ASLE-Canada Newsletter
Issue 2: Spring 2006


Paul Huebener

“Where the Savannah Meets the Rainforest”

Slash and Burn

They say every town inVenezuela , no matter how small, has a Plaza Bolívar: a village square built around a statue of El Libertador, usually in battle posture on his horse.  Simón Bolívar is a mythological figure here; in addition to the plazas, his name is borne by one of the country’s states, a major city, countless buildings and streets, even the national currency.  The Plaza Bolívar in which I am waiting now, a thousand kilometres south of the original one in Bolívar’s birthplace of Caracas, is in the centre of Santa Elena de Uairén, a growing town of about 28,000 full of diamond shops, adventure tour companies, and unlicenced taxis, just a stone’s throw from the Brazilian border.  The village to which I am trying to get, though — Chirikayen — has no Plaza Bolívar.

A small group of men and women from Chirikayen who have come into town for the day to sell food and crafts at the Friday market have offered to drive me back to the village with them, so I sit under a tree with my backpack, Bolívar standing behind me with his sword at the ready, until one of the women I recognize appears to tell me that we are ready to leave.  I clamber up and take my place on the back of the truck they’ve procured, noticing with some relief the existence of rails along the sides of the open bed.  The eight or nine of us onboard are in close quarters, standing or slouching amongst the bags and boxes of unsold market goods, store-bought groceries, and eggs, but at least the rails mean there is something solid to hold onto as the truck, grinding and rattling, pulls out of the plaza and joins the main road out of town.

A few days ago, while taking me to his own property outside of Santa Elena, Manfred had told me about the importance of keeping vehicles running for as many years as possible.  Repairs are expensive, but buying a new vehicle — especially a decent four-wheel drive vehicle that has a good chance of getting through cracked and swollen roads during the rainy season — is prohibitive.

“When people buy a used car,” he said, bouncing slightly in his seat as he navigated a trench carved into the road by water runoff, “they don't care what the year is.  They only care if the engine is running.  This is why vehicles do not lose their value; even a Land Cruiser like this one, twenty years old, is worth keeping and repairing.” 

As he said this, the already considerable heat inside the vehicle started unexpectedly to build up and become quite oppressive, prompting him to look at the dashboard. 

“I have the feeling,” he said, holding his hand out over the vent, “that the air fan has stopped.”

There was no continuing like this without a breeze under the blazing sun, so he stopped the vehicle and rummaged around under his seat until he produced a length of wire, stripped at each end.  He stuffed one end of the wire into a section of the exposed fuse box under the steering column, and poked the other end into another exposed bit near the electric window control.  The window slid down with a whine.  It seemed only polite to ask if I should do the same on my side, but he shook his head. 

“This is the only one that goes down.”

Manfred is a tall man with an easy grin, and his English and Spanish carry the accent of his native German.  After running a home-restoration business in Amsterdam for several years, he moved to Caracas to work with street children, but when the political turmoil inVenezuela ’s capital appeared to be escalating around the turn of the millennium he decided to take his work to the south of the country.  Now in his early fifties, Manfred runs the small nonprofit organization in Santa Elena through which I have been introduced to the residents of Chirikayen, the idea being that I will spend a few weeks in their village on a sort of cultural exchange, helping with whatever work needs doing as best I can.  Manfred has an absent-minded air about him which can make you feel sometimes as though it’s necessary to repeat yourself, but he is humble about the network of volunteers he has set up to promote sustainability and work with local children.

“I don't expect to change the world with this organization, you know,” he explained.  “I think that would be a mistake.  The world goes by itself.  I try things out to see what might work and to see how we can help, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers.”

He held his hand out over the vent to confirm that it hadn’t started up again.  “It’s common for cars to catch fire here, you know.  These cars are very old, and people will fix things, replace things, maybe install an alarm, fix something else, remove the alarm but leave the wiring behind — it’s very shoddy, and after a while the car is a big tangled mess of rusty wires, some with unknown purposes, some leading nowhere.  In the hot sun all you need is a spark and maybe a little wind and there will be a fire.  I am going to take this car in for a repair soon because I have noticed some wires getting hot.”

