The following was published in the form a change.org petition last March to request urgent actions to stop the illegal occupation of the Caparo Experimental Station in Venezuela that started early this year. According to recent events, the situation has worsened and despite a judge ordered the eviction of these groups nothing has happened, and the damage to the forest has become evident. Photos courtesy of Prof. Jose Lozada.
There is no doubt today that Venezuela is undergoing a terrible crisis at all levels. National economy is collapsing, ironically after receiving millions of dollars from oil revenues during the 2000-2010 decade. A cocktail of corruption, mismanagement and a fierce political and economic controlling system that touched pretty much every institution in the nation has brought Venezuela’s crumbling democracy to its knees. Most services including access to domestic gas, electricity, internet connection, among others, are often failing. Poverty has peaked to unseen levels, and inflation rate is among the highest in the world, with food and medicine shortages reaching unparalleled rates. All together these factors enabled an enormous social crisis that have recently led to a massive flow of new migrants across neighboring countries and beyond.
With this grim context, it is not difficult to imagine the current status of education and science across the country’s most important universities and research institutions. Lack of funding, failing resources and often crime inside many places within the university space are factors severely affecting classes, basic functioning and research. Yet, dedicated professionals, teachers, employees, and students are fiercely resisting while trying to keep universities alive hoping for better conditions to arrive soon. In a previous letter from 2017, we addressed the consequences of Venezuela’s crisis for the environment, and above all for the sustainable management of the country’s forest diversity and the need for actions to solve the critical situation of Venezuela’s forest science. Along the same lines, this brief communication intends to draw the attention to a closely related issue and that is the current threats to the survival of the Caparo Experimental Station (CEE), a symbol of the historic role that Venezuela had (and still has) for scientific research in tropical forest ecology, silviculture and sustainable forest management.
Originally with close to 180,000 ha, Caparo Forest Reserve in the alluvial plains of Western Venezuela was created in the early 1960s to support the development of a national forest industry through the implementation of long term management plans, a truly pioneering effort for the tropical region. Fragmented and with most of it forests now transformed to cattle grazing pastures and low-productivity agriculture, the fate of Caparo’s remaining forests looks grim. The loss of more than 1 million ha across the Western Plains in the last 30 years, including close to 90,000 ha between 1990 and 2015 in Caparo alone does not help in bringing too much hope. Yet, a small piece of land with no more than 7,000 ha of different ecosystems, including a diverse array of forest-types, savannas and a small area of forest plantations still stands. Created as an experimental area for research, CEE has been administered by the Universidad de Los Andes through time in agreement with Venezuela’s government. For the most part, it has been the university by means of its professors, employees and students the solely responsible for the preservation and control of the land. The School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences has been the primary stakeholder through the implementation of research projects and continuous education enabling the CEE to maintain its academic activities running.
Many evidences of the history of rural colonization of the region exists to try understand the process of deforestation and degradation. With ups and downs, but often peaking during political conflicts (i.e. elections at different levels), local and regional politicians associated (or not) with other powerful stakeholders in the region have always been essential drivers of forest conversion over time. However, in the case of the CEE, the solely presence of an institution such as Universidad de Los Andes has been fundamental in preventing the complete transformation of the land.
Yet, this time is different. After the illegal colonization in 2004 that caused the loss of close to 1,000 ha of forests in the “Palma Pintada” sector in the Western section of EEC, today we face an even greater risk with the possibility of a total loss of Caparo’s forests. At least a decade of continuous threats has been the rule in Caparo. Groups of organized communities often accompanied by the support of local and regional governments, frequently with the backing of national institutions, have put CEE under a permanent state of alert. Added to this the current national crisis and the prospects for Caparo’s remnant forests and its biological diversity are far from promising. Despite a local court sentenced the illegal invasion to the EEC from early 2018 while instructing the immediate eviction of the illegal settlers, we still haven’t seen a strong and definitive response from the institutions responsible of handling the situation.
Being a fundamental area for ecological research and education, but most importantly, being the habitat of hundreds of species of plants, animals and insects, CEE desperately needs help to continue its mission, and our goal here is to highlight a few options that could help achieving it:
- Sharing this message as widely as possible, along with similar communications from other partners including the Venezuelan Ecological Society, the Venezuelan IUCN program and the Universidad de Los Andes itself;
- Demand the official institutions an immediate eviction of all groups that are currently threatening several areas of the CEE;
- Calling out the current administration at all levels (local, regional and national) to recognize the value of the CEE and the ecosystems represented by it, for the conservation of biological diversity as stated in the last known version of the official Zoning and Management Plan from 2012.
The Research Program that started at CEE in 1970 will soon arrive to its 50th anniversary of continuous activities, and without the forests that have sustained multiple initiatives over the years an enormous amount of knowledge will be inevitable lost. Furthermore, forest diversity at Caparo including all of its components are at high risk like never before. This small piece of land represents what is probably the last known continuous portion of a unique ecosystem, the “Alisio Forests” or “Trade wind forests” that once covered an immense area shared between Colombia and Venezuela. For many reasons, some of which have been addressed in this open letter, we believe it is our duty to do everything in our power to help preserving Caparo during tumultuous times for Venezuela. It is time for practical and rapid solutions that enable saving Caparo’s forests. We hope this letter serves in that direction and we also expect that friends, colleagues and citizens from Venezuela and abroad interested in the conservation of EEC will help spreading the word.
Emilio Vilanova, José Lozada, Lionel Hernández, Miguel Plonckzak, Cristabel Durán, María Dolores Delgado.
Photos used in the Slideshow from Emilio Vilanova.