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Gold in Imataca

Gold in Imataca

By Julio César Centeno, PhD

The largest gold deposits in Latin America are located in a jungle territory in eastern Venezuela, known as the Imataca Forest Reserve. The country is thus, once again, faced with the apparent dilemma between conservation and development.


In Venezuela, a Forest Reserve is a wooded territory, of a public nature, delimited for the sustainable and permanent exploitation of wood for industrial purposes. The exploitation is carried out through forest concessions granted by the state, with rotations of 40 years, and in accordance with principles and criteria of forest management whose intention is to guarantee the sustainability of the industrial activity and the conservation of the exploited resource.

Venezuela's forest reserves cover 12 million hectares. They are part of the Areas under the Special Administration Regime (ABRAES), which include national parks, natural monuments, protective zones and 7 other additional legal figures, depending on their protective, productive and recreational functions.

The Imataca Forest Reserve was established by presidential decree in January 1963 (Official Gazette 27044). It covers 3.8 million hectares, an area larger than the Netherlands and almost the size of Switzerland. It is located at the foot of the Guiana Shield, approximately 80% covered by ancient tropical forests, rich in genetic diversity like few other places in the world. It is also a territory rich in gold, diamonds, iron, bauxite, manganese, copper, water and energy. It is one of the main natural inheritances of future generations of Venezuelans.

In principle, forest reserves must be governed by a Management Plan, the design and implementation of which corresponds to the national executive. However, for the Imataca Forest Reserve there has never been a Management Plan, despite its 40 years of existence and the granting of forestry and mining concessions in that territory. Improvisation and impunity have reigned there, and corruption has been facilitated through the discretion with which public officials have made decisions about the exploitation of the natural resources of this territory.

Twelve logging concessions originally comprised about 50% of the reserve, most of which were granted in the 1980s. Currently only 4 are operational, for a total of 760,000 hectares, 20% of the reserve. The concessions are governed by management plans with rotation periods of 40 years and guidelines that, if respected, could guarantee the sustainability of the industrial activity.

However, the deficient control of logging companies and the corruption that has characterized the Venezuelan Forest Service for decades, has facilitated a predatory attitude that has caused serious damage in most of the exploited areas, although the officially reported production does not exceed, on average, the 10 cubic meters of industrial wood per hectare. (Real cubic meters. The so-called "official cubic meter" is a fictitious measure, existing only in Venezuela, created to artificially reduce the volume of wood extracted from natural forests by about 35%, minimizes the payment of taxes, and transfers to the nation the waste and deficiencies of the lumber industry. The deformations that this instrument of corruption introduces are of such magnitude that frequently the quantity of wood in roles that is processed in the sawmills, measured in "official cubic meters", is less than the amount of sawn wood that is produced. In other cases, the conversion factors from logs to sawn wood often exceed 80%, giving the wrong impression of high levels of efficiency by the country's timber companies).

Unfortunately, in Imataca the pattern of forest exploitation has been repeating itself, which has devastated most of the forest reserves granted in concession in the rest of the country. Forests are exploited as if they were mines, progressively destroying the most valuable species, degrading natural ecosystems and eroding the sustainability of industrial activity. If current policies and practices continue, logging tends to guarantee the destruction of between one fifth and one third of Imataca's forest resources in the next 20 years.

Gold mining in Venezuela

Gold has been exploited in an artisanal way in eastern Venezuela since the mid-19th century, in territories that are part of the Guiana Shield. The first applications for mining concessions date back to 1854, in the region known as El Dorado, on the south-western edge of the Imataca Forest Reserve.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, for 1975 the national gold mineral reserves were estimated at 400,000 tons, with a content of 24 grams per ton, for a potential of approximately 9,600 kilograms of gold (MARN: Atlas de Venezuela 1979)

In 1986, the granting of a concession to the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) was formalized for the exploitation of gold and diamonds in the south of the Imataca Forest Reserve (Presidential Decree 1046 of 03-19-86), with the intention of exploit the rich deposits located mainly between Las Claritas, El Dorado and Alto Cuyuní. Other more specific concessions had been granted in the vicinity of San Martín de Turumbán and Bochinche.

