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Tukupu: The women of the Kariña community, guardians of Venezuela’s forests

  • Tukupu is Venezuela’s first Indigenous forest business, sustainably managing and reforesting 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of the Imataca Forest Reserve in the south-east of the country.
  • The business is led mainly by women who have used their ancestral knowledge to restore over 312 hectares (770 acres) of forest, reforest another 113 (280 acres) and dedicate 189 (468 acres) to agroforestry.
  • According to the FAO, the equivalent of more than 23 million tonnes of carbon emissions have been avoided, either directly or indirectly, through the project.
  • One of the key points of the project has been to figure out how the resources from the forest can be commercialised in a sustainable way that also benefits members of the community.

Cecilia Rivas remembers Tukupu as a place to live freely. The dwellings of the Indigenous Kariña community, spread out under the shade of the trees in the Imataca Forest Reserve, located in the south-east of Venezuela, was where her grandparents and parents were born. She remembers tropical trees, tall and humid, from her childhood – which are now just a distant memory. Little by little, mining and unregulated tree felling has led to their disappearance. Mass-scale hunting and fishing have had a huge effect on the creatures living in the forests.

“We are determined to look after this area to ensure that it is not handed over to external parties – to make sure that they do not get involved,” says Rivas. “The Kariña people have fought to hold on to these forests. We live in tune with nature, moving every few years to a different site to allow nature to recuperate. We are always moving.”

Cecilia Rivas, a captain of the Kariña people, is the leader of Tukupu, Venezuela’s first Indigenous forest business. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

The community known as Tukupu still lives according to its own traditions. But Tukupu is now also the name of Venezuela’s first Indigenous forest business. Women are spearheading the enterprise and founding member Cecilia was elected by her people as the ‘captain’, or leader. In 2020, the Venezuelan state granted the group a forest concession of 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) which is now protected and sustainably managed by Tukupu. The community is also able to benefit from the forest’s natural resources.

“I named the project Tukupu so that the name of this community is not lost,” Rivas said. “The Imataca Reserve is huge, the size of a country. We live freely among the trees and now work to manage the forest and show the cipianioro, or people who are not Indigenous, how we live with the forest. We use what it has to offer, while protecting the forest so that it always remains.”

Aerial view of Botanamo, one of the communities collaborating with Tukupu in the Imataca Forest. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

How it all began

The Imataca Forest Reserve was created in 1961 and covers 38,219 square kilometres (23,748 square miles). The forest is enormously rich in biodiversity and natural resources.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), this region is a megadiverse territory containing 168 species of mammals, 614 species of birds, 358 species of fish, 119 species of reptiles and 76 species of amphibians.

The proposal to create a project to protect the forest and use its resources in a sustainable way came in 2016 from the Kariña people themselves. The aim was to stop the destruction and extraction of the forest’s resources by companies working without consent and that were not providing any benefit to the local communities that have lived in the forests for generations.

Tukupu now benefits the Kariña community, providing them with resources that they extract from the Imataca Forest in a sustainable way. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

This led them to approach the FAO that same year, requesting their support for the project. The FAO responded positively and the collaboration to set up the business began with a consultation involving the local community. The women took the first step, organising themselves to develop the first conucos, or nurseries, to grow food and useful plants to restore the areas that had been destroyed.

The business was formally established under the name Tukupu, Indigenous Forest Business and in 2020, the Ministry for Eco-Socialism (Minec) in Venezuela granted 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) to the Kariña people, marking the beginning of a joint administration. At the same time, the area became a space for training and development, particularly for women who are now actively leading the territory’s development and the conservation of its biodiversity.

“Women have always worked and taught, and now, thanks to the opportunities we have been given, it is these women who are taking Tukupu forward,” adds Rivas. “The Indigenous women are no longer timid; they know how to discuss, share ideas and direct.”

The Kariña women are leading the enterprise using their knowledge and skills to look after the forest. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

What they have achieved

One of the key points of the project has been to figure out how the resources from the forest can be commercialised. To do this, they worked to classify and confirm which assigned areas and elements of the forest, both wood and non-wood, can be extracted.