As we drove further along, we saw two or three clouds of smoke rising in the distance.  It seems the savannah itself is always on fire, except perhaps in the height of the rainy season.  The flames spread quickly through the tall grass, and sometimes find their way into trees.  At one point during our trip a few ghostly flames were visible in the grass just outside our vehicle, so we got out and suffocated them with our boots and handfuls of dirt, Manfred insisting while trying to keep the soles of his boots from melting that the fires are not part of a regenerative process.  A cigarette, a piece of glass in the sun, or a cinder from a garbage fire can ignite the grass and pose a threat to pockets of forest in the area.  Though the trees are less likely to burn than the grass, they represent the scattered traces of a tropical forest that once covered more than a third of the Gran Sabana, but which, after three centuries of logging and human-started fires, has now been reduced to small sections of dense jungle: islands isolated from one another by giant swaths of grasslands that don’t seem to show much propensity for regeneration.

“In any case,” he said when we were back in the vehicle, “remember on your way to Chirikayen that you will pass through the military checkpoint.  It is best to explain to the guards that you are a guest of the Pemón.  You are not a worker: we won’t use the ‘w’ word, because work means working for pay.  They are suspicious of people who come for money — the miners, they damage the rivers and the tepui, and they take the gold and diamonds which now legally belong to the Pemón.”

“You don't think we can tell them that I’m working as a volunteer?” I asked.

“Ah, no,” Manfred said, frowning. “Volunteering here is... an unfathomable concept.  There is no check box for it on the forms, you know?  One thing we are doing is trying gradually to introduce the concept of volunteering, but these things take time.  For the moment, you will be a guest.”

Now, in the back of the pickup truck with my Pemón hosts, I hold on to the railing and feel my teeth rattle as we roll out of town.  We turn off the main southbound road just a mile or two short of theBrazil border, and head west.  Here the road carries us along the top of El Abismo: a jagged cliff face that extends for miles, forming a natural boundary betweenVenezuela ’s Gran Sabana to the north, and the Amazon basin andBrazil to the south.  The rolling Brazilian hills that fade into the mist are covered by rainforest so thick that only a solid bed of treetops is visible; even the rivers that wind their way through the forest are undetectable from this height.  The rainforest ends abruptly, though, at the base of El Abismo, and the landscape on this side of the cliff — the highland — is markedly different.

Locals sometimes call the Gran Sabana “Second Africa,” and it is a fitting name for the grasslands that sweep over the horizon, punctuated by the occasional watering hole.  There would be no mistaking this terrain for First Africa, though, because of the tepui: enormous flat-topped mountains made from some of the oldest stone on earth, which are always visible on the horizon, raised out of the ground like colossal stone tables.  The largest of these, Auyántepui, covers 700 square kilometres and spawns Parecupá-merú: the tallest waterfall in the world, known to English speakers as Angel Falls.  These tepui, the multitude of smaller waterfalls, and the Sabana’s scattered pockets and valleys of tropical forest bursting with toucans, araguato monkeys, and fluorescent butterflies, are much admired by foreigners and tourists: this is the landscape that sparked Arthur Conan Doyle’s musings about a lost world.  But for the indigenous people who make their living off the land, the rolling stretches of hot grasslands are the reality.

It doesn’t take long to reach the checkpoint, and our driver comes to a halt as three or four guards emerge from the small military office, sweating under the weight of their assault rifles and full-body camouflage.  A truck full of Pemón, though, is of little interest to them today, despite the presence of an unfamiliar white face; they wave us through, my passport unchecked.

Again there is smoke visible in the distance as the asphalt beneath us turns to cracked and dusty earth, and several times we see entire hills blackened by recent fires.  On the right side we pass a semicircle of smouldering burnt grass perhaps eighty feet across, with flames at the edges creeping outward from where the fire has started at the side of the road.  The sun begins to dip below the horizon, which means that darkness will be total within half an hour; the evening’s changing winds will either defeat this small fire, or fuel it.

