Frank Tovar, Programa Ecología y Medio Ambiente; Alfonso Rodríguez, Profesor, Universidad de Los Andes; Ruben Medina Molina, Universidad de Los Andes; Jorge Hinestroza, Profesor, Universidad del Zulia; Charles Paez, Profesor, Universidad de Los Andes; Jaime Pefaur, Profesor, Universidad de Los Andes; Miguel Plonczak, Profesor, Universidad de Los Andes; Isabel Martínez, Abogado, especialista en Derecho Ambiental; Haydee Seijas, Antropólogo, CEVIAP, Centro Venezolano de Investigaciones en Antropología y Población; Joaquin Avellán, Caracas; Gioconda San Blas, Investigadora Titular del IVIC; Grupo Keyeme, UCV; Grupo Alí Primera, UCV; SOCOME - Sociedad Conservacionista de Mérida; Unión para la Defensa de la Amazonia, UDA; BIOGUAYANA; CINNECO; COLECTIVO APORTE; COMUNIDAD DE SAN JOSE DE GUARIBE; FORJA; Grupo Ecológico Bolívar, GREBO; Grupo UFALDA, UNEXPO; LA ERA AGRICOLA; MOVIMIENTO POR LA VIDA; Fundación Ecodesarrollo; Colegio de Antropólogos y Sociólogos de Venezuela; Fundación Ambiental Francisco Tamayo; Frente Ecológico de Lara; Fundación Centro Conservacionista San Pedro, FUNCESPE; ECONATURA; Caciques y Delegados de las comunidades de Waramasen, San Antonio de Morichal, Maurak, Agua Fría, Monte Bello, Paraitepuy de Roraima, San Francisco de Yuruaní, San Rafael de Kamoirán, Tuaukén, Kanayeutá y Kamarata; FEDERACION DE INDIGENAS DEL ESTADO BOLIVAR.
Julio César Centeno, PhD
PO Box 750 - Mérida - VENEZUELA
Tel/Fax: Intl + 58-74-714576