The Carnivorous Plant FAQ v. 12

Q: Heliamphora: conservation

A: Because Heliamphora grow in such inaccessible locations, you might think they are not under threat. However, reports from the tepuis are a little disconcerting---it seems the native sites are getting more and more traffic. Web sites promoting tepui-tourism sometimes show people plowing through delicate sites as if they were on a reality TV show. I expect significant habitat and plant population degradation as a result. Other dangers are climatic changes from deforestation (which could affect rain patterns) and field collection. Illegal mining is also a problem.

Conservation in the Guiana highlands seems to be difficult and politically charged. There are a number of areas with special protection designations. However, the indigenous people do not necessarily support these designations. Also tourism is very high in areas. It seems that if you want to follow all the rules to visit the area legally, there is a set of literally impossible-to-obtain permits you must obtain. In around 2012 I was told by Dra. Argelia Silva at the Venezuelan ONDB-MARN (la Oficina Nacional de Diversidad Biológica, Ministerio del Ambiente y de los Recursos Naturales) that to merely visit Venezuelan tepuis you require the following permits and authorizations:

  1. A permit from the National Park Institute
  2. A permit from the indigenous organizations
  3. An authorization of a special tepui commission

If you wish to collect plants for scientific reasons, you will additionally require the following:

  1. A plant collection permits from the Ministry of the Environment and the Fundacion Instituto Botanico de Venezuela
  2. An authorization from the Ministry of Education and FONACIT
  3. A special access contract to the genetic resources called "Acuerdo de Cartagena."

I have trouble reconciling this list with all the tourism agencies visiting the tepuis. A quick web search reveals dozens of agencies promoting all kinds of ecotourism adventures to the area, some with really stupid "land of the dinosaurs" themes. Yet botanists I know who are trying to get permits to conduct valid research cannot get permits to enter and study areas? This seems really peculiar. Furthermore, if you look at the recent (i.e., 2011) group of new Heliamphora taxa described, you will see they are all based on old herbarium specimens or plants in horticulture. What kind of botany can you do, if you are limited only to mining old herbarium specimens?

I spend a lot of time thinking about ethical issues in conservation. One thing I come back to, time and time again, is that nearly all (if not all!) the species of Heliamphora are in cultivation. This is great, because I believe that horticulture can have a role in appreciating plants, and even furthering conservation. But how did these get into cultivation? Many of the species were not even described before 2000! Sure, a few of these are really just entities that we knew about a long time ago, and were just elevated to species status, but most are new discoveries. Clearly, some sort of propagules are being taken from the Tepuis in violation of Venezuelan (and, no doubt, Brazilian) law.

In summary, the South American laws are there, presumably to protect biodiversity and also to minimize biopiracy from outside agents. However, they seem to be primarily effective at slowing down science. They are not stopping the removal of plant propagules.

This is a particularly poignant matter for me because conservationists and government officials working in or based in South America have decided more than once that I am a suitable representative of carnivorous plant horticulture practices, and have attacked me in e-mails regarding the origins of these plants. Give me a break--the closest I have ever been to the Tepuis is Costa Rica!!!

On the other side of the fence, some carnivorous plant horticulturists have sent me absolutely insulting emails for even asking questions about the legality of tepui trips and plants. So I am squarely in the middle! It was an unpleasant place to sit--and ultimately one of the reasons I decided to step back from a formerly more prominent role in the community of carnivorous plant horticulture and communications.

Page citations: Huber, O. 2001; McPherson, S. 2006; Rice, B. 2005a, 2006a.

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Revised: 2018
©Barry Rice, 2018