Issue of November, 18, 2003
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Caura River Basin Remains Out of Harm's Way
By Humberto Márquez

Venezuela authorities assured Tierramérica that there are no grand plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Caura River. But ecologists are keeping a close eye on this pristine, natural treasure.

CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- The Venezuelan government appears to be in no hurry to take advantage of the hydroelectric potential of the southeastern Caura River Basin, one of the few untouched natural areas left on the planet. But environmentalists say they are not going to let down their guard.

The discovery of 10 new species of fish, as well as new bird and shellfish species in the watershed of the Caura, which flows into the Orinoco River, are more reason for ecologists to protect the area.

Although there are no plans in the works, the possibilities hanging over the Caura's fate, say observers, include the construction of a hydroelectric dam, or diverting its waters to the Caroni River, where sits the Guri dam -- the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world.

"It's one of the bad ideas that could reach this formidable reservoir of water, forests, fauna, biodiversity, landscapes and valuable indigenous cultures," Franklin Rojas, spokesman for the non-governmental organization Conservation International, told Tierramérica.

What does the Caura River Basin hold? In its 45,336 square km are virgin forests with more than 2,700 plant species, 475 bird species, 168 types of mammals, 23 kinds of reptiles, and several hundred fish species.

Most of the basin is a forest preserve with several national parks and natural monuments, including the Sarisariñama sink hole, a geologic formation dating to the Precambrian period, and "tepuyes", flat-topped, vegetation covered mountains.

The Caura River flows 700 km from its headwaters near the Brazilian border, 2,000 meters above sea level, to where it joins the Orinoco.

With an annual average rainfall of four meters at the source, the Caura contributes 3,500 cubic meters of water per second to the Orinoco River.

The Aquarap expedition, including Venezuelan, Brazilian and U.S. scientists, followed the route of the Caura in 2000. They found new fish species and determined that most of the forests and streams in the river basin are untouched or very well preserved by the indigenous Ye'kuana (Makiritare) and Sanemá (Yanomami) communities.

The Indians have lived in the area for several millennia, following their traditions and beliefs that call for respectful treatment of the Earth, eschewing activities like mining.

"There exists a plan to build a new hydroelectric dam (near the Pará falls, on the lower Caura) and divert 75 percent of the Caura River caudal to the Paragua-Caroni system," dozens of kilometers to the east, according to the Aquarap report.

But the president of the state-run electric company Electrificación del Caroni (Edelca), Daniel Machado, told Tierramérica that such a plan is not among the government's projects.

"The only plan is to continue with the studies of the potential of the Guyana rivers, but not even in the medium term are we studying the feasibility of hydroelectric development of the Caura, and even less the diversion of its waters," Machado said.

According to the official, "In the distant future exploitation of the river is possible. But the plans of Edelca and the state are concentrated on the Caroni," where the Guri dam has a generating capacity of 10,000 megawatts per hour.

Two other dams on the Caroni, the Carauchi and the Tocoma, produce 1,800 megawatts per hour, and a third is under construction and is to have a capacity of another 2,000 megawatts.

"The notion of diverting water from one river basin to another does not even exist for the ministry. It would not only have an enormous environmental impact, but extremely high costs with little payback in terms of profitability," Rodolfo Roa, director of river basins at the ministry of environment, told Tierramérica.

"There is three times more water in the Caroni than in the Caura," Roa said. The Caroni, which also flows into the Orinoco, can provide as much as 10,000 cubic meters of water a second during flood season and has an energy potential of 25,000 megawatts.

"The emphasis is on first developing the potential of the lower Caroni, and later the upper course of that river," said Machado.

Ecologist Rojas admits that plans for hydroelectric exploitation of the Caura do not yet pose a threat, "and that is why our organization is seeking to conduct studies, throughout 2004 and 2005, in order to outline a model for conservation, for management and sustainable development."

In his opinion, studies can be oriented towards establishing conservation concessions, instead of exploitation rights, which are what interest international corporations.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is working to obtain nine million dollars from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for research, conservation and management projects for the river basin, said Lila Gil, of the U.N. offices in Venezuela.

"In all plans, it will be necessary to set aside resources to improve the living conditions and quality of life of the indigenous communities," said Rojas.

According to Venezuela's 1999 constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to the demarcation of their territories, and no economic exploitation of their ancestral lands can take place without their consent.

The Ye'kuana and Yanomami peoples for now rely on the will to preserve the Caura and the government's lack of plans to develop its hydroelectric potential.

* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.

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