- Starting in 2009, Afro-Venezuelan and Indigenous peoples and Phynatura, an NGO, signed a series of conservation agreements which are helping safeguard 570 squares miles of largely pristine forest in the Venezuelan Amazon south of the Orinoco River from illegal mining, timber harvesting and wildlife poaching. In 2017, that area was absorbed into Caura National Park.
- The new park conserves the region’s biodiversity and forests, but its founding didn’t automatically protect the ancestral homelands of the indigenous people living there. However, these 52 indigenous communities in El Caura are claiming a legal right to continue to live and pursue sustainable livelihoods within the park. The government has yet to grant their claim.
- Some of these traditional communities are involved in the sustainable agroforestry livelihood projects, with a variety of innovative crops being grown. Agroforestry is seen by local people as offering an alternative income over mining and deforestation.
- Among non-timber crops grown are tonka (a bean used as a flavoring and in cosmetics), quina (also known as cinchona bark, formerly used to treat malaria and now a common ingredient in cocktails), and copaiba oil (a folk medicinal credited with anti-inflammatory qualities). Cocoa, to be made into fine chocolates, and orchids are included among potential exports.
EL PLAYON, Bolívar state, Venezuela – “Nice to meet you. My name is José Torres. I am the captain of El Playón,” says the indigenous Yekwana man who greets our party in very good Spanish. José then leads us to a churuata, a common house where we hang up our hammocks.
We’d arrived in the heart of Caura National Park, beside Pará Falls on the Caura River, one of Latin America’s most spectacular waterfalls due to its immense water volume; it is an astounding 5,608 meters (more than three miles) wide.
We’d also arrived in El Caura, the ancestral territory long claimed by the region’s numerous indigenous groups. El Playón, the small town by the stream, is home to Sanemá and Yekwana native peoples. They’ve been under intense pressure to alter their traditional way of life since the discovery of gold nearby and the arrival of illegal miners over the last decade – pressures that could turn this remote tourist attraction into a mineral extraction sacrifice zone, as has happened in other parts of economically troubled Venezuela.
We got there after two days travel on the Caura River in a motorized dugout canoe, called a curiara. Accompanying me were José Félix Leal and Luis Jiménez, both from Phynatura. Starting in 2009, this NGO signed innovative conservation agreements with the local communities. The plan: cooperate to protect 147,000 hectares (568 square miles) of forest from gold mining by cultivating sustainable agroforestry livelihoods, and exporting unique rainforest crops to the developed world.
Over the past nine years, the El Caura communities and Phynatura have joined together to harvest and export non-timber products, including plant derivatives such as tonka (a tree-grown bean used as a flavoring in foods and beverages, in high demand by the cosmetics industry), quina (also known as cinchona bark, formerly used to treat malaria and now a common ingredient of bitters for cocktails), and copaiba oil (a traditional medicinal credited with anti-inflammatory qualities that is gaining notice around the globe and also used in perfumes).
The agreements have resulted in a renewed flourishing of indigenous crafts, and inspired agroforestry workshops in ten of the 52 communities that make up El Caura, helping preserve one of the last largely pristine rainforests on Earth. The ultimate goal: make these sustainable livelihoods permanent and robust, so local people won’t ever be tempted to take up mining.
A long way from the modern world
El Caura is extraordinarily remote. My boat trip was preceded by an eleven-hour bus ride, winding south from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, to the capital of Bolívar state, Ciudad Bolívar, on the Orinoco River. From there, we drove three hours, south into the Amazon, until we reached Aripao, the gateway community to the rainforest sustainability partnership. Aripao has 400 inhabitants, all of them of African descent, who grow tonka beans and operate a copaiba oil storage center, built with European Union support.
Aripao’s people, mostly cimarrones, descendants of runaway slaves, were the first community to join the PhyNatura conservation agreements. They also gained financial support for their sustainable agroforestry businesses from the Swiss-French company Givaudan and from a local intermediary, Cerbatana. Together, these groups formed the Afro-descendant Civil Association to administer the collective benefits of their livelihood projects.