Turning from the main dirt road onto another smaller one, our driver deposits us in Maurak, a Pemón village of a few hundred people.  We wait, chatting and eating sweet bananas for an hour or two until another car, a battered sort of station wagon with little paint, appears in front of us.  The driver of this car, a middle-aged Pemón man, helps us stuff the boxes, packages, and my backpack first into the back of the car, and then onto the roof as well.  We all climb in, four people in the front seats; three adults, two babies, and myself in the rear seats; and four more jammed into the rear space, these last hidden from view by the luggage.  The broken springs pointing up out of the ancient seats mean that those of us in the front two rows are not much better off than those in the back, but the lack of any panes of glass in the windows makes for plenty of fresh evening air.  The driver is able after a few tries to start the tired and wheezing engine, which shakes violently, causing the car’s rearview mirror, hanging vertically from the ceiling, to swing back and forth.  He leads us in a short prayer and we depart, the mothers nursing their babies, and others half-dozing as we bounce in our seats.

The drive to Chirikayen takes another hour, interrupted briefly by the necessity of walking in darkness up a hill whose steep incline has caused sparks to shoot from the exhaust pipe of the fully-loaded car.  The sparkling night sky here is different from the one I am used to, not only because of the lack of urban glare, but because of the difference in latitude; Venezuela’s southeastern edge, a mere four degrees from the equator, is strange territory indeed for someone who lives more than halfway to the north pole.  Familiar constellations are shifted towards the northern horizon, revealing stars that are new to me in the southern portion of the sky.  When the car, free of the weight of its passengers, arrives spluttering at the top of the hill, we climb back in for the final leg of the journey: a section of road that winds through a forested area, passing over two or three small log bridges before emerging onto the grassy plain of the village.

Here the car’s headlights trace a path towards a cluster of small wooden buildings.  We unload, and a woman who is nearly invisible in the darkness, but speaks kindly, leads me to an unoccupied building where I am to tie my hammock to the low support beams and sleep.

Sunrise over mountain

I awake at sunrise, and stepping outside of the little building I get a good look at my surroundings for the first time.  Chirikayen mountain, the long and angular tepui after which the village is named, rests on the eastern horizon, blurred by a layer of shining mist.  Though named after a bird — the chirika — Chirikayen mountain is also known as the sleeping giant; the outcrop that forms the nose and face of the enormous human figure lying on its back is now silhouetted by the hazy orb of the rising sun.  A long, winding row of palm trees on the near side of the mountain marks the route of a small stream which, I have been told, is the best place for washing and bathing.  Already now I can feel the heat of the sun as it starts to burn through the mist, warming the tall grass and the inverse craters of countless termite mounds surrounding the village.

The building I have been given to sleep in is one of a group of seven or eight, all made of boards set together with small gaps to let the light in, and roofs thatched from the leaves of the morichi palm: the same trees that line the banks of the nearby stream.  This group of buildings, set apart from the village proper, is a campus run by two young American missionaries: Joshua, who has lived in the village for a year, and Casey, who has recently arrived.  Their Seventh-day Adventist school, which draws Pemón students not only from Chirikayen but from villages miles away, is currently out of session, and while the purpose of my secular visit here is more to learn from the Pemón than it is to teach, it is to Joshua’s respected position in the village that I owe my welcome.

I spend the morning investigating my surroundings and helping to repair a few broken boards on the mess hall.  Being somewhat lacking in the melanin department, I try to limit my exposure to the sun, which has quickly risen to an entirely unfamiliar and dizzying height.  I have noticed with mild alarm that during the midday hours if one is standing next to a building and wishes to walk around to the shady side of the building, the journey is bound to be unsuccessful.  Still, equipped with a hat, I have found that sunburn here is not usually a problem, for the simple reason that clothing covering one’s arms and legs is necessary for fending off the puri puri: tiny midges that swarm endlessly and cause bites which are similar to mosquito bites but last longer.  The apparent inefficacy of the special lotion I have been given, which is meant to repel anything with a sense of smell, leaves me wondering if the puri puri are not guided by a different sense altogether.  I sit down to catch my breath, and Joshua arrives to tell me that we have been invited to have lunch with the Captain.

