Venezuela Ecoreserve Says it's Fighting for Survival
CARACAS, Venezuela After years of campaigning to save jaguars, giant storks and anacondas, Venezuela's best-known ecotourism reserve is fighting for its own survival against a government land reform, its owners said.
The Hato Pinero private reserve itself is endangered after President Hugo Chavez's government made it a target for takeover to redistribute rural land to the poor.
But its owners, the Branger family, are waging a court battle to protect the 200,000-acre property against a government declaration that it is public land and subject to confiscation.
"We're fighting this at all levels. We've gone to the courts ... and we'll appeal to international opinion and to the international courts because we feel we have a very strong case here," Jaime Perez Branger, president of the company that operates Hato Pinero, told Reuters.
He said in a weekend interview that the takeover move, part of a war declared by the populist Chavez against private estates called "latifundios," was already affecting the reserve's tourism business and its working cattle ranch.
A government order to halt an irrigation system on the property was also driving away wild animals to areas where they could fall prey to hunters. "We are at risk," Perez said.
The Branger family, which has held Hato Pinero for over a half century, has appealed against the March 12 ruling by the state National Land Institute (INTI) which declared the family's ownership titles did not prove it was private land.
Perez says the documents clearly show a chain of private ownership from 1794 to 1951, when the Brangers purchased it.
INTI has said it wants to keep Hato Pinero as a nature park but intends to set up a farm cooperative on the property.
Perez sees political motivations behind the move to take over the reserve, which incorporates a showcase biological station and herbarium that have been visited by thousands of scientists, students and tourists. "Obviously, there's a political element here," he said.
"You can't be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or squirrel of subversion," said a quote on the Web site of Hato Pinero, which has worked for decades to conserve the unique fauna and flora of Venezuela's central plains.
Perez accused government officials of falsely presenting the case against Hato Pinero as a battle against rich, landowning "oligarchs."
"By using the cover of social justice, they're committing an injustice by not recognizing the rule of law, due process and the right of defense," Perez said.
Hato Pinero is located in rural Cojedes state where the government is also moving to take over most of a British-owned cattle ranch it says belongs to the state.
Perez says the Brangers are appealing for support from international organizations like World Parks, the World Wildlife Fund and the Audubon Society, which have backed Hato Pinero's long-running conservation efforts.
He complained the government was ignoring this work. Hato Pinero's Web site, www.hatopinero.com, lists studies carried out by researchers from Venezuela and abroad on local species like the cayman, the Capuchin monkey and the capybara - a large rodent that abounds on the Venezuelan plains.
"Give me an example of another national park in Venezuela where you see the quantity and variety of fauna that you see in Hato Pinero?" asked Perez.
He rejected allegations by the land institute that most of the property's land was unproductive. "We have 11,000 head of cattle and production that is equivalent to one calf born every four hours," he said.