Another ten minutes journey took us to Maripa in the Sucre municipality. It boasts a small port on the Caura River, with a military checkpoint. Beyond that armed outpost we took a curiara to the rest of the riverside communities involved in the sustainability project.
Marcos Pérez and Lucas González, two indigenous Yekwana, were our boat drivers and guides as we moved deeper into El Caura and Caura National Park. Their names reflect a Spanish and Catholic heritage, harking back to the arrival of Jesuit and Evangelical missionaries. Their dietary habits date even further back to their indigenous ancestry, and include casabe and mañoco cake (both made from locally grown cassava). Layered on are modern influences: Western clothes that could just as easily be worn by footballers in Caracas. And then there’s the contrast of the satellite TV dishes we spot along the river, rising from the thatched roofs of traditional houses.
The Caura River originates high up on the Sarisariñama Plateau, 2,011 meters (6,600 feet) above sea level near the Venezuela-Brazil border, and it drains the Guayanan Highlands moist forests region of the Amazon. After meandering 450 miles northward, the stream joins the Orinoco River.
Atop the plateau, the isolation of El Caura and Caura National Park has helped protect the region’s robust biodiversity: 400 bird species fly its skies, while its forests bloom with a rich flora: 159 families, 791 genera and 1,913 plant species identified so far. A sample of this diversity is found in the National Herbarium of Venezuela, but the full impact of this intact rainforest can only be experienced firsthand.
A controversial park is born
Paradoxically, the conservation and sustainability goals of the indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan people of El Caura recently came into conflict with national economic interests and federal conservation goals.
In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro declared the Orinoco Mining Arc, opening much of the Venezuelan Amazon to mining concessions, increasing threats to El Caura. Then in 2017, his government created Caura National Park, covering 7.5 million hectares (29,000 square miles), and including the El Caura ancestral territory within its boundaries.
This might sound like good news for locals dealing with illegal miners. But the official decree establishing the park, though it conserved biodiversity and forests, did not automatically protect the right of El Caura indigenous communities to continue living within the park, or to continue practicing sustainable livelihoods there.
These special uses still need to be approved by the National Parks Institute (Inparques). But to date, the agency has made no move to either assure or deny the safeguarding of El Caura’s communities.
As a result, the park’s creation last year was not entirely welcomed by Afro-Venezuelan and indigenous peoples, who fear they could be forced out, or not be allowed to go on working with PhyNatura to use the forests for the sustainable production of non-timber products.
Locals likewise worried that park law enforcement would be lax, inviting more illegal gold mining. Inparques has no office in or near the region, and the Ministry of Ecosocialism headquarters has no boats, nor other resources, to monitor the area. Illegal mining is common around El Playón, with many well-established claims along the Caura River and its tributaries.
Protecting the land they love
Today, the El Caura communities earn income from the harvest and sale of tonka beans and other agroforestry crops. But their conservation agreements also require that they work to preserve the forest where these non-timber products grow. To meet that requirement, community patrols regularly travel into the rainforest to monitor and record wildlife; to warn against commercial logging; to urge locals against the creation of illegal conucos (deforested areas used to plant crops); and to safeguard against illegal hunting or fishing for protected species.
Each patrol travels along mostly solitary forest routes for seven days at a time, recording what they find. They may spot the tracks of a cunaguaro, the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), or sight a paují, the Endangered helmeted curassow (Pauxi pauxi), pinpointing locations using GPS.
Four teams monitor the dense park forests 28 days per month, then produce and send their reports to PhyNatura headquarters in Ciudad Bolívar where the raw data is input into a database and onto GIS maps. The collected and plotted data is then delivered to the Givadaun company; Conservation International, an environmental NGO; and the European Union for conservation planning purposes. The data is also reviewed by local biologist Arnaldo Ferrer, who determines the size of wild populations by means of footprints, scat and other signs.
“Without [Ferrer], we could not know that fifteen adult jaguars live here,” explains Luis Jiménez, head of Phynatura.
