Ecotourism – a development alternative for the Pemón indigenous community of San Miguel de Betania (Imataca Forest Reserve, Sifontes Municipality).
EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.
Next to Las Claritas -a mining town that grew from an improvised hamlet-, is San Miguel de Betania. This is a Pemón community currently facing a dilemma: decide what source of income will provide a livelihood to support their families and maintain the surrounding biodiversity in the upcoming years. The community was established approximately 60 years ago and nowadays its economy is based on small-scale agriculture (bananas, cassava, yansin and yams); artisanal products (casabe); and artisanal mining. The latter is not carried out within their territory, but in neighboring areas such as San Juan de Venamo, where only artisanal mining is allowed by indigenous people.
The Urapan Tüpië, Poyinkö Tüpië, and Parawakachi Tüpië tepuis (table mountains) in San Miguel de Betania territory, are a relict of lowland tropical humid forest immersed in the Imataca Forest Reserve. This territory represents a high percentage of conserved areas in contrast to its surrounding environment, which has degraded rapidly due to deforestation linked to mining activities before and after the Arco Minero decree.
San Miguel de Betania’s population totals around 479 people in 127 families. They follow the hierarchy established by the 2005 law of indigenous peoples, with a Captain, a Vicecaptain, a Secretary, Treasurer and a board member. Additionally they have a communal council that works in unison towards community development.
Nature is of special importance for the Pemón indigenous communities and is currently threatened by the expansion of destructive actions such as mining (gold, diamonds and coltan) and timber-related deforestation. In response to the threat posed mining cooperatives and mining companies in the area, who offer the community high economic incentives for the exploitation of gold in their community, FUDECI, the SVCN and the community of San Miguel de Betania proposed to develop socio-productive alternatives among which ecotourism is central. This could allow them to conserve the area surrounding their community (Urapan Túpië), which connects to the Imataca Forest Reserve. his represents an opportunity to protect important ecosystems while generating income that helps mitigate the impact of mining on the community.
An Ecotourism project financed by UNEP’s Small Grants Program through the Global Environment Fund was developed, providing training in ecotourism and focused on biodiversity conservation specific to the Urapan Tüpië area. Aimed to allow the sustainable use of biodiversity, the project also helped lay the foundations for the formation and registration of two ecotourism micro-enterprises and collateral activities (tourist guides, inns, a restaurant and crafts production) as alternative income sources. Moreover, participants were given training on indigenous rights and territorial planning, with which they managed to delimit areas according to different uses such as urban expansion areas, hunting areas, agricultural areas, artisanal mining areas and conserved areas. This was carried out with the help of specialists and the community itself.
A nature interpretation path connecting the community to the Urapan Tüpië was designed and marked during the capacity building process. The Guianan cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola), a bird with specific habitat requirements was used as a flag species in order to protect biodiversity in the humid forest of the Imataca lowlands. To date, 144 species of mammals belonging to nine orders and 27 families have been recorded in the area. The presence of threatened species such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), the tapir (Tapirus terresis) or the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) has also been recorded in the Urapan Tüpië region.
In short, we bet on the achievement and consolidation of this project once the country’s situation starts to improve. The community is committed and, currently they keep convinced of the benefits – both cultural and economic- of conservation.
It is impossible to conserve ecosystems or species without the communities leading and managing the process.