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Indigenous Use of Fire and Forest Loss in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. Assessment of and Tools for Alternative Strategies of Fire Management in Pemón Indigenous Lands


In Canaima National Park (CNP), Venezuela, a protected area inhabited by the Pemón people, socio-cultural and demographic changes have contributed to the apparent unsustainable use of fire, leading to forest and habitat loss. This over-use of fire, together with increased forest vulnerability to fire as a result of global climate change, could put both ecosystems and human well-being at risk. The conflict over fire use derives from the fact that whereas the Pemón depend for their livelihood on the use of fire for shifting cultivation and hunting, the policy of the CNP government agencies is fire exclusion (although this is not effectively enforced). Nevertheless, recent ecological studies have revealed that the creation of a mosaic of patches with different fire histories could be used to create firebreaks that reduce the risk of the wildfires that threaten the vulnerable and diverse savanna-forest transition areas. This technique imitates the traditional cooperative savanna burning strategies of the Pemón. By linking research on knowledge systems with management policies, the impasse over fire in the CNP might be avoided.

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The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support given by the National Fund for Science and Technology of Venezuela (FONACIT), Grant No G-98001124 “Interacciones Atmósfera Biosfera en la Gran Sabana, Edo. Bolívar, Venezuela” (IAB), and Grant No G-2005000514: “Factores de riesgo en la reducción de habitats en el Parque Nacional Canaima (Venezuela): vulnerabilidad y herramientas para el desarrollo sostenible” (Proyecto Riesgo), to the Decanato de Investigación y Desarrollo of Universidad Simón Bolívar, and Fundacite-Bolívar. We also wish to thank the firefighters of the Gran Sabana: Brigada de Ataque Inicial Carlos Todd, especially Tec, R. Salas, and the Departamento de Manejo Ambiental, EDELCA, for their diligence and cooperation in the undertaking of the experimental fires. We appreciate the important logistical support, collaboration, and facilities lent to us at the Parupa Scientific Station by the Autoridad Gran Sabana (CVG), and the Parupa Staff. We also acknowledge Hebe Vessuri, Iokiñe Rodríguez and Isabelle Sánchez for critical comments on this manuscript. In addition, the first author would like to thank Raul Ramírez for elaborating the map. We would like to express our gratitude to B. Bilbao´s students: Hasmy, A. Osío, M. Jaffé, T. Souto, R. Castillo, C. Pestana, M. A. Díaz, D. Esclansans, M.D Delgado Cartay and especially to E. Zambrano for their assistance in the field and laboratory. Lastly, thanks to Frances Osborn, Francis E. “Jack” Putz and Joseph W. Veldman for the revision of the English. The data processing and writing of this article was made possible by scholarship Nro. E03E12226VE of the Alban Program of High Level Scholarships for Latin America by the European Union.

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Correspondence to Bibiana A. Bilbao.

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Bilbao, B.A., Leal, A.V. & Méndez, C.L. Indigenous Use of Fire and Forest Loss in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. Assessment of and Tools for Alternative Strategies of Fire Management in Pemón Indigenous Lands. Hum Ecol 38, 663–673 (2010).

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  • Fire ecology
  • Canaima National Park
  • Venezuela
  • Indigenous Pemón
  • Savanna-forest transition