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Help Save Imataca Reserve
A huge area of protected rainforest in South America could soon be destroyed by mining and logging - with government approval. But it's not too late to stop it from happening.
Nearly half of Venezuela is swathed in pristine tropical rainforest. The Imataca Forest Reserve in the northeast of the country - a vast and beautiful area of forest the size of the Netherlands - is home to five Indian tribes and an infinite variety of wildlife. Imataca has been a protected reserve for over 30 years, in recognition of its fragility and environmental importance.
But now this unique area of rainforest is under threat - from the very government that has been charged with protecting it for future generations. For the natural wealth of Imataca's forests are matched by their potential wealth below the ground. Imataca sits on enormous underground reserves of gold and diamonds that the government wants to tap, to help pay off the country's huge foreign debt and promote economic development.
For years the reserve has been invaded by illegal gold miners, seeking their fortunes by invading indigenous lands, and destroying areas of forest in their search for gold. But now, under pressure from the mining lobby, the government wants to vastly extend legal mining in the reserve. It wants to open up the area to international mining companies, who want to see Venezuela become one of the world's largest gold-producing nations.
In May last year, the Venezuelan government decided - with no consultation - to divide most of the reserve up between mining firms and logging companies. They ignored the protected status of the forest, ignored the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there, and ignored national and international agreements on indigenous rights and environmental protection.
Presidential Decree 1850, issued in May last year, gave almost half of the entire reserve over to mining, and left less than 4% of the forest as protected. But there were nationwide protests by indigenous groups, environmentalists, social groups and many others at the government's actions. At the end of last year, Venezuala's Supreme Court suspended the implementation of Decree 1850, and ordered the Government not to issue any more mining concessions, while it investigated claims that the Decree was illegal.
The Supreme Court is currently investigating legal cases brought by environmental and indigenous groups, and by the Congressional Commission on the Environment, which claim that Decree 1850 is illegal under Venezuelan law. While the Court deliberates, an array of organizations across the country are asking for international support for their campaign to protect Imataca. If loggers and miners are allowed free rein in this supposedly protected area, it will set a disastrous precedent for the rest of the country's protected areas.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You can show your support for the calls to protect Imataca by writing to the Venezuelan Congressional Committee on the Environment, at the address below. The Committee has asked to have Decree 1850 repealed - the more support they receive from the outside world, the more notice the government will have to take.
Please write and tell the Committee that you support calls by environmental and indigenous groups within Venezuela, to:
· Revoke Presidential Decree 1850.
· Recognise the ancestral rights of Imataca's indigenous peoples.
· Set aside a significant part of the reserve as a totally protected area.
· Begin a process of genuine public consultation to decide on the future management of Imataca.
Senadora Lucia Antillano
Comisión de Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio del Senado
Dear Senadora Antillano,
I am writing because I am concerned by what I have heard about the threat to the Imataca forest reserve from mining, logging and other commercial activities, following the government's introduction last year of Presidential Decree 1850.
I am informed by environmental, social and indigenous organisations in Venezuela, that Imataca has been a protected area for over 30 years, and is furthermore home to five indigenous peoples, whose lives would be negatively affected by further commercial activities. Imataca is also a haven for valuable wildlife, genetic resources and many rare and unique species.
The government's decision last May, when it issued Decree 1850, to dedicate almost half of the entire reserve to mining activities, makes little sense. It contravenes parts of your own Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance and your own Forestry Law, as well as the Washington Convention and the Convention on Biodiversity, both of which Venezuela is party to. Furthermore, it was made with no consultation with the indigenous groups who have lived in Imataca for centuries. It leaves barely 4% of the entire reserve relatively protected.
The Imataca reserve surely belongs to the people of Venezuela, and to future generations, not to large multinational companies and short-term commercial interests. I strongly support calls from Venezuelan organisations for the repeal of Decree 1850. Furthermore, the ancestral rights of the peoples of Imataca should be recognised and respected, and a significant area of the reserve should be set aside for total protection from exploitation. Lastly, the calls within Venezuela for a transparent, public process to decide on the future management of Imataca should be heeded.
I hope you will forgive my interest in what may seem like an internal matter, but the fate of the world's forests, and the rights of indigenous peoples, are issues of international concern.
