Información sobre la Gran Sabana en Español
The praises of Gran Sabana have been sung ever since explorers and missionaries started to penetrate its frontier. It leaves all its visitors enchanted, and most botanists and geologists speechless, such is the variety of its ecosystems and the age of its formations.
The region sits atop the Guyana Shield in the southeastern corner of Venezuela. Clouds blown over from the Atlantic shed their load as they meet the higher ground of the shield, feeding the immense watersheds of the Orinoco basin to the north and the Amazon to the south. Water is without doubt the region’s greatest treasure, spawning hundreds of waterfalls and rivers which criss-cross the country.
The Gran Sabana is characterised by towering table-top mountains with their cataracts and falls, swathed in infinite yellow-green savannahs and forests. Each mountain or tepuy harbours thousands of endemic species of prehistoric wonder, while dense as history forests brim with life and all its colours, sounds and mystery. It is also a fragile landscape. The topsoil throughout most of the region is barely a metre deep, leaving vegetation extremely susceptible to intervention.
Officially, the Gran Sabana extends between 4°30' and 6°45' north latitude, and 60°34' and 62°50' west longitude. It occupies an approximate area of 35,000km². Its natural borders are the Lema Range and River Carrao to the north; the Pakaraima Range to the south; the Roraima-Ilu Tepuy system to the River Venamo to the east; and the River Caroní to the west. Please see the map for clarification.
The region receives a high amount of precipation of up to 4 metres a year. Its climate is tropical, temperature averaging 24.5°C, taking into consideration the low temperatures on the tepuy summits. Elevation varies between the tepuis which reach over 2,500 metres and the lower southern and western areas which are as low as 600 metres.
The Gran Sabana languished as terra incognita until well into the eighteenth century when missionaries began to penetrate the region. The first mention of tepuis came in 1788 when a Capuchin priest travelled up the River Caroní, although Roraima Tepuy figures in a map published in Paris in 1654. Early incursions by Capuchin missionaries in the eighteenth century were abandoned until this century.
About a hundred and fifty years ago, the first explorers began to arrive. Of these Richard Shomburgk and Theodor Koch-Grünberg travelled widely and reported their findings in Europe. These reports led to a typically Victorian obsession with conquering the summit of Roraima Tepuy. Everard Im Thurn and Harry Perkins achieved this in December of 1884 with the aid of the Royal Geographical Society of London. Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by the stories of tepuis and prehistory to pen his classic, if somewhat far-fetched, bestseller The Lost World in 1912.
In the late 1920s, the Catalan explorers Felix Cardona and Juan Mundó explored the Auyan Tepuy area. Mundó's 1929 report of their travels is thought to be the first time the name 'Gran Sabana' is ascribed to the region. It is a direct translation of 'tei-pun' from the indigenous Pemon's language. In 1939 the Venezuelan Ministry of Development sponsored a large-scale exploration of the area, thus ushering in the end of the Gran Sabana's "Lost World" existence.
The Sabana is home to Indians of Carib descent, the Pemon, who are thought to have migrated to the region possibly six hundred years ago, although archeological sites to the north have unearthed finds dating back almost 9,000 years. The majority of the Pemon still practise slash and burn agriculture and continue to hunt in the forests and savannahs. Their number has increased steadily since the colonisation of the region by criollos over the last fifty years or so. It is thought their population is in the region of 20,000.
Although most Pemon have been converted to christianity by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, many of their traditional beliefs, particularly surrounding the natural world, are still cherished. The Pemon people possess one of the most impressive oral literatures of any American indigenous people. The work of the Capuchin priest, Fray Cesareo de Armellada this century, is testament to this. Their heritage includes magical invocations, chants and rites, as well as didactic, moral and humouristic tales. A section dedicated to the Pemon can be found on this website.
Photo © Jerome Bernard-Abou
It is important to remember that the Gran Sabana as we see it today is largely a man-made environment. Although some savannah vegetation is endemic to the area, the vast expanse of what is now savannah was largely forested hundreds of years ago. Fire has had a dramatic impact on the Sabana's environment, and continues to do so today. During the drier months, plumes of blue-white smoke can be seen througout the region. The Pemon are criticised from many quarters for their pyromaniac penchant. They burn for a number of reasons, namely for agriculture in the forests, but in the savannahs they constantly clear paths of snakes and spiders, and use fire to communicate. Such is the region's overpowering natural beauty, it is easy to forget man's historical impact on the environment. The paradox of this phenomenon is the resulting patchwork of forest, savannahs and plains, with its myriad of greens and yellows is still visually stunning.
Photo © Jerome Bernard-Abou
Much as it seems a million miles from the oil-corrupted concrete carbuncles of Caracas, the Gran Sabana isn't as isolated as it can sometimes feel. The economics and politics of the rest of Venezuela affect the region like any other. At the moment, a battle is being fought to prevent massive electricity pylons crossing Canaima National Park to carry electricity to Brazil. At no point have the Pemon or other inhabitants of the region been consulted about the plan. Its impacts on the environment could be catastrophic.
