Caparo, the last forest
Caparo Forest Reserve, located in Barinas, southwest Venezuela, has virtually vanished. More than 140,000 hectares were devastated and the threat of squatting prevails in the absence of authorities
Further on, a feline's paw recently printed on the mud stands out as an indicator of the animal wealth dwelling in the foliage. The anticipation of an encounter with this animal adds another dimension to our tour, but that is not bad news. Bad news is what has happened to thousands of Chupón trees (Pouteria anibaefolia). Chupón wood is so hard that these trees cannot be transformed into planks. Since it is impossible to exploit these trees, thousands of them have been cut down and burned by environment predators as a way to take them out of the road.
The Caparo Forest Reserve exists on maps only. It was created back in February 1961, on a 174,340-hectare plot of land in Barinas state. It borders River Caparo to the north, and River Uribante to the south. A plan developed by the Ministry of Agriculture intended to preserve a part of the three million hectares of forests that existed once on the western plains (in the states of Portuguesa, Apure, Barinas and south Táchira state). The plan established the forest reserves of Turén, Ticoporo, San Camilo and Caparo, which amounted to 900,000 hectares altogether. It also sought rational exploitation of the wood wealth in the area. However, in the short term, demographic pressure and cattle raising prevailed over good intention.
A research conducted by Enrique Pacheco, from the Faculty of Forest and Environment Sciences, University of Los Andes, compiled satellite images and maps that portray the forest devastation. The forest was alive until 1980, but when exploitation of wood was allowed, the so-called "agricultural communities" ensued. Between 1982 and 1989, the Venezuelan State signed exploitation contracts with both private and public companies, in order to exploit wood -mahogany, cedar, mijao, pardillo, saquisaque and other commercial species. Despite monitoring, things were not quite right. In 1982, a commodate was created with the ULA as bailee. ULA was already running an educative and research program in the area since 1970. Under the commodate, the university was entrusted with the protection of 7,000 hectares of forest and the construction of an experimental station in the area known as Cachicamo.
A gloomy outlook
ULA representatives believe that by 2000 only 47.99% of the Caparo forest was left. In 2001, Minister of Environment Ana Elisa Osorio officially terminated concessions and decided that the area would be managed under a new mechanism, the "communal forest management."
"The Ministry (of Environment) delivered these lands to Base Territorial Units, that is to say, to many of those who are now squatters in the reserve," explained Wilfredo Franco, an ULA professor and coordinator of the Caparo commodate. "Communal management translated into deforestation and tree burning, and converted the area to stockbreeding." Surveys conducted by the ULA estimated that between 2002 and 2004 some 70,000 hectares of forests vanished: a treasure of precious biodiversity and wood.
A gloomy outlook lies ahead: "90% of almost 175,000 hectares of the reserve are now grassland and bushes," Franco explained. "14,000 hectares survived, half of them belong to the area protected by the ULA and the rest is a bunch of small isolated forest segments, most of them doomed to disappear."
Between 2001 and 2004, squatters took over some 900 hectares located at the western end of the zone under commodate. They were evicted over and over again until 2004, when no one could evict them. Outside the law, they divided the plot of land into 34 parcels. And this spot, called Palma Pintada, is perhaps one of the best examples for putting things into perspective: standing right where the land takeover starts, one can see grassland to the right, with thin cows grazing and a few trees. To the left, separated by a dirt track, one can see the green wall of the unscathed forest.
"Those 900 hectares of forest were cut down and burned between 2005 and 2009," professor Wilfredo Franco regrets. "The experimental plantations of pardillo trees were completely razed and around 50% of the plantations of teak trees planted by the ULA in the 1970s were looted." Now, the sharecroppers have organized a communal council, but according to workers in the ULA camp, the lands -the "improvements"- have been sold more than once. "There are only three or four families left from the first group."
The land registry made in 2007 recorded about 1,200 ranches inside the forest reserve. Now, ULA representatives estimate that the number has increased to 1,500.
It would be naive to think that this could become a forest again. What is a forest reserve on the maps is in real life- a settlement including 55 schools and five high schools well established, as well as a place where the ULA has been asked for help to build a higher education institution.
"Sacrificing biodiversity and natural wealth did not pay off at the end. It failed to make justice and to attain social or economic development," Franco stated. "Caparo's residents are poor, except for a few who own up to three ranches they have bought from squatters."
Translated by Adrián Valera Villani
Why did Gerardo come to Caracas? One day he took the decision, handed the car keys to his father, gave him his share of the cloth business they both owned in San Cristóbal and kissed his wife and two sons goodbye. "He told us he was going to continue fighting for Venezuela," the wife says. That was in mid-2013. He has been imprisoned since May 8, 2014.