The Imataca Forest Reserve
Imataca is one of the four largest forest reserves in Venezuela. Its total area is 3.6 million hectares - nearly as large as Switzerland. It is located in the Northeast of Venezuela, on the border with Guyana. The reserve is covered with rich, pristine tropical forests. Its wealth of ecosystems and biodiversity is rivaled by few places on Earth. In recognition of this, Imataca was made a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area in the early 1960s.
Part of this territory is also home to five indigenous groups - the Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemon- who have inhabited the area for centuries, and whose survival literally depends on the surrounding natural environment.
The Exploitation of Imataca
Imataca's protected status is intended to strike a balance between conservation and economics. Long-term logging, harvesting and other industries have been allowed in parts of the reserve since its creation But the ground beneath Imataca is rich in gold, diamonds, iron-ore, bauxite, manganese, and other minerals, and in recent years, mining interests have tried their best to exploit them. During the 1980s and 1990s, parts of the region were invaded by thousands of small miners, looking mainly for gold and diamonds. Their digging and smuggling activities exacted a heavy toll on the environment. By the end of 1996, almost 10% of Imataca was subject to mining in this way.
But Imataca's large deposits of gold and diamonds also called the attention of international mining companies. Gold deposits beneath Imataca are estimated at 10,000 metric tons. If production increased from 15 to 50 tons per year, as the government proposes, Venezuela would become one of the world's major gold-exporting nations.
But the fact that Imataca is a Forest Reserve and a Protected Area meant that such full-scale mining could not take place. The big mining companies' response was simple: they pressured the Venezuelan government to change the law.
Early in 1997, in response to this pressure, the government acted. They hastily prepared a new 'management plan' for Imataca, without any consultation with the public, or with the indigenous peoples who live there. This management plan allowed a massive extension of large-scale mining throughout the reserve. In an unprecedented decision taken by the Cabinet on May 14, 1997, the Government put this plan into action, and distributed much of Imataca among loggers and miners. Presidential Decree 1850, issued a few days later, passed the new management plan into law. Immediately, the government began issuing mining concessions to companies to operate in previously protected areas of the Imataca reserve. Today, 40% of the entire reserve is scheduled to be mined, and only 5% of Imataca is set aside as 'protection zones', free from exploitation.
An Illegal Move?
The government's shock decision to allow massive exploitation of Imataca contravenes many of Venezuela's existing laws. For example, 'The Organic Law on Territorial Ordinance' dictates that any change in use of the national territory must be decided upon by the Congress, not the government. In the case of Imataca, the Congress was not even consulted.
Article 57 of Venezuela's Forestry Law also outlaws the change of use of the whole or part of a Forest Reserve without previous authorization from Congress. Presidential Decree 1850 also violates the Washington Convention of 1941 on the protection of flora, fauna and the scenic beauties of America, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which Venezuela signed at the Earth Summit in 1992. It violates Convention 107 of the International Labour Organisation on the rights of indigenous peoples, and it even contravenes one of Venezuela's previous Presidential Decrees, number 2214, intended to protect forest reserves.
The Campaign to Save Imataca
Opposition to the destruction of Imataca has been growing across the country. Indigenous groups, whose very future is threatened by the government's actions, have protested strongly. In a recent speech at the Central Universisty of Venezuela, the coordinator of the Federation of Indigenous People of the State of Bolivar proclaimed:
"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 defence of life."
Environmental and social groups have also been fighting to get Decree 1850 overturned. There have been public marches and demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and media attention on the issue. Many opposition political parties have protested to the government, and even the Catholic Church has urged the government to repeal the Decree. In November last year, in response to three separate cases brought before it by both NGOs and the Congressional Commission on the Environment, Venezuela's Supreme Court announced an investigation into the legality of Decree 1850. It immediately suspended the issuing of any new mining concessions while it did so.
Campaigners in Venezuela are urging people around the world who are concerned at the fate of Imataca to help them in their campaign, by writing to the Congressional Commission on the Environment expressing support for the overturning of Decree 1850. There is still time to saveImataca, but action is needed now.
For further details, see:
Julio Cesar Centeno, PhD
Las Tapias, Edif. Carreto
PO Box 750
Merida - Venezuela
Tel: +58-74-714576 Fax: +58-74-714576 / 71381
JCenteno@telcel.net.ve JCenteno@ula.ve http://www.ciens.ula.ve/~jcenteno/
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