VENEZUELA: New Frogs Appear; Their Discoverers Disappear

  • by Humberto Márquez (caracas)
  • Tuesday, March 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'There is a lack of communication with and support and funds for environmental organisations in this extremely biodiverse country, which is currently experiencing water and power shortages linked to environmental questions,' anthropologist César Barrio, executive director of Fundación Andígena, told IPS.

Not long before it closed down, the foundation announced the discovery, in the foothills of the Andes mountains in the western part of the country, of three new kinds of frogs, one of which, less than two centimetres long, was named Allobates algorei in homage to former U.S. vice president Al Gore (1993-2001).

The democratic politician was a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 in recognition of his work raising awareness on environmental issues.

The other tiny frogs, Pristimantis lassoalcalai and Pristimantis rivasi, were named in honour of Venezuelan scientists.

Andígena is the name of a genus of mountain toucans, birds that live in the cloud forests in the northern Andes mountains of Venezuela.

The foundation 'emerged in 1999 on the initiative of young students and college graduates keen on raising awareness on the biodiversity in Venezuela, particularly in the Andes (in the southwest),' another of the organisation's leaders, Denis Torres, told IPS.

Andígena began carrying out studies on endangered or threatened species, like the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatos), which lives in the Andes, the Harlequin toad (Atelopus spumarius), the torrent duck (Merganetta armata) and the South American or lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), and gained support from several zoos and international environmental organisations.

'They were small donations, between 2,000 and 5,000 dollars a year, and some projects received financing for several years in a row, which made continuity possible. But since 2006, many institutions, especially in the United States, stopped supporting us, citing the political situation in the country,' said Torres.

Since 1999, Venezuela has been governed by controversial left-wing President Hugo Chávez, who after he was reelected in 2006 stepped up implementation of his '21st century socialism' project, which is based on a broad range of social programmes for the poor, the renationalisation of companies, and a strengthening of presidential power.

Under Chávez, the country has been highly polarised, and the government has been caught up in a constant political and diplomatic confrontation with the United States.

'We received very little support from local organisations, and from the state only the National Institute of Parks (under the Environment Ministry) occasionally gave us logistical support,' said Torres. 'We did have ties with local communities of small farmers, which would ask us to come in and provide education on environmental issues.'

According to Barrio, Venezuela has 'a very advanced framework of laws on the environment - more than half of the territory is under some kind of special protection - but they are not fully enforced. If the laws were enforced, environmental problems wouldn't absorb so much attention and funds on the part of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

'We have witnessed the destruction of vast forested areas that had extraordinary biodiversity, including endangered and threatened species. In some cases, government policy has replaced the natural ecosystem with unsustainable agricultural practices that cause irreversible damages,' he said.

'Keeping an environmental NGO going in Venezuela today is very difficult because of the conditions in the country, where private companies have many other obligations in other areas and don't put investment in environmental questions on their list of priorities,' Diego Díaz, head of the ecological organisation Vitalis, told IPS.

María Eugenia Gil, with another local environmental group, Aguaclara, remarked to IPS that 'for the last five years there has been an increasingly explicit policy on the part of state institutions towards NGOs, which are not looked on kindly, or, as some officials say, 'there are NGOs and NGOs'.'

'But on what basis do they differentiate between them? I think the innocent are paying for the sins of the guilty,' said Gil, pointing to the government's efforts to block foreign - largely U.S. - financing of civil society groups involved in politics and aligned with the anti-Chávez opposition.

Among the results of that policy 'is the lack of official information needed by NGOs as an input and the enforcement of laws and standards, for which the government's OK is needed by a company or institution before they can finance this or that project.'

In her view, 'that is the reason international organisations overlook Venezuela in their support programmes. That's why (the Washington-based) Conservation International left the country last year.'

Gil said 'there are problems like this in many countries, and perhaps the peculiarity in Venezuela is the exacerbation of a narrow-minded conception of the environment, the most public of all goods.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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