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Venezuela converts tourist destinations into farmland

Government says land needed for food security but conservationists fear for the region's fauna.

A small caiman, or the Caiman Crocodilus, waits underwater in a river in Hato Pinero, 229 miles west of Caracas, May 3, 2005. (Jorge Silva JS/Reuters)

MANTECAL, Venezuela — In the vast lowlands of southern Venezuela, anacondas lurk in muddy pools, where the capybara – the world’s largest rodent – comes to drink. Jaguars stalk the grasslands, while red howler monkeys shriek overhead.

But their habitat in Los Llanos — home to hundreds of birds and animal species — is shrinking. Over the past two years, President Hugo Chavez has ordered the nationalization of three of Venezuela’s largest ecotourism ranches: Hato Pinero, Hato El Cedral and Hato El Frio.

Authorities now plan to convert a small portion of their combined area — roughly 2,000 square kilometers — into farmland. Chavez announced the move as part of a sweeping government land reform that has, since 2005, aimed to boost food production and reduce reliance on imports.

A capybara watches warily from the road at Hato El Cedral.
(Rachel Jones/GlobalPost)

Conservationists, however, warn that an expansion of these efforts poses a direct threat to the region’s diverse fauna.

“These species will disappear, just as they’ve disappeared in other parts of Los Llanos,” said Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez, who teaches the management and conservation of wild fauna at the University of Los Llanos.

For decades, the ranches have served as a destination for safari-seeking tourists, who visit from around the world to gawk at caimans, pose with anacondas or fish for piranhas. The ranches have also long raised cattle, and hosted biological stations.

But these days, the emphasis is on farming. At Hato El Cedral, which is now overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, authorities are planting some 50 square kilometers of crops a year — including corn, rice and sorghum.

“Tourism is very important for us,” said Ana Maria Salazar, the ranch’s new tourism coordinator, gesturing toward a swimming pool where visitors bask in the scorching sun. Salazar said the flow of visitors, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of income, has held steady since the takeover in the fall of 2008. “But now, the principal objective is the peoples’ food security,” she said.

Goods produced at the farm are distributed by a state-run company to government-subsidized supermarkets. In addition to its 20,000 cattle, Hato El Cedral now houses 2,000 buffalo, which produce milk that is made into cheese and other products. Operations coordinator Ruben Gonzalez said authorities are taking measures to protect the area’s fauna, including limiting agricultural projects to the outer edges of the ranch, and using biological controls rather than harmful pesticides. One pilot project with Vietnam is testing the use of fish to control pests in rice paddies, he said.

While some experts say much of the land in Los Llanos isn’t conducive to planting crops, Gonzalez disagrees. “We didn’t plant anything before,” he said excitedly. “Now, we’re breaking out of this routine and realizing that we can do other things.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/global-green/100121/tourism-venezuela-farmland