Biodiversity and the sustainable development of tourism in the Amazonas: a socio-economic alternative for the region
EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.
Venezuela is among the top ten countries with the highest biological diversity on the planet. This condition is evident in the ten bioregions that protect multiple life forms and a significant number of endemic species within the country. The land south of the Orinoco is home to more than half of the Venezuelan biodiversity, primarily due to the geological history of the Guiana Shield, the high species richness, and the individual contributions of ecosystems in this area (Huber, O . 1983). The state of Amazonas is probably the entity with the most pristine or less explored locations from the point of view of biological studies, due to its remoteness. Likewise, the environmental heterogeneity south of the Orinoco has allowed the establishment of very particular wildlife and numerous indigenous groups that attract tourists and bring an opportunity for sustainable development in the region.
The Raised Relief of the Amazonas State
Amazonas is the second state with the largest area of the country (177,617 km2), representing 19% of the national territory. It has a raised-relief, which is influenced by the Guiana Shield. This variety of conditions affects the high diversity of organisms distributed in multiple ecological units. This entity’s geography has an incredible contrast that goes from the Orinoco River banks at about 100 m.a.s.l to Pico Phelps with 2,992 m.a.s.l in the Serranía La Neblina National Park (NP). Almost all the state’s territory is shaped by the Orinoco River basin, which rises in the Sierra de Parima, specifically in Cerro Delgado Chalbaud. It travels 2,140 km to deposit its waters in the Atlantic Ocean. In this basin, other vital rivers pour their waters: the Ventuari (474km, with its tributaries Uesete, Yaitití, Parú, Asita, Manapiare, Marieta and Guapachí), the El Ocamo (238km, with its tributary El Putaco) and El Padamo (180km, with its tributaries Cuntinamo, Botamo and Matacuní). Other tributaries of great importance are the Ugueto, Mavaca, Manaviche, Cunucunuma, Guanane, Yagua, Guaviare, Sipapo, Autana, Cataniapo, and the Atabapo.
The state of Amazonas, as a region of socio-economic interest, has a geography that enables fluvial communication, promoting the exchange of products and culture among communities throughout the region. The history of travel and exploration dates back to Alexander von Humboldt on his route down the Orinoco River, providing a window to discovery. This is now offered as a destination full of attractions for nature and adventure lovers.
Biodiversity as an emblem in the Amazonas
Biodiversity in the southern Orinoco and the northern part of the Amazonas is unique. The varied landscape provides numerous microhabitats inhabited by species of hunting, cultural, tourism, and scientific importance. In this bioregion, there are species with a distribution restricted to mountainous areas, tepuis, and hydrographic basins (considerably increasing endemicity ). Other more cosmopolitan species share their Orinoco distribution among the peneplains and floodplains (Colonello, G. 1990). Amazonas has four national parks, fifteen natural monuments (three of them shared with the Bolívar state), a biosphere reserve, and a forest reserve that protects indigenous communities, high basins, and therefore the region’s natural stability.
The Amazonas state’s diversity contains a great wealth of species in terms of flora and fauna, and these are contained in numerous environments. There, it is possible to see evergreen, riverine, cloudy, semi-deciduous, palm, swamp, grassland forests, and all kinds of savannahs (open, shrubby, and wooded). The diversity of higher plants in the Amazonas is estimated at almost 4,000 species, of which no less than 1,500 are endemic to the region (Huber, O. 1995). The variability of the soils greatly enhances this variety of plant systems. They are grouped in phytogeographic areas by the Llanera, Guyanese, and Amazonas’ influence, providing the basis for the rest of all organisms (Steyermark, J. 1979).