Into the rainforest
I had the pleasure of joining a forest patrol in Suapurito, our first stop after leaving behind the outside world. I walked with Jorge and Omar, both from Aripao. Accompanying us was Lucas, an indigenous teacher of bilingual intercultural pre-school education, who wanted to learn more about the region’s flora and fauna.
In camp, we slept in hammocks covered with mosquito nets to avoid malaria, and were protected from rain by portable plastic roofs because Maripa receives 3,000 millimeters (118 inches) per year, the second highest in Venezuela. It rained almost every day and night on our Caura River trip.
The forest guardians we walked with acted more like teachers than game wardens. “When we have found people around here, we tell them that now you cannot hunt; we educate them,” explains Jorge. Apparently, not everyone has gotten the word concerning the founding of the new park, or so they say.
The dense flooded foliage on either side of the river seemed to be the lush forest’s own best protection: as we patrolled we saw no signs of illegal logging, no poachers.
That hasn’t always been the case. Over a century ago, small steamboats plied the Caura River, taking away cocoa, timber, rubber and tonka, but the routes were abandoned with the collapse of commodity prices.
Learning new agroforestry livelihoods
Today, some local people – pressed by Venezuela’s economic crisis – are tempted by the quick cash available from gold mining or large-scale forest clearing. But many more remain strong in their determination to see their non-timber products become a sustainable alternative, with those products sold on premium foreign markets.
In Aripao, PhyNatura teaches the people the painstaking steps to improving the soils for agroforestry. First, they plant short-cycle crops like beans, corn and a variety of rice that doesn’t require wet paddies. Next, comes the middle-cycle with the planting of bananas and cassava. Finally, comes the planting of trees, including avocado, mango, and tonka. Agricultural waste becomes organic fertilizer to feed the growing trees.
Planning for the future, the communities also place orchids in fruit trees, a crop that can be sold commercially. The villagers also use the forest shade to grow coffee and cocoa. Elsewhere, former conucos are replaced by forest orchards, with plants of varying sizes, including moriche. This palm provides a fruit widely consumed by Aripao residents; it can be made into juice, ice cream and other desserts. PhyNatura is working to obtain international financing to produce moriche oil; its properties resemble those of olive oil, but with better yields.
“No one in Venezuela has taken advantage of it yet!” declares PhyNatura’s Jiménez enthusiastically.
Concerns for the future
Of course, not everything is perfect in this seeming Eden. Though Aripao may be far from Venezuela’s urban food riots, the ripples of the crisis are still felt here. In January 2018, a local company offered the community 100,000 bolivars per kilo, equivalent to one dollar, for every kilogram of crop. In July, the buyer offered the same buying price, even though currency devaluation had caused the value of a single dollar to go from 100,000 to 3 million bolivars.
Another worry: the intermediation agreement with PhyNatura ends on December 31, 2019. So everyone hopes the harvest next year will be big enough, and valued high enough, by Givadaun – the international flavors and fragrances company – for the firm to continue funding forest conservation, as well as committing to buy the entire agroforestry crop for the next ten years.
“The tonka of Venezuela is considered the best in the world,” Jiménez explained, “even though in Brazil they produce more. That’s why it’s a great opportunity [for us].”
If the deal continues, the community could earn $24,000 per year to continue with its forest patrols, the money going into a trust administered by Phynatura, and equivalent to five dollars per month per capita, including children, more than triple the minimum wage as of July 2018. That’s a good hedge against Venezuelan inflation, and a good way to keep people out of the gold mines.
However, “It can be an [inadequate] incentive,” Jiménez warns. He offers up Óscar as an example: he has worked on the sustainability project from the start, but doesn’t earn enough money from it due to Venezuela’s soaring inflation, so he has been forced to open a conuco farm clearing at his house to survive.
“I used to fish for three days, sell that, and I could buy food for two weeks. Then I would throw myself in the hammock,” Óscar told Mongabay. With Venezuela’s inflation rate projected to hit a stunning one million percent this year according to the International Monetary Fund, that is no longer possible.
That’s why, for Óscar, it’s crucial that the 2019 agroforestry harvest be copious. Otherwise he might be forced to pursue the brutal pick and shovel, hand-to-mouth life in the gold mines.
