3 Apr 2011, 3:34pm
History Management Policy
by admin

Pemon Perspectives of Fire Management in Canaima National Park, Southeastern Venezuela

Iokiñe Rodríguez (2007) Pemon Perspectives of Fire Management in Canaima National Park, Southeastern Venezuela. Hum Ecol (2007) 35:331–343

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Recent research on the ecology of fire has challenged the view that the use of fire by indigenous peoples is detrimental to ecosystems and wildlife in protected areas. However, in Canaima National Park and World Heritage Site in southeastern Venezuela, since 1981 managers have employed a costly fire control program to eliminate savanna burning by the Pemon indigenous people. Here I present the results of the first study on Pemon perspectives of fire management in the park. I show that savanna burning is an important tool in indigenous land management and plays a key role in preventing large catastrophic fires. Pemon knowledge of fire also raises questions about conventional interpretations of environmental change in the park. Lastly, I recommend a fire management policy that seeks to integrate local ecological knowledge. This will require: (a) greater openness from scientists and resource managers to understanding Pemon rationale for the use of fire, (b) clarification among the Pemon themselves of their own views of fire, and (c) research partnerships among scientists, resource managers and the Pemon in order to encourage understanding of Pemon ecological knowledge of fire, and to assess its true impact in the Canaima National Park.


Since 1872 when Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was created, protected area managers have seen fires as a major threat to ecosystem and wildlife conservation (MacKinnon et al., 1986; Machlis and Tichnell, 1987). However, global research into fire ecology, both from natural and human perspectives, directly challenges this view. For instance, in Indian national parks research has shown that fires play a key role in maintaining particular types of forest ecosystems and their associated wildlife (Puyravaud et al., 1995). Similarly, studies in West Africa show that rather than causing net conversion of forest or shrub vegetation to savanna, indigenous fire practices are often vital for maintaining dynamic forest–savanna and savanna mosaics (Fairhead and Leach, 1996; Mbow et al., 2000; Laris, 2002). In some countries, such as Australia (Press, 1987; Lewis, 1989; Russell-Smith et al., 1997), a more thorough understanding of indigenous burning practices has resulted in their incorporation into mainstream protected area management.

Here I present the first analysis of indigenous views of fire and the perception of alleged fire-induced environmental changes in Canaima National Park in southeastern Venezuela. For more than 30 years, different institutions have striven to change or eliminate the traditional use of fire throughout the area popularly known as the Gran Sabana, in the eastern sector of the park. Fire control policies have been based on the assumption that the use of fire, particularly savanna burning, is causing a gradual reduction in forest cover (Galán, 1984; Gómez and Picón, 1994). Despite concerns over the use of fire in the park, land managers have shown little interest in understanding local fire regimes and Pemon views of fire. Instead, fire control has been based largely on preconceived ideas and unsubstantiated hypotheses of the impacts of fire, resulting in a long conflict between the State and the Pemon over the use of fire in the park.

Many Pemon do not share the view of fire as destructive, and opposition to official fire control policies has taken the form of silent but persistent resistance (Scott, 1990), including: (a) the continuation of traditional burning practices, despite official efforts to change them, and (b) the setting of small fires specifically to irritate park managers and to make the firemen “work and get wet.” …

By aiming to clarify traditional Pemon reasoning behind the use of fire, this article seeks to provide a starting point for constructive dialogue among the Pemon and to some extent between the Pemon and official land managers in order to improve fire management in the park. I show that the Pemon have important cultural and environmental reasons for using fire which deserve careful attention if fire management policies are to be well-adapted to the area.

Canaima National Park and its Traditional Inhabitants

Canaima National Park is located in Bolívar State, in southeastern Venezuela, close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana (Fig. 1) and covers an area of 30,000 km2. It protects the northwestern section of the Guayana Shield, an ancient geological formation shared with Brazil, the Guianas, and Colombia (Sharpe and Rodríguez, 1997). Canaima’s best-known features are its characteristic flat-topped mountains, known as “tepuis.”

In recognition of its extraordinary scenery and geological and biological value, the park was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1994. The vegetation of Canaima National Park is strikingly divided between a savanna–forest mosaic in the eastern sector of the park, known as the Gran Sabana, and humid evergreen forest in the west. It is still not clear what causes this difference and, in particular, how the savanna originated.