The five-minute walk from the missionary camp into the village follows a dirt path worn in a gentle uphill slope through the grasses and termite mounds.  From this direction the first building we pass is the church, followed by smaller homes constructed in three or four different styles.  Some are made of a wooden latticework filled in with clay, others of boards stacked horizontally; some have thatched palm roofs, and others have roofs of thin flat metal sheets.  One or two new buildings in the early stages of construction are being made from compressed bricks of dirt and cement.  Joshua explains that the different building styles reflect the changes in government policy over the years.  The metal roofs, for example, were part of an initiative that was intended to provide housing for Pemón groups in the area over a decade ago, but resulted in buildings that, unfortunately, were excellent at absorbing solar heat.  After a few mistakes of this kind, the current administration is leaning more towards supplying the Pemón with raw materials, which the Pemón can use how best they see fit.  As we pass one of the small construction sites, two men are shovelling a mixture of cement and earth into the chambers of two small metal compression pumps, whose long handles are then pushed down by two other men, straining to squeeze the mixture into strong bricks.  Several dozen finished bricks are stacked around them.

The village is home to about two hundred people, though a visitor from North America upon seeing the two or three dozen small buildings here would probably guess the population to be less than half this number.  Except for one or two homes that have been built with a second floor, all of the buildings are single-storied, and often single-roomed as well; each one is home to a family, though, of anywhere from two to perhaps ten or twelve people.

Joshua leads the way to one of the larger buildings, which lies in a rectangular shape and turns out to be full of long tables at which fifteen or twenty people are sitting for lunch.  A man who looks to be in his late thirties or early forties, wearing shorts and an American t-shirt, stands up, and Joshua introduces him as Eusebio, the village Captain.  Eusebio smiles, and switching from the Pemón dialect with which much of the room is filled to Spanish, asks about my surname.

“Sí,” I reply in fractured Spanish, “my name is fromGermany , but I am fromCanada .”  Eusebio declares that he is at my service, and gestures Joshua and I into seats at the table.

Lunch is a bowl of rice with chicken, served with casabe bread: the grainy, cracker-like bread made from yucca which serves as the staple of the Pemón diet.  Also at the table is a bowl of thick green dip meant to be soaked up by pieces of casabe.  Recalling the stories I have heard about the famous Pemón spicy salsa made from termites, I tear off a chunk of casabe, and after a moment’s hesitation I brave the dip, which is indeed spicy and not a little salty. 

“I’ll take you to meet Victorino,” Joshua tells me after the meal, as we watch two live chickens walking in and out of the open door.  “He lives over near the edge of town.”

We thank our hosts for lunch, and Eusebio in turn thanks me for coming to help in the village, a little prematurely perhaps, since it remains to be seen how much work I am actually capable of. 

As Joshua and I leave the dining hall and walk towards the opposite end of the village, he explains what I am meant to do. “All the men in Chirikayen either farm, hunt, or mine for gold, or some of each.  Victorino has a yucca farm — yucca is the main crop here — so you'll be helping him on his plantation.  He’s a nice guy.  He has a meteorite.”

“A meteorite?”

“Well, it’s some kind of rock at least.  He’ll show you.  And remember the football game if you’re back in time.”  He gestures towards a small dirt field in which a few young children are kicking at a battered soccer ball.  “The little ones are playing now, but the real game is later in the afternoon.”

I boggle for a moment at the thought of playing afternoon sports in the equatorial heat, but my thoughts quickly return to the lunch we have just eaten.  It seems to me on reflection that eating insects is probably less strange a thing to do than eating genetically modified corn, but termite salsa is new to me, and I ask Joshua about it.

He laughs.  “No, no.  That was a noodle seasoning package.  If it was the salsa you would have seen the termites in it.  Here, this is Victorino’s house.”

home chirika

The house is of the clay-filled wooden frame variety, with a sheet metal roof.  It could contain one large room, or two or three very small ones, but before we reach the door Victorino emerges, smiling.  A short middle-aged man with blue slacks and a t-shirt, he greets me warmly in Spanish.  Joshua exchanges a few words with him, then wishes me luck and turns back towards the missionary camp.

Victorino leads me in the other direction towards the edge of the village, asking me a few questions about where I come from and why I decided to come to Chirikayen.  He says little in response to my own questions, not out of displeasure but rather with a sense that there is little that needs to be said.  I am able to learn that he has six children and that his wife is pregnant, then he continues in silence, two machetes swinging from his arms.  We walk over a short wooden bridge under which runs a small stream where a woman and a few children are washing and playing, Victorino nodding in greeting to a man walking in the other direction.  On the other side of the bridge we pass two last houses, and then turn off of the road, following a footpath uphill through a patchy section of hot grasses towards a long wall of trees.