That same year (1986) the company TECMIN (Empresa de Servicios Técnicos Mineros C.A), a CVG subsidiary, was created to evaluate and plan the exploitation of mineral deposits in Venezuelan Guiana. In its balance of activities for 1990, TECMIN projected the following:

  • "By the year 2000 Venezuela could produce 150 tons of gold per year"
  • "So far, about 8,000 tonnes of gold potential is estimated."
  • "With the mining opening, a development similar to that of oil can be achieved"

(Source: CVG: AT THE DOORS OF EL DORADO - CVG 30 YEARS 1990)

Most of the activities programmed to promote the mining development proposed by CVG-TECMIN remained stagnant due, among other reasons, to the low reliability of the projections on which they were based, to limitations in investments as a consequence of the growing economic crisis. That was unleashed in the country as of 1983, to limitations in the supply of electrical energy, and to the collapse in the price of gold. Only between 1987 and 1997 did gold lose 26% of its nominal value, with an even greater drop in its real value in constant dollars.

The official production of gold in Venezuela corresponds to a variable portion of the real values, due to limitations in the administration and control systems, contraband, illegal exploitation and corruption associated with mining activity in the country.
Between 1960 and 1970, official gold production averaged 700 kilograms per year, mostly due to the activity of small artisan producers. By 1985 it had increased to 2,700 kilograms per year, and by 1995 to about 7,300 kilograms per year (MARNR: Atlas de Venezuela 1979; Atlas de Venezuela, 1988). In 1997, the year in which Presidential Decree 1850 was formalized, gold production registered a historical peak of 22,000 kilograms (Statistics from the Ministry of Production and Commerce 1989-1999).

The increase in production in 1997 coincides with a 30% fall in the price of gold, going from 405 dollars an ounce in February 1996 to 288 dollars an ounce in December 1997. Since then the price continued to decline until reaching 255 dollars an ounce in July 1999.

Mining, as a whole, represents less than 1% of the country's gross domestic product (Statistics from the Ministry of Production and Commerce 2001).

Investor Shelter

Between 1997 and 2000 the price of gold plummeted to its lowest levels in 20 years. However, since the end of 2000 it has been rising as a consequence of the collapse of world stock markets and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Gold has emerged as an important haven for investors in the face of international economic shocks. In November 2000 it was trading at US $ 266 an ounce. In December 2001, it closed at $ 276 an ounce. By December 2002 it had risen an additional 25%, to close the year at approximately US $ 346 an ounce. While stocks on the major stock exchanges plummeted. The Dow Jones Index lost 20% of its value in 2002 alone, while the Nasdaq Index lost more than 40% of its value in the same period.

Gold becomes an option for investment diversification in times of stock market instability. This trend is accentuated by the pronounced reduction in interest rates in the United States and in Europe, the growing weakness of the North American economy, the accentuation of terrorism, and the prospects for international warfare. In 2003, the price of gold is expected to range between $ 340 and $ 400 an ounce.

Recent variations in the price of gold have accentuated national and international interests and pressures for the exploitation of the rich gold deposits of Imataca.

The Presidential Decree 1850

The government decision to promote and expand the industrial exploitation of the Imataca gold deposits was formalized through Presidential Decree 1850 of May 14, 1997, under the presidency of Rafael Caldera.

This decision is linked to an agreement signed that same year between Venezuela and Brazil to build a power line, with the purpose of supplying energy from Venezuela to the city of Boa Vista, in the state of Roraima in northern Brazil.

The power line project included a substation in Las Claritas, in the southern portion of the Imataca Forest Reserve, in order to supply the electrical energy necessary for the industrial exploitation of the rich gold deposits in that territory.

Thus, through a set of unprecedented and apparently unrelated measures, the Imataca Forest Reserve was divided between logging and mining concessionaires, usurping indigenous territories, violating the national legal system, and contravening international agreements on human rights and protection. environmental.

The Presidential Decree 1850 generated immediate resistance in various political, academic, scientific and environmental circles, as well as among civil organizations and indigenous communities.

Presidential Decree 1850 assigned 1.4 million hectares, 37% of the reserve, for mining exploitation in areas partially superimposed on forest concessions. It was also left to the judgment of the National Government to grant new concessions, forestry or mining, in other places, such as in the Overflow Plain, with 15% of the surface, or in the so-called "Research Zone", with 7%. of the reserve.

Indigenous territories

Imataca is inhabited by dozens of indigenous communities, belonging to the Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemón ethnic groups, apart from several settlements of Creoles. The Presidential Decree 1850 surprisingly does not contemplate or recognize indigenous territories. Treatment of the rights of indigenous communities is shamefully deficient, limited to their importance as a "tourist attraction" and as a labor force for the proposed "developments".

