Plain man's guide to conservationCaracas, Venezuela: The great inland plains known in Venezuela as the Llanos make one of the world's most important neo-tropical wetland ecosystems. Covering a third of the country, the Llanos form a large part of the Orinoco River watershed, their clay soils dry and cracked for six months of the year and turned into huge lakes by the floods of the rainy season.
The landscape varies from savannah to tropical dry forest, gallery forest, and even sand dunes. It is home to the Orinoco crocodile or caiman river dolphins, pirana, and more than 600 species of fish. Some 300 species of birds nest there, including storks and Muscovy ducks, and the Llanos are a playground for red howler monkeys and spider monkeys.
But the area is coming under increasing pressure from the cultivation of rice and cotton and even its three national parks and five wildlife refuges are threatened because management plans are not observed and laws are not enforced.
While endangered species are illegally sold as pets or for medicinal purposes, the number of trees left reaching 30 metres in height and three meters in diameter is rapidly dwindling in the face of uncontrolled deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture. At the same time, the vital watercourses are being contaminated by urban waste and agrochemicals, including the deadly DDT.
In addition to demand for commercial development, including oil extraction, the wetlands of the Llanos are increasingly becoming a target of the tourist industry, offering an ideal landscape for fishing, hunting and boating.
Clearly such a large area of land has an important role in the Venezuelan economy, but as with many other parts of the world there is an urgent need for conservation and a programme of sustainable management if vital natural resources are not to be destroyed.
So this year FUDENA, the Venezuelan Associate of the international conservation organization, WWF, is embarking on a regional conservation project in the Llanos, with a US$25,000 grant from the Global Environmental Facility through the World Bank. This is the first ecoregion project in Venezuela and it has four main objectives.
The first is simply to improve the state of knowledge about the Llanos among Venezuelans and throughout the world. Following on from that, the second objective is to develop strategies for the conservation of the region's biodiversity and, through the involvement of all groups with a stake in the Llanos, to establish a pattern of sustainable use of natural resources.
Thirdly, the FUDENA scheme will conduct pilot conservation and management projects that can be replicated by other communities. Finally it will set out to provide training for decision-makers at both local and government level so that they will have the skills necessary to make informed choices that promote the conservation of biodiversity and water resources.
The idea of relating economic activity to conservation is not entirely new to the Llanos. Already about 10 per cent of the land is conserved by families and corporations that mix ecotourism with cattle ranching in sustainable management schemes. FUDENA will work with these and other ranchers to form a privately owned conservation network that will protect gallery forests, rivers and streams as biological corridors and maintain land in a natural state.
Such practical measures will form an important part of the project. It is designed not only to gather and disseminate information about the biodiversity of the ecosystem but also to provide alternatives to slash-and-burn farming and encourage management practices for the watershed and its range of natural resources that offer economically and environmentally sound solutions to the problems of local communities.
*Marhut Turner is an ecologist working on biodiversity issues in Venezuela