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Crisis in Venezuela: Caparo Experimental Station invaded by 200 farmers

  • The Caparo Forest Reserve in Barinas state, Venezuela, created in 1961, covers almost 175,000 hectares (432,000 acres). The Caparo Experimental Station, located within the reserve, encompasses 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) and has been under the administration of the Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) since 1982 for scientific research and education.
  • The reserve has been heavily degraded in past decades, as farmers intruded and burned forest to make way for crops. But the Experimental Station’s forest has remained mostly intact. In January, 200 members of the 777 Christ Ambassadors Cooperative (Cooperativa Embajadores de Cristo 777) invaded the Experimental Station. Mongabay reports from the scene.
  • The intruders claim to have a legitimate permit for the tract. But the courts have nullified that permit and ordered an eviction. The National Guard failed to remove the invaders, so in April on a visit to the site, the Ecosocialism minister promised the settlers new land elsewhere. At the start of May, the squatters remained in place in an apparent standoff.
  • The ULA is concerned about the threat the invasion poses to one of the last major surviving tracts of Colombian-Venezuelan lowland forest. The ULA continues seeking the community’s eviction, with a series of protests by academics and NGOs scheduled for May in Caracas. The groups are asking that the Caparo Reserve and Experimental Station are given national park status.
The Venezuelan National Guard meets with some of the illegal intruders during a court ordered inspection of the CEC 777 encampments. Image by José Rafael Lozada

CAPARO, Venezuela: On January 5, 2018, around 200 people belonging to the 777 Christ Ambassadors Cooperative (Cooperativa Embajadores de Cristo 777, or CEC 777) invaded the Caparo Experimental Station within the Caparo Forest Reserve in the municipality of Ezequiel Zamora, Barinas state, close to the border with Colombia.

The reserve is located on the south bank of the Caparo River, on the Interior Plain of Western Venezuela, at the base of the Andes. The Experimental Station protects one of the last major surviving tracts of Colombian-Venezuelan lowland forest. It is also home to the Critically Endangered variegated or brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), one of the 25 most threatened primates in the world.

The invading cooperative immediately claimed ownership of a portion of the Experimental Station, land managed by the University of the Andes (Universidad de Los Andes, or ULA), and the most biologically intact portion of the degraded Caparo Reserve.

A brown spider monkey seen close up. Researchers fear that invading farmers will destroy the critically endangered primate’s forest habitat within the station. Image by the photographer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A land claim asserted and denied

The CEC 777 community justified their occupation by invoking the doctrine of “idle lands,” legislated in 2001 by the national government, which allows organized communities to seek title to disused cultivable farmlands for agricultural purposes, and to request state credits for food production there.

The invaders say that their claim — which would push out ULA’s commission of professors and students, plus officials of the Venezuelan National Guard — was based on a December 2017 document requesting an occupation permit, which was allegedly signed by Venezuela’s National Land Institute (INTI).

The CEC 777 community asserts that the permit allows them to enter the reserve, to build houses, and to plant coffee and cocoa crops, just so long as they do not impact the local environment, said José Rafael Lozada, a ULA ecology professor present at a visit by military and civil authorities to the occupation on February 22, and who was interviewed by Mongabay.

On January 31, Barina’s First Criminal Court ordered the eviction of the CEC 777 community, an order made in response to a request by prosecutor César Mendoza Bencomo, who has national environmental jurisdiction. In the ruling, the Ministry of Ecosocialism, regional military commanders, and ULA dean Darío Garay Jérez were recognized as the legitimate controllers of the Caparo Experimental Station, and as having the right to prohibit permanent settlements there, while overseeing the conservation of flora and fauna.

The biggest of the intruder encampments. Some of the invaders arrived on motorcycles. Image by José Rafael Lozada
Trash, including waste motorcycle oil containers, dumped in a pit beside an invaders’ camp. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.

Earlier, on January 8, Minister of Ecosocialism and Water Ramón Velásquez posted a confirmation on his Twitter account saying that the eviction had been accomplished. He even added photos of the alleged evacuation as carried out by the military. However, intruders remained on the land, even after the minister visited the community in late April. At that time, he promised the squatters other property if they would just vacate the Experimental Station.

At present, according to officials, the squatters remain on the land and are a threat to the survival of the Experimental Station forest.

Mongabay also was given access to a resolution by the INTI Regional Office, dated January 29, 2018, which denies the permit claims of the invaders. That document declares “inadmissible” the CEC 777 community’s request because the Caparo Forest has been an “Area Special Management Regime” (ABRAE in Spanish) since 1961. According to the INTI document, the community’s request was also superseded by a lease of reserve lands in 1982 to the Universidad de Los Andes for scientific research.

The Caparo Experimental Station administration building. The site has been managed by the University of the Andes (ULA) since 1982. Now illegal squatters are trying to force the ULA out. Image by José Rafael Lozada
A good deal of scientific research has been conducted by scientists affiliated with the Caparo Experimental Station. Here, a map showing carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation coming from the Caparo Forest Reserve between 1990 and 2015, and published in Forests 2017, 8, 291. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.
Deforestation and degradation of the Caparo Reserve between 1990 and 2015. Today, only forest fragments remain, except within the Experimental Station overseen by the University of the Andes. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.

A history of deforestation and degradation

The Caparo Forest Reserve was created in 1961, covering 184,100 hectares (455,000 acres) for the purpose of sustainable logging to be carried out via concessions granted by the government to private companies. However, this goal was never fulfilled.

