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100 Million Trees for Venezuela

By Humberto Márquez *

Over the next five years, a reforestation project aims to replace a total of some 140,000 hectares of woodlands -- the number of trees logged in Venezuela each year.

CARACAS - Venezuela has launched a five-year reforestation project for Orinoco headwaters and tributary rivers in which more than 900 conservation committees and students from more than 100 schools will help plant 100 million trees in a 150,000-hectare area.

"Campesinos who used to clear land for crops or cow pasture are now turning to agroforestry, which is more profitable and better for the local environment," Miguel Rodríguez, vice minister of environmental conservation, told Tierramérica.

President Hugo Chávez launched the program, entitled Misión Árbol (Tree Mission), on Jun. 4 (Tree Day), and then led school children in a day of planting in El Ávila National Park, which separates the Venezuelan capital from the Caribbean coast.

The next step entailed collecting seeds from fruit trees and native forest trees, with the help of 926 conservationist committees -- mostly rural women -- who submitted 495 projects in conjunction with the Environment Ministry and 95 schools.

Tree Mission -- which has a first-year budget of 23 million dollars -- will also finance the creation of tree nurseries.

The Ministry has created technical assistance and monitoring units to follow up with the projects.

"Nothing will be achieved if we just hand over the money -- between 15,000 and 25,000 dollars per project -- and walk away. Instead, we will ensure continuous monitoring, and distribute the funding through committees that verify targets are being met," said Rodríguez.

These committees are set up in areas the Ministry has determined to be in need of reforestation.

While program spans 33 basins and mini-basins, activity has focused on the northern zone in the great Orinoco plains, which sprawl across more than one million square kilometres of Venezuelan and Colombian territory.

However, the initiative has also reached out to several indigenous and mining communities in the southeast, where the government is trying to persuade those who illegally mine along the upper stretches of the Caroní and Caura rivers to switch to other activities. Forty-seven nurseries are expected to generate 500,000 seedlings to replant 680 hectares in the area -- only a small drop in the ocean.

The nurseries contain seedlings of native timber-yielding species whose commercial exploitation is currently banned, such as mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), cedar (Cedrela adorata), laurel (Cordia alliodora), pochote (Bombacopsis quinata) and araguaney (Tabebula chrysantha), the national tree.

But the plan is not a panacea for Venezuela’s deforestation woes. Rodríguez admitted that the planned reforestation will in five years cover an area equivalent to the amount of forest lost each year, which official estimates say total 140,000 of the country’s total 90 million hectares.

Approximately half of Venezuela’s territory -- largely in the south and south east -- is forested. Non-governmental ecological organisations disagree with government figures, charging that annual deforestation rates in recent years have climbed to between 240,000 and 500,000 hectares.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says Venezuela has placed 56.9 million hectares, almost 60 percent of its territory, under some kind of environmental protection, which includes 11.3 million hectares of forest reserves.

However, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that the country’s forestry cover shrank from 62 percent in 1977 down to 54 percent in 1995, which amounts to an annual deforestation rate of 400,000 hectares during this period.

Rodríguez believes current rates are much lower, and Environment Minister Jacqueline Farías has proposed a forestry census.

Biologist Diego Díaz, president of the Vitalis environmental organisation, told Tierramérica that both the FAO and UNDP rely on government statistics and "deforestation is more widespread than official statistics claim, because urban and agricultural areas continue to expand, and mining and unregistered logging takes a heavy toll."

"We are in favour of reforestation, but we haven’t been told if this mission will be combined with adequate zoning plans and respect for land-use designations. Community involvement plays a key role. In other countries, unscrupulous people have been known to damage an area to get resources to reforest it," said Díaz.

He noted that "reforestation must replace all forest strata, not just trees,” citing as an example an initiative Vitalis has undertaken with the private Metropolitan University to set up a native-plant greenhouse in El Ávila park.

The star tree is the Caracas walnut (Juglans venezuelensis), an almost-extinct species native to the area around the capital.

Rodríguez also highlighted the importance of "returning a sense of ownership to rural communities that are now able to do what many have always wanted: reclaim the land that provides them with a living."

* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.




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