“The forest has three types of wood: hardwood, semi-hardwood and softwood,” explains Cecilia Rivas. “[For example], we will work on one section directly, as we have an agreement with private companies for the Kariñakon – men from the Kariña community – to be involved in the processing of that particular wood. The resulting materials can be used for boards, planks and strips which are the right size for the Kariña carpenters to work with.”

Rivas adds that they are also now investigating to see how best to enter the wider market, which will require interest from businesses and companies who support green investment.

The men from the Kariña community are in charge of processing the wood and other products generated from within Tukupu. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

However, the benefits go much further. Since work began with Tukupu, the FAO and its specialist teams have been evaluating certain areas to determine the stock and flow of greenhouse gases. The equivalent of more than 23 million tonnes of carbon emissions have been avoided, either directly or indirectly.

“We’re giving other countries oxygen”, says Rivas. “These forests are Venezuela’s lungs and we’re looking after them, not only for us, but the whole world. We all need to do a little bit to protect these lungs, but many people don’t see it that way and think only of destruction. I saw that and decided, no, that’s not us.”

The nurseries of Tukupu have grown an estimated twenty thousand different plants. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

Professor Alex Cegarra, technical coordinator of the FAO project Sustainable Forest Lands Management and Conservation under an Eco-social Approach, is one of the people who has worked alongside Tukupu right from the beginning. The project today benefits twelve Kariña communities involving 1,511 people, 58% of which are women.

“The idea is that the people living in the area are involved; by participating they share both the responsibilities and the benefits that are produced,” says Cegarra. “It’s really important that this isn’t just a company that comes into the area from elsewhere and leaves taking something away with it. These people live here. It is their home and their habitat. So, when we speak of guardians of the forest, it’s because the forest belongs to their children.”

Cegarra explains that in establishing co-management of the forest, they have incorporated the way the Indigenous people view the world. The forest inventory, topographical surveying, viability of designs and stockpile patios were all constructed while taking into account the visions of the people living there. This included the training sessions and permanent leadership of the FAO.

Alex Cegarra has headed up the project’s investigations together with the Kariña communities. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

A forest for future generations

Tukupu is now supported financially by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an association made up of 18 organisations in 183 countries. They have created 12 community and individual family nurseries, and restored 312 hectares (770 acres) of forest while reforesting another 113 (280 acres). An additional 10 hectares (25 acres) was dedicated to analogue forestry, a technique used to restore exploited forests.

They also have 189 hectares (468 acres) dedicated to developing a system of agroforestry that grows plants like trees and palms alongside agricultural crops. The aim of this is to guarantee the communities’ food security and includes traditional plants and fruit species. To encourage families to extend their own plots, they have developed packets of seeds to be sown during the rainy season.

In the fields that have been cleared, Kariña women now sow cocoa, coffee, soursop, guayaba, oranges and mandarins, among other crops. They have also founded an artisan carpenters’ workshop and initiated the first phase of an Indigenous market called Casa Kariña in Tumeremo, where they sell community-produced honey, bread, oil and charcoal.

“We do things that are useful to the nurseries and the forests themselves while ensuring that our Indigenous brothers and sisters can be sustainable, ”says Cecilia Rivas. “We make sure that everything has a use and that from the items they produce, our brothers and sisters can have investments for the next day.”

In the nurseries they produce forest species like carob (Himenaea courbaril) and amaranth (Peltogine porhyrocardia), as well as fruiting species like soursop, tamarind and mango. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

Rivas insists that in many ways, all of this is so that future generations do not have to suffer as Indigenous communities have suffered in the past. She hopes they can discover a space to live in the Imataca Forest the way she herself has.

“This is our Pachamama and if I’m not here tomorrow, our children will look after her forest,” concludes Rivas. “The studies that have been carried out over the last few years are saying that there is still time to save the great Imataca Forest. That is why we are so determined to look after it; for the Kariña, for the communities and for the peoples of our country.”

Children are involved in Tukupu’s activities to ensure that they too learn and ultimately become the future guardians of the Imataca Forest Reserve.


Banner Image: Cecilia Rivas, Kariña Captain and founder of Tukupu, Indigenous Forest Reserve. Image courtesy of FAO Venezuela.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We take a look at restoration projects around the globe and the ways the global ecological restoration movement is challenging us to reconsider the way we live on planet Earth. Listen here:

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