Not all the indigenous people found in the Imataca Forest Reserve are originally from that territory. Most of the Pemón come from La Gran Sabana, and the Akawaio from the Reclamation Zone with Guyana. However, the majority of the indigenous communities that inhabit Imataca, including the Pemón and Akawaio communities, have community territorial rights, explicitly recognized in Chapter VIII of the 1999 National Constitution.

The Management Plan referred to in Presidential Decree 1850 allocates more than three million hectares for commercial activities, including rights for the establishment of infrastructure for the exploitation, processing and commercialization of natural resources. But indigenous peoples are not only ignorant of their territorial rights. They are explicitly prevented from expanding their subsistence activities (Article 64, Management Plan)


In this way, indigenous communities are condemned to become prisoners in their own territory. They could only improve their living conditions if they were incorporated as labor into the processes of "development", primarily aimed at logging and mining.

The Federation of Indigenous People of Bolívar State issued a communiqué on June 9, 1997, in which it states:

"The recent approval in the Council of Ministers of the Plan for the Management and Regulation of Use of the Imataca Forest Reserve reaffirms once again the discriminatory policy and violation of the human rights of indigenous peoples by the Venezuelan State. Decree that totally changes the figure of the Imataca forest reserve, opening it to mining, tourism, industrial, forestry and settlement, without any consultation and information to the main affected, which are the indigenous peoples Warao, Arawako, Kariña, Akawaio and Pemón ".

Greed and corruption

Presidential Decree 1850 was accompanied by an avalanche of applications for the granting of a concession for the exploitation of gold in Imataca. An investigation by the Commission for the Environment and Territorial Planning of the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress (now the National Assembly) unmasked an impressive tangle of interests and corruption associated with government entities and transnational gold companies.

The flood of applications for mining concessions in Imataca coincided with an astonishingly efficient and agile process for approval by the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of the Environment. Dozens of concessions were granted in a few months, committing the Nation to international bodies, while others denounced the illegitimacy and unconstitutionality of the granting of concessions for the exploitation of gold in that territory.

Unconstitutionality and illegality

The investigation of the Commission for the Environment and Territorial Ordering of the Chamber of Deputies concluded in the introduction of a request for annulment against Presidential Decree 1850 before the Supreme Court of Justice (today the Supreme Court of Justice), based on a ruling by the Office of the Legal Counsel of Congress where it is established that there are sufficient reasons to doubt the legality and constitutionality of said decree.

Almost simultaneously, two other requests for the annulment of Presidential Decree 1850 were filed before the Supreme Court of Justice, one by the College of Sociologists and Anthropologists of Venezuela and environmental groups, and another by the indigenous communities of the region.

On June 9, 1997, the Federation of Indigenous People of Bolívar State issued a statement denouncing the Planning Plan for the Imataca Forest Reserve and requesting the repeal of Presidential Decree 1850.

On June 14, the Faculty of Forest Sciences of the University of Los Andes issued a statement requesting the President of the Republic to revoke Presidential Decree 1850.

On July 1, caciques and delegates of the indigenous communities of Waramasen, San Antonio de Morichal, Maurak, Agua Fría, Monte Bello, Paraitepuy de Roraima, San Francisco de Yuruaní, San Rafael de Kamoirán, Tuaukén, Kanayeutá and Kamarata, as well as indigenous representatives of nuclei located in urban centers of Bolívar, they consigned a document before Congress where they rejected Presidential Decree 1850.

On July 28, the Science and Technology Commission of the National Congress requests a moratorium on Decree 1,850.

On August 2, 1997, the Supreme Court of Justice finally admitted the appeal for annulment of Presidential Decree 1.850.

The final judgment on this case has been suspended since then, while the development of activities aimed at ensuring the definitive exploitation of the mining wealth of this territory has continued.

Manipulation of interests

Faced with the obvious public rejection of the decisions of President Rafael Caldera and his Council of Ministers for the exploitation of gold in Imataca, the new national government elected in 1998 and led by Hugo Chávez publicly commits to modify Decree 1850 through a debate national, open and participatory, in accordance with constitutional precepts and explicit provisions of the Organic Law of Territorial Planning.

The case has remained in an apparent state of lethargy for more than 5 years, while measures are specified and interests are manipulated behind the backs of Venezuelan society, with the purpose of exploiting the deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, wood and other natural resources of the Imataca Forest Reserve for the benefit of a minority, regardless of the environmental and social costs incurred.