Some authors believe the savanna to be a product of a rain shadow caused by the eastern tepuis (Huber et al., 2001), or of drastic climatic fluctuations between 4,000 and 2,700 years B.P. (Rull, 1992). Others (e.g., Galán, 1984) consider the formation to be largely anthropogenic, a result of repeated burning by indigenous peoples. This disagreement over the environmental history of the area forms a central part of the analysis below. …

The traditional inhabitants of the park are the Pemon, a sub-family of the Carib linguistic family. Their entire population approaches 20,000 (OCEI, 1992), the largest among Central Guiana Highlands peoples (Thomas, 1982). About half of the Pemon are settled within Canaima National Park, in about 30 villages that vary in size from 100 to 1000 inhabitants, although some Pemon still follow the traditional dispersed settlement pattern of nuclear families (Thomas, 1982) Their subsistence activities include shifting cultivation, gathering, hunting, and fishing, although small-scale mining and tourism are increasingly providing work as well (Sharpe and Rodríguez, 1997). The Pemon use fire in three main activities: shifting agriculture, hunting, and savanna burning. Managers have traditionally believed that these uses are incompatible with two of the conservation objectives of the park: preservation of forest cover and watershed protection (CORPOTURISMO et al., 1974). …

Results and Discussion

… Research on fire ecology has paid scant attention to the study of local fire regimes and to the Pemon knowledge about fire management. In sum, there has been little effort to understand traditional Pemon use of fire and the ecological knowledge that underlies it.

Furthermore, research on fire ecology carried out in the park has favored studies that provide only a short-term view of savanna–forest dynamics such as fire behavior, savanna combustibility, and ecological dynamics of fire in order to determine the factors that generate instability in the Gran Sabana forests (Galán, 1984; Fölster, 1986; Fölster and Dezzeo, 1994; Hernández, 1999). Little attention has been paid to gathering sets of data to study processes of landscape change more directly and to document historical changes…

All this has contributed to perpetuating a monolithic view of fire among managers in the park, and has created a strong clash between two different knowledge systems about fire.

Rather than an isolated example, fire policy in Canaima National Park has to be understood against the background of a global discourse on fire and savannization responsible for creating distorted images of local knowledge systems of fire management throughout the world. The way in which the dominant view of fire became established in policy and scientific circles in Canaima shows striking parallels with similar processes documented in other parts of the world (Pyne, 1997). …

Pemon Views of Fire

The Pemon appear to use fire for a wide variety of reasons (Table I), which overlap considerably with results presented in other studies on indigenous fire practices (Hough, 1993; Mbow et al., 2000; Laris, 2002). Without fire, most of the traditional Pemon livelihood practices, including agriculture, fishing, hunting, and gathering, would simply not be possible. Hence, it is not surprising that young Pemon and elders most often define fire as “essential to life,” as a “help in their lives,” or as a “companion wherever we go.” In the words of one elder “fire works for you, fire works for all of us.” …

In the traditional Pemon world-view, fire is seen as an integral part of the landscape. This is partly because the Pemon consider themselves “savanna people,” in contrast to their indigenous neighbors from British Guyana, the Ingarikok, who are known as “forest people” (Koch-Grünberg, 1917 (1981c)). Being able to see the horizon, their land, and smoke gives elders a sense of tranquility.

The Cultural Significance of Fire

The perception of fire as an integral component of the landscape is linked to the view of fire as an inseparable part of the Pemon culture. According to 7 of 15 of the elders interviewed, the use of fire is deeply rooted in the Pemon through tradition. Consequently, the perpetuation of burning practices is viewed as an important part of the maintenance of the Pemon culture itself:

It is a custom of indigenous people to use fire. Our ancestors lived that way, just as other societies have their customs, (César Durán, Pemon elder. Interview, May 11, 2023).

Thus, the use of fire is a means of cultural reaffirmation, and also of legitimizing the Pemon sense of ownership over their lands, which EDELCA’s fire control program, among other contributing factors, is perceived to be threatening. This explains why a frequent Pemon reply when asked about the reasons for burning is: “I burn because this is my land, and in my land I do whatever I want to.”