Truce at El Playón
The most surprising thing about José Torres, captain of the community of El Playón, is not that he wears a traditional breechcloth called a guayuco almost exclusively – even as most of the local men don modern sportswear – but that he holds a degree in world history from the Indigenous University of Venezuela.
José is a gifted spokesperson for the El Playón community council – a type of grassroots political forum created by President Hugo Chávez. José is also president of the Craft Association, and someone considered by everyone to be courageous and fair in his dealings.
We met him on a very silent evening, despite the fact that it was a Friday. He explained to us that the quiet had arisen out of an agreement he made with the local gold miners who typically celebrate the weekend’s arrival boisterously.
“I told them that the music at full volume had to be finished at 9 o’clock at night because there were people sleeping,” José told us to our perplexity. Elsewhere in the Orinoco Mining Arc, such obeisance would have been next to impossible. In August, at least six indigenous leaders were killed by gold mining criminal gangs in dispute over new claims
“We allow the [miners around El Playón] to make their parties, but [only] in the most remote area so as not to disturb us,” José explained. His achievement was even more surprising for the fact that there were no armed people lurking in the hamlet, guns being a very common sight south of the Orinoco.
“One day I gathered the lieutenant of the National Guard and the head of the gang that controls the mine, to tell them that they could not continue to display their weapons because the children were imitating them in their games,” José explained matter-of-factly. The people thought that José had lost his mind, negotiating with the armed men, but he seems to have a knack for uniting those who are traditionally adversaries.
The agreements he has forged between the community, miners and National Guard have resulted in perks for El Playón residents, including a steady supply of store-bought sweets, soft drinks, and even alcohol, along with gasoline, satellite phones, construction materials and all kinds of merchandise for resale.
One thing that arrived uninvited, but which José hasn’t been able to control, is trash. Candy and cake wrappers, soda and liquor bottles, and other waste that arrived with the consumer goods, now clutters the community and is an eyesore.
José has asked the military not to allow the goods to freely enter the town, but the troops tell him that the supplies are for the mine, even though much if it, including the alcohol and contraband gasoline, is illegal inside the park.
Unfortunately for the locals, the area around the waterfall has so far been unable to recover the tourism industry that thrived here in the 1990s, which brought Europeans and prosperity.
“Many of [the tourists now] stay in a nearby community. They come up the mountain to see the Pará Falls and then they leave,” he lamented.
Gold is not edible, cocoa is
Still, José is hopeful, an emerging leader with many plans, including the revitalization of a long neglected cocoa crop that PhyNatura initiated in 2005. If successful in his efforts, the community will soon be mining a different sort of pure gold: chocolate.
Chocolates El Rey, a well-recognized Venezuelan chocolate maker, wants to buy cocoa from El Caura. And the company is willing to pay one dollar per kilo for the cocoa beans, with the firm agreeing that the price will not depreciate as has happened with other forest products.
PhyNatura says that the dream could quickly become reality, with the simple addition of a little gasoline. Reportedly stored away in El Caura are 12 tons of cocoa beans at a collection center that the communities have not been able to move due to lack of petrol.
For this harvest to become chocolate – helping assure the community’s future – the cocoa beans must move backward along the arduous route followed by this journalist at the start of this story: the beans must be loaded in a boat and transported to Pará Falls, then be carried on men’s backs for seven kilometers and lowered down slope.
Then, once at El Playón, there follows ten more hours of boat travel down the Caura River to Maripa, then three more hours by road to Ciudad Bolívar, and a further twelve hours overland to an El Chocolates El Rey plant in western Venezuela. Finally, transformed from cocoa into sweets, these rainforest delicacies will be ready for the journey to the U.S. and Europe.
On arrival abroad, that chocolate, purchased by consumers, could help save the Amazon rainforest and its people. True, the Spanish Conquistadors never found the fabled city made of gold. But the native plantings grown in Caura National Park could lay the foundation for a new El Dorado — an El Caura community to be savored and sustained, not exploited and plundered.
This article is part of an ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide, see all the features here.
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