Electricity supply

Gold mining in Imataca depends on the availability of large amounts of electricity. In the concession contracts with the main transnational companies and their subsidiaries in the country, the Venezuelan State undertakes to supply electricity through a station located in Las Claritas, in the southern corner of the Imataca Forest Reserve.

When the scandal over Presidential Decree 1850 broke before public opinion in 1997, the construction of the power lines that would supply energy for the operation of the mining companies was in its initial stages. Today is a reality.

In August 2001, Presidents Chávez of Venezuela and Cardozo of Brazil inaugurated a transmission line with a nominal voltage between phases of 400 kilovolts (kV) from the Macagua hydroelectric plant, near Ciudad Guayana, to a station located in Las Claritas. . From there, a 230 kV line continues that crosses the Gran Sabana to Santa Elena de Uairén and Boa Vista, in Brazil, thus complying with the binational agreement signed in 1997 by Presidents Caldera and Cardozo, of Venezuela and Brazil respectively. .

The Venezuela-Brazil power line was built at a cost of 400 million dollars, with a length of 680 kilometers, of which 480 km are in Venezuelan territory (from Macagua to Santa Elena de Uairén) and 200 kilometers in Brazil, from Santa Elena de Uairén to Boa Vista. Venezuela is committed to supplying Brazil with enough electricity to meet a maximum demand of 200 MW. Currently, the flow of electricity to Brazil is less than 1% of Venezuelan consumption.

A 115 kV parallel line starts at the Macagua hydroelectric plant and ends in El Callao. There, a new 3 million ounce compact gold deposit was recently discovered, one of the richest in the world, worth more than a billion dollars at current prices.

The fight for gold

Imataca's greed for gold has generated serious political, financial and social clashes. The small miners, most of them artisanal or using suction machines and high pressure pumps, claim to have been displaced by the large multinational companies, condemning them to misery.

Several gold transnationals have staged clashes for control of gold in the region. One of the most emblematic cases is the dispute between Vannessa Ventures and Crystallex International for the exploitation of one of the main gold deposits in Imataca: the Las Cristinas mine, whose deposits are estimated at 11 million ounces of gold, with a value of current prices of approximately $ 4 billion.

Las Cristinas is adjacent to Gold Reserve's Brisas project, whose deposits are estimated at an additional 10 million ounces. The operating cost of both projects is estimated at US $ 120 per ounce. The Brisas - Las Cristinas complex also includes copper deposits estimated at 900,000 tons.

The project for the exploitation of gold in Las Cristinas contemplates an investment of 500 million dollars over a period of 8 years, for the processing of 40,000 metric tons per day of gold mineral in order to extract approximately 500,000 ounces of gold per year for 20 years.

At the end of 2000, the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) and Crystallex International signed a contract for the exploitation of the Las Cristinas gold deposit. The contract contemplates the payment of royalties to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, equivalent to 3% of the profits of the operation. Additionally, Crystallex agrees to pay the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) an additional royalty that varies with the price of gold. If the price remains below US $ 280 / ounce, the additional royalty is 1%. For a price between US $ 280 and US $ 350, the additional royalty is 1.5%. For a price between US $ 350 and US $ 400 / ounce, the additional royalty is 2%, and if the price of gold exceeds US $ 400 per ounce, the additional royalty would be 3%. Crystallex reserves full control of the resources and the project.

This contract has generated a great controversy and confrontations in court. Crystallex canceled $ 15 million from CVG for the existing infrastructure and assets, as well as for the exploration studies carried out. But the company Minera Las Cristinas (MINCA), a subsidiary of Vannessa Ventures, claims to have invested more than 170 million dollars in the exploration and verification of the existence of 11 million ounces of gold in the site, according to a previous agreement between MINCA and CVG for the exploitation of the gold resources of Las Cristinas. MINCA argues that it is the legitimate owner of the rights to exploit gold in Las Cristinas, that CVG has proceeded illegally and that Crystallex does not comply with the provisions of the Venezuelan Commercial Code on foreign corporations.

The exploitation of Las Cristinas had originally been agreed between CVG and the Canadian company Placer Dome in 1992, for which purpose a joint venture was created: MINCA. CVG's contribution, corresponding to 30% of the shares, is the supply of electricity through the power lines from Macagua to Las Claritas. Vannessa Ventures bought Placer Dome's stake in MINCA in 2001 for a symbolic value of US $ 50, in an operation described by the CVG president as "a serious fraud against the Venezuelan nation." The CVG ignores the alleged rights of Vannessa Ventures in MINCA, arguing that the transaction required the prior consent of the Venezuelan State.