After a few moments we reach the trees and instantly we are inside the tropical forest, our path becoming a narrow trail cut through the dense foliage.  The change is drastic: the air is now heavier and close, the smells rich and damp, and though I am sweating from the heat and mugginess, we now at least are protected from the sun by the tall trees that surround us.  A flock of green butterflies skirts in and out among the underbrush, and various birds call out to each other, hidden from sight in the canopy overhead.

We continue along the path for a few minutes, and as I marvel at the way in which the landscape can change so suddenly from scrubby grasslands to lush tropical forest, we reach a clearing.  It is immediately obvious that the clearing is one which has been made by people, and recently.  A roughly square-shaped area with edges perhaps eighty feet in length stretches in front of us, each side defined by a sharp boundary between the land that has been cleared and the thick undisturbed forest.  The clearing itself is filled with the black charred remnants of stumps and branches, some still smoking.

During my time in Santa Elena I had heard several different and conflicting accounts of the Pemón farming techniques.  Manfred’s version was that the Pemón came to Venezuela from the Caribbean about three hundred years ago to escape the colonialists, and began a partially nomadic lifestyle in the Gran Sabana’s then-abundant forests.  They would clear a section of forest, grow crops on the land for a year or two, then clear another space and move on, eventually describing a large circle in such a way that when they finally returned to a spot that had been cleared and farmed, it would be two generations later and the land would be forested and fertile again.  A few decades ago, though, the Venezuelan government began to build houses for the Pemón, thus reducing their mobility.  The Pemón farmers still use the same slash and burn technique to clear sections of land for crops, but now they clear the forest in roughly concentric movements outward from their stationary homes.

These small-scale slash and burn plantations, Manfred believes, are probably sustainable, but combined with the timber industry, mining, cattle farming, and other land uses brought in with the colonialists, the forest was and is being destroyed.  Making matters more difficult is the fact that the Gran Sabana is a relative highland, on which the forest doesn’t regenerate the way it can in the lower basins.

“The slash and burn technique is probably not good for the ecosystem,” he had said to me, “and I’m not sure if the Pemón really reuse the land, but the thing is there is no viable alternative for them to grow food.  They would have to start buying fertilizer for all their land, and that of course would be another big problem.  Still, I think these family farmers are probably a scapegoat — it is the big logging operations that destroy the forest.”

I heard a different story from a man in Santa Elena who has written a series of books on the history and features of the Gran Sabana.  When I tracked him down inside the small office of his tour company, I had the chance to ask him if it was true that three centuries ago the Gran Sabana was forested.

“Half of it was,” he said.

“How has so much of it been destroyed?” I asked.

“By fires.  The Indians set them, they use fires for everything: crops, communication, snake protection — you know we get about ten Indian snake bites every month, that’s compared to about one a year for tourists.  They travel at night, they walk barefoot, they get bitten.  They start fires for everything.”

On another occasion I had asked Hans, a gentle father and carpenter I got to know in Santa Elena, whom he thought was responsible for reducing the Gran Sabana’s forest.  “Colonialists, Indians, we,” he said, gesturing to himself, “we all treat Gran Sabana bad.  And drought: there was drought for ten years, then a huge fire in 1969.  United States and Canada sent help that time.  Now the forest is getting small, the animals scarce.  Still, the Gran Sabana is beautiful.”

It seemed unlikely that my mere weeks here would afford me a chance to get to the bottom of these matters which have confused and divided people who have lived in the area for decades.  Still, the chance to see the forest plantations firsthand was not one I was about to pass up.

Victorino leads me deeper into the forest, and the smouldering clearing which will soon be filled with yucca or another crop passes out of sight behind us.  Eventually we reach a small open-framed wooden shelter with a thatched roof, set alongside a section of forest that must have been cleared several months ago, in which now grows a jumbled collection of yucca plants and other assorted stalks, vines, and greenery.  Victorino sits on a log set into the ground under the shelter, and begins to sharpen the edges of his machetes with a small metal tool.  After a few minutes of this he leads me out into the midst of the yucca plants, and explains that we are to cut down the smaller plants — weeds, then — growing among them.