The Aesthetic Value of Fire

Fire makes savannas turn green, making them aesthetically attractive to the Pemon:

Fire for us is important to replace the old weeds. We burn so that new plants come out. It is like a man when he has not shaven and his hair has grown: he looks ugly. If he shaves, he looks handsome. It is the same with the savanna (Leticia Fernández, Pemon elder. Interview, May 11, 2023).

In this respect, Pemon motivations for using fire resonate with those of others indigenous peoples, where burning is seen as “tidy” (Hough, 1993) and a corrective tool for “cleaning the country and making it right” (Lewis, 1989). As for the aborigines in Kakadu National Park, Australia, where one of their strongest motivations for using of fire is “taking care of their country” (Lewis, 1989), in the case of the Pemon, the use of fire is seen as part of the duty they have towards their land:

I like to walk on clean paths, because that makes Pata feel happy (Valentina Rojas, Pemon elder. Interview extract, August 4, 2023).

The Environmental Importance of Fire

The use of fire to maintain the savanna looking “pretty” and green is intimately linked with one of the most important reasons given by Pemon elders for using fire, which has been entirely overlooked by EDELCA: each of the 15 Pemon elders interviewed stressed the crucial role that savanna burning has in preventing large, destructive, and occasionally catastrophic conflagrations. …

In the traditional Pemon view, then, large fires are prevented by collaboratively burning a mosaic of small portions of savanna of different height (in different stages of succession). In such a mosaic, fires die out naturally when they reach the border of a previous fire. …

Environmental History of the Gran Sabana

The central debate over the origin of the contemporary landscape of the Gran Sabana is whether or not the region was covered by continuous forest in historical times and, if so, whether the reduction in forest cover was caused by humans (Fölster, 1986; Huber et al., 2001). The presence of a human population that is highly dependent on the use of fire encourages the idea that the Gran Sabana is a manmade environment produced by the gradual, fire-assisted conversion of forest to savanna. The contemporary climate of the area also partially supports this view, since the humid tropical climate that exists in the Upper Caroní River Basin typically supports forest cover elsewhere (Fölster, 1986; Rull, 1992). …

The view that the forests have been the dominant feature of the Gran Sabana is a product of some scientists and resource managers basing their interpretations of the landscape on short-term, snapshot observations (Fairhead and Leach, 1996). If we focus on long-term observations instead, a different conclusion is reached, which interestingly enough has important points in common with the Pemon explanation of the landscape history. For instance, historical accounts by early explorers suggest that the landscape has not changed significantly over the last 160 years. The dominance of savannas over forests stands out very clearly in many accounts (Schomburgk, 1840; Boddam-Whetham, 1879; Im Thurn, 1885 (1934)).


This paper is a first step towards explaining the Pemon resistance to fire control in the park. I have argued that, contrary to conventional belief, the use of fire by the Pemon is not a product of ignorance or negligence. There are important cultural and environmental factors that explain its extensive use in the area, which land managers must understand to be able to develop a fire management program that is well-adapted to the area. Most significantly, the use fire is for many Pemon (particularly elders) an integral part of their culture, deeply rooted in their traditional practices. Thus, any attempt to eliminate or restrict the use of fire will inevitably be seen as a threat to their cultural identity and their sense of ownership over their lands, and is likely to meet with resistance.

Also, like other indigenous peoples living in similar environments (Lewis, 1989; Fairhead and Leach, 1996; Mbow et al., 2000; Laris, 2002), Pemon elders claim to have developed a prescribed burning system that involves the selective and cooperative setting of savanna fires at various times of the year in order to avoid large destructive forest fires. Ignoring this aspect of the Pemon logic behind the use of fire may explain an important part of the failure of EDELCA’s fire control in the park in terms of changing the use of fire by the Pemon and reducing the numbers of fires set every year.

Finally, Pemon ecological knowledge of fire suggests that concerns about the use of fire in the park are not shared locally, and that conventional interpretations of environmental change in the park need revision. A clear example lies in explanations for the environmental history of the Gran Sabana and its large catastrophic fires, which assign the Pemon more responsibility than they believe they deserve. In other cases, such as the debate over the impact of fire on the forest–savanna borders, resource managers are seen as making overly broad generalizations about the impact of fire out of a lack of understanding of Pemon ecological knowledge of fire. …

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