In November 2001, CVG declared the contract with MINCA null for breach. The conflict is submitted to the consideration of the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled in February 2003 that the CVG's decision is in accordance with the law. MINCA has threatened to submit the case to international arbitration, in accordance with the Investment Protection Agreement signed between Venezuela and Canada.

The controversy has been aggravated by the invasion of hundreds of small miners into the area, obtaining 3 to 4 grams of gold per ton of processed land. For the most part they use portable high-pressure water pumps, causing a huge impact on the ecosystems of the region. The use of mercury and cyanide in the separation processes generates serious additional problems of water contamination.
The feasibility study presented by Crystallex highlights that it would affect 2,400 hectares, including the digging of a 3 square kilometer pit for the deposit of sludge waste and polluted water. Ironically, he suggests that it later remain as a reservoir of water for local communities.

On the other hand, the transnational company HECLA has found it necessary to reach an agreement with cooperatives of independent miners for the exploitation of the gold deposits of block B of the state company Minerven in El Callao. The small miners will limit themselves to the exploitation of gold in the superficial layers, while HECLA concentrates its activities in deep galleries, its specialty. The company plans to invest about $ 25 million in the area.

HECLA also manages the La Camorra gold mine, producing 86,000 ounces in the first half of 2002, at a cost of US $ 130 an ounce.

Similar conflicts occur throughout the region. The poverty and desperation of its inhabitants has been combined with improvisation and corruption of public entities, plus the greed and irresponsibility of transnational companies, to turn gold mining in Imataca into a serious threat to the stability of natural resources of this territory and the security of indigenous communities, and therefore the establishment of effectively sustainable development systems in this troubled region of the country.

The supervision and control of the activities of gold transnationals in jungle territories is alarmingly deficient, while the standards they use in their operations in the country are much more "flexible" than those applied in their countries of origin.

The New Management Plan for Imataca

In June 2003 the Ministry of the Environment proposed a new Management Plan for the Imataca Forest Reserve, subject to approval by the Council of Ministers. This proposal is the result of the work carried out by a team made up of officials from the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Institute of Tropical Zoology of the Central University of Venezuela and the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana.


It is striking that the participation of the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Sciences of the University of Los Andes, the only Venezuelan university with more than 50 years of academic and scientific activity specifically in the forestry sector and of recognized international prestige, was excluded. The Experimental University of Guayana (UNEG) was also excluded, where academic and scientific activities on forests and forest industries are also carried out.

According to article 2 of the new zoning plan, the general objective is "the use of natural resources, under the principle of sustainable development, making the assigned uses compatible with forest use, the conservation of biological diversity, the permanence of peoples and indigenous communities and the protection of their socio-cultural values ​​"

10 ordering zones are established:

  • Forest Management Zone (30.8%)
  • Forest Management Zone with Limitations (19%)
  • Integral Protection Zone (8.1%)
  • Gene Reservoir Zone (15.7%)
  • Recovery Zone (0.6%)
  • Special Forest Management Zone with Indigenous Communities (11.7%)
  • Special Forest Management Zone - Mining (3.7%) 140,877 ha
  • Special Forest Management Zone - Mining with Indigenous Communities (8.1%) 310,228 ha
  • Agroforestry Special Management Zone (1.6%)
  • Special Agroforestry Management Zone with Indigenous Communities (0.7%).

The operational proposal is organized through work programs:

  • Management program.
  • Forest Management Program.
  • Conservation and Research Program.
  • Program for the Recovery of Degraded Areas.
  • Environmental Education and Community Participation Program.
  • Security and Defense Program.
  • Environmental Economic Assessment Program.
  • Infrastructure Program.
  • Mining Activity Evaluation Program.
  • Program for the Protection and Permanence of Indigenous Communities and other Human Settlements.

According to article 42 of the new proposal, among the permitted uses for the Imataca forest reserve are: Forest, Traditional, Recreational Tourism, Rural Residential, Mining, Services, Scientific, Security and Defense.