Over the years, farmers from surrounding communities invaded the reserve, and degraded it via agriculture, wildfires and the theft of wood products. A cartographic and satellite study published in 2011 by Hernán Maldonado of the Latin American Forestry Institute, along with Alexander Parra and Angnes Aldana of the Universidad de Los Andes, found that the original reserve lost 62.5 percent of its forest cover between 1987 and 2007, or an average of 4.798 hectares, or 3.2 percent, per year.

The Caparo Experimental Station is located within the reserve, and encompasses 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of continuous forest, which has been under the administration of the ULA since 1982 for the purpose of scientific research, while also allowing some logging. It continues to be the most intact portion of the reserve.

Officials meet with some of the CEC 777 community farmers who have squatted within the Caparo Reserve and Experimental Station. To date, the conflict remains unresolved, and most of the invaders continue occupying the land. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.
A critically endangered brown spider monkey spotted in the canopy near one of the illegal encampments. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.

Professor Wilfredo Franco, the coordinator of the Experimental Station in 2012, said that at that time, 90 percent of the Caparo Forest Reserve was covered in grasslands and shrub lands, while 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) were still covered in native forest. Half of that occurred within the Caparo Experimental Station protected by the ULA, with the rest in a hundred small scattered forest fragments, most of which are expected to disappear in ensuing years.

Researchers agree that the reserve has been seriously degraded due to numerous fires and bisection by a road, which offers access to poachers and intruders. “The fires occur mainly in the dry season, January-March. Almost all are caused by farmers to clear pastures. But it is common to lose control, which has sometimes impacted the [Experimental Station] forest areas under the care of the ULA,” explained Diana Duque-Sandoval, director of the Spider Monkey Project in Caparo, which since December 2017 has received funding from the Auckland Zoo, New Zealand, and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, for a variety of research projects.

Since that date, the Experimental Station has been patrolled by a park ranger with a motorcycle. It was he who gave the first warning of the CEC 777 invasion, when he spotted community members hunting a jaguar, cutting down trees as home sites, and clearing areas for conucos, small plots intended for cultivation.

The invading farmers have clear cut trees and marked off conucos, small plots for growing crops. A temporary, indigenous-style shelter is seen in the background. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.
The critically endangered variegated or brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), one of the 25 most threatened primates in the world and a resident of the Caparo Experimental Station. Image by the photographer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A threat to endangered species

As degraded as it may be, the Caparo Forest Reserve is ecologically important. The protected area, especially the Experimental Station, is home to at least 248 bird species, 30 amphibians, and 60 mammals, including the jaguar (Panthera onca), puma (Puma concolor), ocelot (leopardus pardalis), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and tapir (Tapirus terrestris). Three species of primate live here: the variegated or brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), white-fronted capuchin (Cebus albifrons), and red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus).

The CEC 777 community invasion “is very worrying for the spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), registered as Critically Endangered on the IUCN´s Red List and on Venezuela’s Red List of endangered species,” explains Duque-Sandoval.

Several groups of brown spider monkeys, representing an important population for the Llanos region, are found within the Caparo Experimental Station. They occupy an area sufficient in size to sustain a viable population in the long term, say the researchers. The rest of the reserve includes small forest fragments occupied by the spider monkeys as well, but areas too small for their long-term survival.

An abandoned cabin illegally taken over by squatters within Venezuela’s Caparo Forest Reserve. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.
One of the CEC 777 intruders caught on camera cutting down a tree with a machete. Image by José Rafael Lozada.

A continuing conflict

Waiting for a promised new place to settle from the government, CEC 777 community members continue occupying three improvised camps and a ruined environmental ministry cabin inside the Caparo Forest Reserve and Experimental Station, with 30 to 40 individuals encamped at each site, said Lozada, who has taught ecology and Environmental Impact Assessment since 1996.

Mongabay interviewed Miguel Padilla, one of the CEC 777 intruders. He claims that the community has a right to the land as established under Venezuela’s Constitution. He admits that the community continues to occupy four points at the margins of the reserve. “We know this is a protected area, but only in theory.” He argues that the land occupied is no longer dominated by native vegetation. “We have found cocoa crops, abandoned logging operations and teca trees, which are not endemic,” Padilla said.

This lack of undisturbed native vegetation is a typical critique lodged against the continued administration of the Experimental Station lands by ULA researchers. Lozada replies that Caparo is a well-known and ongoing sustainable timber experiment, utilizing fast growing non-native teca trees in hopes of ecological recovery. He points to proven successful cases of restoration at Uverito and Imataca, where he did his doctorate work. The Experimental Station is also important because it is used for the education of Venezuela’s forestry students.

CEC 777 community member Padilla accuses the ULA, local ministry officials, civil authorities and regional military commanders of being corrupt and conspiring against the settlers. He requests that the National Constituency Assembly send in an inspection committee to listen to the squatters’ complaints, and to revoke ULA administration over the reserve.

For several years, the University Council of the ULA has carried out agroforestry projects in cooperation with previous land invaders who received ministry approval to remain on reserve lands. However, on January 26, 2018, the ULA officially requested the eviction of the CEC 777 community in order to rescue the “biodiversity of the last forest tract” within Caparo.

ULA Environmental Sciences faculty dean Garay told Mongabay that, in spite of the lack of a definitive government response so far, the university and researchers will continue lobbying for a more restrictive land use designation. ULA students, faculty, and environmental NGOs launched a series of protests in early May in Caracas asking for an upgrade of the reserve’s protection status, hopefully getting it designated a national park.

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Diana Duque-Sandoval of the Spider Monkey Project visits the squatters. Image by Diana Duque-Sandoval.
Researcher Diana Duque-Sandoval in a field camp of the Spider Monkey Project. The ULA wants the Caparo Experimental Station to receive better protection from the Venezuelan government. Image courtesy of Diana Duque-Sandoval.