Some species are only found in small sectors of the Amazonas or the area of it’s basin the Venezuela. The the Yapacana’s little red frog (Minyobates steyermarki), the Brewer’s frog from Cerro Autana (Stefania breweri), the enigmatic rough toad from Cerro Marahuaca (Metaphryniscus sosai), the serpent from Cerro Yavi (Thamnodinastes yavi) are only known from these mountains or type localities, while the Amazonian fruit bat (Rhinophylla fischerae) and the Golden-backed uakari (Cacajao melanocephalus) are only found in the Amazon basin or part of it (Rodríguez, J. et al. 2015). As for the rivers’ fauna, we also have numerous forms of fish concentrated in tributaries or high basins and enigmatic birds that can only be located with the aid of indigenous people’s knowledge. There is another group that deserves our attention. These are the endangered species, such as the Orinoco caiman (Crocodylus intermedius), the jaguar (Panthera onca), the Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa), the imposing harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), the southern monkey spider (Ateles belzebuth), the antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus) and the giant armadillo or «cuspón» (Priodontes maximus). Then we can observe a more common fauna but of great ecological and cultural importance in the Amazonas state, such as the yellow-banded poison dart frog (Dendrobates leucomelas), the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), and the anaconda (Eunectes murinus).
In recent years, wildlife knowledge has increased thanks to rapid assessments of biodiversity in the Orinoco, Ventuari, and Caura rivers. The results have made it possible to discover species’ composition and to discover new ones (Señaris, J.C. et al. 2006). Research on biodiversity in the Amazonas, as well as throughout the Venezuelan territory, must be constant and supported by organisms and institutions that guarantee conservation that seeks to protect biodiversity from initiatives based on scientific knowledge.
Indigenous peoples and their relationship with nature
The identity of indigenous peoples is closely related to environmental processes and phenomena occurring in their environment. In this framework, nature is the core of their worldview and spirituality; each organism has a meaning in its existence. Some species provide food, and others keep them connected to their cultural heritage. The ethnic diversity of the Amazonas state is the largest and richest in the country, made up by more than twenty indigenous peoples; each with their own language and specific customs that allow them to survive in the natural environment. In Amazonas, more than 50% of the population is indigenous, linguistic branches of the Arawak, Caribb, and Yanomamö are spoken, which represent isolated languages. The more numerous groups (Census 2011) are the Jivi or Goahibo, the Piaroa or Huottöja, the Yanomamo, the Curripaco, the Baré, and the Yekwana or Maquiritare. The first inhabitants of Amazonas were hunter gatherers and cultivated tubers (Saignes, M. 2014).
Due to the religious missions in the 18th century and the exploitation of rubber at the end of the 19th century, many indigenous communities were sectorized or practically destroyed by the introduction of diseases, enslavement, and multiple waves of migration in search of a better life (Maldonado, C. 2006). That is why some languages and customs were lost. Though population movements have changed the ethnicity in large parts of the indigenous population, the life strategy remains linked to subsistence fishing and horticulture, eventually combined with extractivism.
Today, many indigenous peoples are dependent on subsistence fishing, especially the most isolated communities (Lasso, C. 2006). Thus, the second viable option to obtain protein content comes from hunting, an act of subsistence with thousands of years of perfection and that indigenous peoples continue to practice. Agricultural intensification has transformed the original landscapes into large areas called «conucos.» The planting of pineapple and cassava, among other tubers, provides an alternative for consumption, commercialisation, and exchange for industrialized products. (obs.per).
Tourism in the Amazonas state
The Amazonas is ranked as the most extensive rainforest globally and harbours 10% of all known species. This macro-region includes nine different countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) in which 35 million people live, including more than 2.6 million indigenous people. The original people are the host and guardian of this ancient land, though some members of these ethnies do engage in extractivist practices like mining (Lasso, et al. 2006). These activities are linked to the loss of biodiversity and the deterioration of cultural heritage. They are transformed according to the different social processes and demands. To avoid this, we must focus on the interest of communities on opportunities linked to sustainable development.
In Amazonas, a tourist channel has been created focused on the natural attractions of the region and the indigenous people’s lives; an activity that seeks from syncretism, to know communities and places considered sacred for indigenous ethnic groups, their history, and customs. There is also the possibility of exploring its geography, visiting multiple locations to practice activities in contact with nature, and observing its incredible biodiversity. Various localities are still standing today to enjoy tourism in the Amazonas, some places function as parks, museums, shops, and natural destinations.