The new regulation proposal for Imataca establishes the following as prohibited uses:

  • Plant and animal agricultural activity.
  • The establishment of urban settlements.
  • Mining in all areas except the two mentioned above. Mining is thus limited to 11.8% of the reserve.
  • The modification of water courses.
  • The establishment of forest plantations in the form of monocultures in the Forest Management Zone (ZMF) and in the Zone of Forest Management with Limitations (ZMFL).
  • The establishment of sawmills.
  • The capture of animal species and the extraction of plant species for commercialization purposes defined as vulnerable, threatened or in danger of extinction by the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
  • Accommodation facilities such as hotels, vacation colonies and tourist clubs.
  • The Gene Reservoir Zone (ZRG) and the Integral Protection Zone (ZPI) exclude the construction of facilities to support eco-tourism activity.

Mining activity

The new proposal of the national government to facilitate mining in Imataca undoubtedly represents an advance in relation to the Presidential Decree 1850. Among other aspects:

  • Reconoce derechos indígenas sobre parte del territorio, a través de la delimitación de áreas para el manejo forestal, agroforestal y mineral por comunidades indígenas de la zona.
  • Aumenta las áreas destinadas a la protección.
  • Reduce la superficie destinada a la actividad minera a menos de un tercio de lo previsto en el Decreto 1850.
  • Dos tercios de la superficie dedicada a la minería corresponde a la zona de manejo con comunidades indígenas.
  • Fundamenta la zonificación en los sistemas ecológicos del territorio.

No menos cierto es que el nuevo plan de ordenamiento tiende a facilitar la operación de aquellos compromisos mineros ya suscritos por el estado venezolano sobre aproximadamente medio millón de hectáreas de la Reserva Forestal de Imataca. Los beneficiarios de estos compromisos ya cuentan con las respectivas autorizaciones para la Ocupación del Territorio y para la Afectación de Recursos Naturales Renovables, otorgadas por el Ministerio de Energía y Minas y el Ministerio del Ambiente.

Entre las disposiciones finales de la nueva propuesta de ordenamiento se establece explícitamente: "Los compromisos mineros adquiridos con anterioridad a la entrada en vigencia de este Decreto, localizados en las Zonas de Ordenamiento en donde se permite el Uso Minero, se continuarán realizando de conformidad con lo previsto en el presente Decreto, la Ley de Minas y la normativa ambiental vigente"

La actividad minera es, por definición, insostenible. Es igualmente incompatible con los propósitos y objetivos de las reservas forestales y otras áreas protegidas bajo régimen de administración especial. Viene normalmente acompañada por el deterioro de los recursos naturales de las áreas explotadas, la destrucción de la biodiversidad, la contaminación de fuentes de agua con mercurio y cianuro, y la erosión de los suelos. Viene también acompañada de nuevos asentamientos humanos, los cuales a su vez generan mayor presión sobre los recursos naturales y sobre la infraestructura de servicios de las zonas afectadas.

Los costos sociales y ambientales de la actividad minera suelen exceder los beneficios que genera para la sociedad en su conjunto, especialmente cuando se carece de una capacidad efectiva de vigilancia y control, como es el caso venezolano, y cuando dicha actividad genera sólo beneficios económicos marginales para la sociedad. Los principales beneficiarios suelen ser las empresas transnacionales autorizadas para la explotación, mientras que los costos sociales y ambientales suelen ser transferidos a toda la sociedad.

En el caso de las empresas mineras con contratos en Imataca, la regalía oscila entre 3% y 5%, dependiendo del precio del oro, mientras que para el sector petrolero se encuentra en 16% y la nueva legislación la eleva al 30%.

Sin embargo, si aún bajo tales circunstancias se considera prudente la actividad minera en las áreas afectadas por compromisos contractuales vigentes, sería preferible desafectar dichas áreas, desincorporándolas de la reserva forestal. Según la Ley Forestal de Suelos y Aguas, la desafectación de partes de una reserva forestal requiere de la aprobación de la Asamblea Nacional.

Es igualmente conveniente revisar los términos de los contratos con el fin de minimizar los daños ambientales, garantizar una distribución más equitativa de los beneficios, y asegurar que la actividad de las empresas mineras contribuya efectivamente al desarrollo de las zonas afectadas.

Actividad Forestal

El nuevo plan de ordenamiento permite al menos triplicar la superficie actualmente bajo explotación por parte de la industria maderera, lo que pondría en peligro la mayor parte de los bosques naturales de la reserva. Cerca de tres cuartas partes de la superficie total de la reserva puede ser sujeta a la explotación forestal, incluyendo las 451.000 hectáreas abiertas a la minería, ya que estas áreas se clasifican como zonas para el manejo combinado forestal y minero. En la actualidad, aproximadamente el 80% de la reserva se encuentra cubierta por bosques naturales.