Mining has also had a dramatic impact on the Gran Sabana and surrounding areas. On all of Canaima's borders, small and medium scale mining of gold and diamonds has increased over the last decade, causing deforestation, disruption of important watercourses and mercury contamination (caused by gold mining). Environmentalists have long campaigned for the existing protective legislation which applies to these areas to be adhered to. To little avail. A new mining law, currently being debated, would open up vast tracts of this fragile landscape to the onslaught of mining. Gold mining is one of the most destructive forms of mineral extraction. For one gram of gold, massive amounts of sediment have to be excavated and treated.
Another threat to the bio-integrity of the Gran Sabana is the mushrooming population of urban centres, particularly the municipality's capital, Santa Elena de Uairén, close to the Brazilian border to the south. Unsustainable urban development in the south impacts greatly on the rest of the region since the rivers flow northwards towards the Orinoco. If they are polluted, they will contaminate the rest of the region. It has already been shown that mining in the south has contaminated the huge Guri Lake with mercury. Guri provides drinking water for the growing towns of Ciudad Bolívar and Ciudad Guyana (Puerto Ordaz). Mercury also climbs through the food chain, eventually concentrating in large carnivorous fish eaten by the local population. Health problems related to mercury are already being reported in Bolívar State. Thus pollution by urban conurbations will doubtless affect the human health and the environment quite dramatically.
What some observers have called the "Trojan Horse" of tourism is also of growing importance in the Gran Sabana. Though it undoubtedly brings benefits in the form of revenue for local people in a land of scarce economic opportunities, tourism can also be both culturally and environmentally destructive.
There are three factors to bare in mind when dealing with the question of tourism in the Gran Sabana. The first is the very real paupacy of scientific knowledge of the region. Although this is improving, we are very far from understanding the complex interactions of the different ecosystems. Without sound scientific data, it is questionable whether we can ever make the right decisions about the development of the region. The second is the lack of infrastucture to cater for the tourist trade. For example, there isn't even a tourist office in Canaima Park, or Santa Elena; there is only one Spanish guidebook to the region; and only 12 park wardens (without radios and with one jeep...) in area the size of Belgium with over a 100,000 visitors every year. The third factor to take into account is the Pemon themselves, who have only been in contact with the modern, Western world for little more than a generation. They are far from being equipped, whether on a cultural, social or educational level, to deal with the implications of tourism. As the captain-general of the Pemon, Juvencio Gomez, has said "we need time to integrate into the modern world, to have our own lawyers and teachers and doctors. We are not being given that time." This is of crucial importance when considering the development of tourism within the Gran Sabana, since, arguably, tourism is already having the greatest impact on the lives of the Pemon -- certainly within the confines of Canaima Park.
Plans to tap the incredible tourist potential of the Gran Sabana do exist, the biggest drawn up by the state's tourism agency, Corpoturismo. However, most projects are the result of top-down planning, failing to take into consideration the views of the local population. As has been demonstrated throughout the world, the most equitable and sustainable form of tourism (if such a thing truly exists), is the result of community-based projects where local people are an integral part of the planning, implementation and management of a project.
The Instituto Nacional de Parques (INPARQUES) controls tourism within the Canaima National Park, and levies are charge for entering it at the village of Canaima. INPARQUES' mandate is often at odds with the Pemon who are directly affected by its policies. Although some effort has been made recently by the NGO EcoNatura to resolve these conficts, until the Pemon are helped to organise and are consulted about the park's future, it is doubtful they will be the chief beneficiaries of the money to be made from the tourist industry.
Damage caused by tourism within the Gran Sabana over the last fifteen years is substantial. The fragile ecosystems of Roraima and Kukenan tepuis in particular have suffered from irresponsible practices. 360 kilos of rubbish/trash were recovered from the route to Roraima in 1999's clean-up operation. But elsewhere too, degradation of topsoils, litter and noise pollution are becoming increasingly common. Although Canaima National Park itself is protected from the worst vicitudes of the tourism trade, this is not true of places like Santa Elena or El Pauji.
Perhaps this introduction may seem a little negative. This is due to the fact that, as any visitor to the region can testify, the Gran Sabana is a truly unique part of our planet. The more time one spends there, the more it envelops you in its magical embrace. It is very painful to watch its wonders being sacrificed to the short term economic gain of very few people.
The challenge for those who care about the region's future is how to give greater value to its natural and human assets. This involves, at the core, the development of sustainable industries as alternatives to the present extractive paradigm, and the promotion and funding of conservation projects within and without Canaima Park. Community-based eco-tourism; sustainable forestry and agriculture; micro-industries such as bee-keeping or pesciculture; arts and crafts. All of these should be encouraged for the benefit of the people who inhabit the Gran Sabana and those who come to enjoy its natural splendour. There is a desperate need for funding of scientific research, conservation measures and local initiatives.
At the moment, depressing as it is to admit it, the battle to preserve the Gran Sabana's environment is being lost. It is paramount that this region, one of the oldest of the planet and situated at the conjunction of three countries and two of the planet's greatest watersheds, should become a model for sustainable development. To lose the battle and see the region become just another case study of 'how not to do it' would be a great crime indeed.
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