In Puerto Ayacucho: the Enzo Ceccarelli ethnological museum, Plaza Bolívar and the Cathedral of María Auxiliadora, the indigenous craft market, the Monte Bello viewpoint, and the house on the stone. There are some public spas such as Pozo Azul, Pozo Cristal, Los Márquez, Las Tinajas, among others to the north of the city. Within the Atures Municipality: the Atures and Maipures streams, the jungle slide, the Tortuga Stone, and the petroglyphs of Pintao. To the south, we can find, in the Autana Municipality: Ratón Island, the different modalities of Tours to the Autana River (Raudal de Ceguera Community) and the excursion to Lake Leopoldo (Paraka-Wachoi). These places have incredible potential for sustainable development, promoting an economy that would keep the communities related to the area and in harmony with the environment. Unfortunately, the country’s socio-economic situation and its inevitable relationship (increasingly accentuated) with the state capital have generated a strong dependence on specific products and services.
There are factors such as migration, extractivism in its different forms, and the incursion of paramilitary groups that divert and make impossible the good practice of tourism to the north of the state, coupled with low maintenance, promotion, and investment in public infrastructure. Management focused on preserving nature and protecting indigenous peoples’ identity will return the opportunity to manage each activity more sustainably.
Environmental sustainability as the basis of tourism
Tourism is not a harmless activity. It always generates changes where it is established. Unfortunately, some are irreversible, mainly when it intervenes in fragile ecosystems. In this case, visiting the Amazonas state goes hand in hand with observing nature, where many species of flora and fauna are readily displayed on the complex routes. The land and river routes allow us to know first-hand a good part of biodiversity and where the local host, with his kind treatment, becomes a guide that will help us discover how his home works.
Tourism focused on nature is the alternative to avoid indigenous peoples’ incursion into the territory of mining and wildlife trafficking. However, it should focus on sustainable development projects related to ecotourism or nature, gastronomic, and anthropological tourism that allow the indigenous to reconnect with their culture and environment. In sustainable tourism, everyone wins, from the tourist who lives an experience full of discovery, identity, and roots, to the indigenous who offer their facilities or guiding services. Under these conditions, very clear and equitable tourism can be achieved: Ensure the protection and conservation of biodiversity, create opportunities for all social groups supported by their culture and generate economic productivity that enhances the region.
Achieving a good practice of tourism requires education, training, and partnerships in multidisciplinary groups working on continuously monitoring its impacts in the communities, the economy, and the environment. However, the state must guarantee sovereignty, access to resources and essential services, and support and rescue a sector with many potentials. Tourism not only recovers the economy if it is well-executed but also protects the environment from destruction if it is well planned and implemented. That is our goal.
Contributions to knowledge about the biodiversity of Amazonas’ state would not be possible without the effort of essential expeditions, estimates, inventories, and samplings carried out by researchers and naturalists who have dedicated their lives to collecting data for conservation. These results should guide decision-making on the protection and sustainable use of natural resources. Finally, consider and inform about the repercussions on wildlife (given the high number of species of hunting interest) and indigenous communities to minimize the socio-environmental impact.The loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ecosystems can be avoided by simultaneously investing in environmental education in the region, incorporating development programs linked to bio-culture, rescuing indigenous culture and identity, and generating a sense of belonging that will transform the community into a conservation emblem. Several examples of this type of development are observed in the Andes, where ecotourism and community tourism, adequately managed, allow the conservation of biodiversity and the creation of jobs.
Preserving biodiversity is extremely important to guarantee all organisms’ stability; we must work in education and outreach to keep each ecosystem healthy and with its structural properties. Healthy environments recover better from disasters such as forest fires, and their conservation contributes to the maintenance of other ecosystems.
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Juan P Diasparra S