El nuevo plan de ordenamiento para Imataca omite la introducción de las salvaguardas necesarias para garantizar que la actividad de la industria maderera se rija por lineamientos que conduzcan a un manejo efectivamente sostenible de los bosques explotados para la producción de madera comercial.

En Imataca, al igual que en otras reservas forestales del país, los bosques se explotan como si fuesen minas, destruyendo progresivamente las especies más valiosas, degradando los ecosistemas naturales y erosionando la sustentabilidad de la actividad industrial.

Las regalías en el sector forestal son insignificantes. Para las maderas mas valiosas explotadas en concesiones forestales, como Mureillo, Saqui-Saqui, Cedro, Apamate y Caoba, la regalía equivale a aproximadamente el 1% del valor de la madera bruta (m3 reales en trozas) en el mercado nacional (Gaceta Oficial 36758 del 05.08.1999). Para otras maderas es menos de la mitad.

Aún si se consideran las disposiciones fiscales señaladas en los artículos 102, 103, 105 y 105 de la Ley Forestal de Suelos y Agua, el artículo 26 de la Ley de Timbre Fiscal y las resoluciones del SENIAT, el conjunto de impuestos y regalías es inferior al 5% del valor de la madera bruta en el mercado. Venezuela es así uno de los países con los más bajos impuestos para la explotación forestal en el mundo.

El nuevo plan de ordenamiento se fundamenta en una serie de premisas falsas que colocan en entredicho la confiabilidad de sus conclusiones. Por ejemplo, el Informe Final sobre el "Ordenamiento Reserva Forestal Imataca", MARN-UCV, Diciembre 2002 establece:

"El actual aprovechamiento forestal implica grandes inversiones, pero el beneficio neto por hectárea es bajo, (US$ 8,3)?"

En realidad, la explotación industrial de bosques naturales en Venezuela es una actividad altamente rentable. Los costos operativos normalmente no exceden los US$ 50 por metro cúbico, y el conjunto de impuestos y regalías difícilmente supera los US$ 7 por m3 real. Mientras que los precios de mercado de la madera en trozas normalmente oscilan entre US$ 120 y US$ 200 por metro cúbico, generando una ganancia neta que normalmente varía entre 60 y 100 dólares por metro cúbico. En Guayana la producción promedio se encuentra entre 5 y 10 metros cúbicos reales por hectárea, por lo que los beneficios suelen oscilar entre 300 y 700 dólares por hectárea.

Por otra parte, Venezuela ha suscrito compromisos internacionales para el manejo sostenible de bosques naturales sometidos a la explotación maderera, tales como el Acuerdo Internacional de la Madera Tropical, el Acuerdo de Tarapoto y la Convención Sobre Diversidad Biológica. A través de los dos primeros, Venezuela ha asumido compromisos internacionales para asegurar que el manejo de bosques naturales sometidos a la explotación maderera se rija por principios y criterios de reconocimiento internacional.

Sin embargo, en la práctica estos compromisos han permanecido ignorados, mientras que en otros países tropicales se han convertido en los lineamientos básicos de la explotación forestal.

Según el artículo 5 de la nueva propuesta de ordenamiento para Imataca, uno de sus lineamientos es "Establecer los parámetros regulatorios para el aprovechamiento sustentable de los recursos naturales del área".

Los principios y criterios para el manejo forestal sostenible de la Organización Internacional de la Madera Tropical (OIMT), no sólo corresponden a compromisos internacionales suscritos por Venezuela, sino que permitirían la ordenación efectivamente sostenible de los bosques naturales de Imataca sometidos a la actividad maderera y facilitarían la cooperación internacional.

El cumplimiento de estos compromisos permitiría también que la madera producida pueda recibir certificados, o sellos verdes, de reconocimiento internacional, facilitando así la exportación y mejorando la posición competitiva de la industria nacional en los mercados internacionales.

El nuevo Plan de Ordenamiento de la Reserva Forestal de Imataca es una oportunidad única para introducir estos principios como rectores de la actividad maderera en la zona, así como principios equivalentes sobre la conservación de la diversidad biológica y la emisión de gases del efecto invernadero. De esta manera, el nuevo plan de ordenamiento podría convertirse en un precedente positivo a ser multiplicado en otras reservas forestales del país.

