Mining Allowed in Venezuelan Nature Reserve
By Humberto Márquez
The Venezuelan government is about to decree new laws for the Imataca forest reserve, in the east of the country. Conservationists are opposed.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- The Imataca forest reserve in Venezuela, a country where six of every 10 square km is legally under some form of environmental protection, demonstrates the difficult but inevitable coexistence of the pursuit of profit and the effort to preserve nature.
President Hugo Chávez is soon to decree new rules for mineral exploitation in Imataca, a reserve established in 1961 in eastern Venezuela, covering 38,219 square km, bigger than Taiwan and nearly the size of the Netherlands.
More than three million hectares of Imataca, or 80 percent of its total area, are tropical rain forests, with a dozen tree species in high demand for their commercially precious wood.
How much gold could there be in the reserve? Prospecting studies suggest between 8,000 and 12,000 tons.
"In just one of the ore deposits, Brisas del Cuyuni, there are 240 tons," Arturo Rivero, of the local Gold Reserve company, told Tierramérica. "Ninety-four percent is in veins, the exploitation of which is less harmful to the environment than sedimentary gold."
But these calculations "are based on potential. Further exploration on the ground to quantify the reserves is needed," says Manuel Navas, of the Ministry of Mining, which "will not authorize exploitation that is not accompanied by a management project approved by the environment ministry," he adds.
Environment Minister Ana Osorio said the draft project for Imataca "ratifies the forestry purposes of the reserve, and limits mining activity to (a maximum) of 11 percent of the area," contrary to the previsions of a previous decree, from 1997, that would open 38 percent of the reserve to mining.
That decree came under fire from conservationists led by Alexander Luzardo, of the Board of Sociologists. A claim was filed with the Supreme Court of Justice, but five years later no ruling has been made on the case.
In a process of consultations about the new proposal for opening the reserve, the Environment Ministry, environmental groups and local communities, held June through October, ecologists once again expressed their criticisms.
Luzardo told Tierramérica that the new law would affect "the right of Venezuelan society to preserve in perpetuity the forests in their pristine state, which has a trans-generational and economic value that is greater than immediate use."
The government project intends to fully legalize mining use of the Imataca, which is "completely incompatible with its forest reserve status," commented Astur Dimartino, of the Venezuelan Audubon Society.
The reserve would be divided into 10 management zones, among them an integral protection area (eight percent of the total area) and another for the protection of genetic wealth (15 percent), both shielded from all forms of exploitation, but others would be opened to forestry and agricultural activities (33 percent).
In the middle are the restricted mining areas, and for mining, forestry, agroforestry, with the obligation to include the participation of the indigenous Warao, Pemón and Kariña communities.
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.