The work is difficult in the minimal shade afforded by the yucca leaves, but I am able over a couple of hours to clear a reasonably-sized area, and I slowly begin to grow accustomed to the movements of the machete, learning that much less effort is needed to cut through even a thick stalk if the angle and aim of the blade is properly controlled.

The motions soon become repetitive, so I am startled into renewed focus when I see that I have hacked through a woody stock just a few inches away from a motionless large brown toad.  I kneel for a closer look at the tiny spiky bumps that cover its body, and the two larger ridges of these that extend down both sides of its back from above its eyes.  I can’t help but feel a little uneasy here.  I knew before I arrived in Venezuela that as a volunteer and a guest I was offering myself up to take a stab at whatever work happened to need doing: that it wouldn’t make sense for me to arrive and then shake my head at the tasks put before me.  And with this arrangement I am satisfied.  Still, the thought of hacking through a slash and burn plantation from which a variety of creatures the likes of which I have never seen have had to escape or risk death is unsettling.

Perhaps I have been labouring under the illusion that living sustainably off the land shouldn’t involve labelling certain plants weeds and tearing them down at the expense of some birds’ nests and toad shelters.  I hear an echo in my mind of William Cronon saying that the concept of wilderness as a place that stands apart from human interference is one that could only have been invented by people who think that food comes from a grocery store.

Back in Santa Elena, Hans had asked me one morning why I had decided to come to Venezuela.  I explained that South America’s general absence in Canadian media and consciousness had made me curious, but that the main reason for the trip was my interest in the environment and my desire to try my hand at some conservation and sustainability projects in the area.

“Ah,” he had said, nodding, “you have a love for people.  Good.  Not many people have that.”

This comment surprised and impressed me.  It is unusual, I think, to draw such an immediate connection between environmentalism and a love for people — if anything, it seems that environmentalists have a reputation for prizing trees and whales and the like over human concerns.  That the state of the world’s trees and whales and the like is perhaps the ultimate human concern, and dictates everything from the health of our internal organs to the health of our economies, is a detail we tend to have a hard time grasping.

All of this is not to say, though, that I don’t feel a sense of admiration and delight looking at this still motionless brown toad for no reason other than that it is a toad.  I turn away and grant him some space to decide whether or not to look for a new shady spot to replace the one I have cut down.

 Soon Victorino indicates that it is time to leave, and we begin the walk back through the forest towards the village.  I ask him how long he will be able to grow yucca on the plot of land we worked on today, and he tells me that it will be good for one year, and then he will start farming another section of land.

“What happens,” I ask, “when the farm gets too far from the village?”

“It won’t,” he says.  “The forest grows again in two years, so we use the same land again.”  He gestures at the thick, lush forest beside us.  “This used to be a yucca plantation too.  The forest grows.”

When we arrive back in the village, Victorino invites me to sit on a wooden bench set underneath a mango tree behind his house.  A small table rests nearby, holding a collection of bowls and one or two pots, and beside this a small firepit is dug into the ground — it seems that Victorino’s family has recently cooked a meal, though they are now inside the house or elsewhere.  Victorino brings two bowls over to the bench, along with some casabe bread and a dip.  I am so grateful for the food that it is not until I am partway through eating that I notice how much of the meal is made from yucca.  The bread is yucca, the main ingredient in the grainy, spicy dip is yucca, and the coarse pebbly condiment that turns the thin broth in our bowls into a hearty soup is yucca as well.  Victorino hands me a cup full of thick delicious banana juice, and I remember that bananas and plantains are the other major crop in the village.

Victorino sighs after putting aside his empty bowl, and tells me that the Pemón have lived in Chirikayen for fifty years, and that they are generally happy here. “Work, eat, sleep,” he says, “we are happy with this.  When I go to a big city I can’t sleep.”  Then, standing up, he says, “So, I will see you tomorrow?”

            “Sí,” I say, “muchas gracias.”

Victorino returns my thanks, switching now from Spanish to the Pemón dialect.  “Guacabeh gurumon.”

fourth picture

Note on Contributor

Paul Huebener has a BA in Honours English from the University of British Columbia and an MA in English from McMaster University.  He plans to start a PhD after working for a while in New Zealand.