Créditos de carbono

El nuevo plan de ordenamiento omite las relaciones entre la conservación de los bosques de Imataca, el Protocolo de Kyoto y el calentamiento global. La actividad maderera tiende a destruir, o al menos degradar, las zonas afectadas. Entre sus consecuencias se encuentra la emisión de gas carbónico (CO2) y otros gases del efecto invernadero.

La deforestación de bosques tropicales representa en la actualidad cerca del 20% de las emisiones globales de gas carbónico (CO2). Mientras que las emisiones anuales de gas carbónico de Venezuela oscilan alrededor de las 240 millones de toneladas anuales (equivalente a 65 millones de toneladas de carbono por año). Aproximadamente la mitad corresponde a emisiones provenientes de la destrucción de los bosques naturales del país y la otra mitad al consumo de energía.

Aunque la deforestación evitada no forma parte de las medidas contempladas en el primer período de compromisos del Protocolo de Kyoto (2008-2012) para la generación de créditos de carbono, en la actualidad es posible negociar créditos de carbono con empresas privadas, organismos internacionales o gobiernos de países industrializados con miras a su reconocimiento en períodos posteriores al actualmente bajo negociación.

Salvo que se introduzcan cambios fundamentales tanto en la política como en la práctica de la actividad maderera, no hay motivos para pensar que la explotación industrial de los bosques de Imataca vaya a diferir significativamente de lo que ha ocurrido en las otras reservas forestales del país sometidas a la explotación maderera en los últimos 40 años. Esto implicaría la pérdida de al menos el 40% de la biomasa forestal de las zonas explotadas en los próximos 20 años, y la consecuente emisión de al menos 120 millones de toneladas de carbono en el mismo período (440 millones de toneladas de CO2, asumiendo que la explotación maderera en los próximos 20 años se limite al 50% de los bosques existentes en la actualidad en la reserva). Los correspondientes créditos de carbono ascenderían a US$ 2.400 millones a precios actuales.

Bajo tales escenarios, los beneficios económicos, ambientales y sociales de la conservación efectiva de los bosques de Imataca tienden a superar con creces los derivados de la explotación maderera.

Conclusions

La aprobación del plan de ordenamiento recientemente propuesto por el gobierno nacional para la Reserva Forestal de Imataca tiende a convertirse en un peligroso precedente para el manejo y administración de otras reservas forestales y de otras Áreas Bajo Régimen Especial (ABRAE), como los parques nacionales. Implicaría la autorización de la actividad minera a pesar de su incompatibilidad con los objetivos de las reservas forestales, precedente que podría replicarse en otras áreas protegidas del país.

En su forma actual, el nuevo plan de ordenamiento coloca a Venezuela en el inminente peligro de sacrificar uno de los principales legados naturales de generaciones futuras, a cambio de paupérrimos beneficios económicos a corto plazo. Ante tal situación, es necesario hacer valer los preceptos constitucionales sobre la participación ciudadana, efectiva, activa y protagónica, en los asuntos de interés colectivo.

Una revisión objetiva de este proyecto podría ordenar el manejo de la reserva forestal de Imataca bajo lineamientos que contribuyan efectivamente al desarrollo sostenible del país y al fortalecimiento de su estabilidad ecológica, social y económica.

De lo contrario, Venezuela corre el inminente peligro de sacrificar uno de los principales legados naturales de generaciones futuras.

* Julio Cesar Centeno es un especialista forestal venezolano. Fue uno de los principales negociadores del Acuerdo Internacional de la Madera Tropical, sirviendo como vocero de los países tropicales. Asesor de la Secretaría de la Conferencia de Naciones Unidas sobre Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo [UNCED 92]. Director Ejecutivo del Instituto Forestal Latino Americano. Profesor del Centro de Estudios Forestales de Postgrado de la Universidad de los Andes. Representante de Venezuela en negociaciones internacionales sobre bosques y cambios climáticos. Investido por el Príncipe Bernhard de Holanda con la Orden del Arca Dorada. Miembro del primer Consejo Directivo del Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Miembro del Consejo Directivo de SGS-Forestry in Oxford, Reino Unido. Vicepresidente de la Fundación TROPENBOS en Holanda (1994-2000). Profesor visitante del Departamento de Política y Economía Forestal de la Universidad de Viena, Austria (1999). Miembro del Comité Asesor para Ambiente y Desarrollo de PDVSA-BITOR.


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