MANTECAL, Venezuela — In the vast lowlands of southern Venezuela, anacondas lurk in muddy pools, where the capybara – the world’s largest rodent – comes to drink. Jaguars stalk the grasslands, while red howler monkeys shriek overhead.

But their habitat in Los Llanos — home to hundreds of birds and animal species — is shrinking. Over the past two years, President Hugo Chavez has ordered the nationalization of three of Venezuela’s largest ecotourism ranches: Hato Pinero, Hato El Cedral and Hato El Frio.

Authorities now plan to convert a small portion of their combined area — roughly 2,000 square kilometers — into farmland. Chavez announced the move as part of a sweeping government land reform that has, since 2005, aimed to boost food production and reduce reliance on imports.

A capybara watches warily from the road at Hato El Cedral.
(Rachel Jones/GlobalPost)

Conservationists, however, warn that an expansion of these efforts poses a direct threat to the region’s diverse fauna.

“These species will disappear, just as they’ve disappeared in other parts of Los Llanos,” said Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez, who teaches the management and conservation of wild fauna at the University of Los Llanos.

For decades, the ranches have served as a destination for safari-seeking tourists, who visit from around the world to gawk at caimans, pose with anacondas or fish for piranhas. The ranches have also long raised cattle, and hosted biological stations.

But these days, the emphasis is on farming. At Hato El Cedral, which is now overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, authorities are planting some 50 square kilometers of crops a year — including corn, rice and sorghum.

“Tourism is very important for us,” said Ana Maria Salazar, the ranch’s new tourism coordinator, gesturing toward a swimming pool where visitors bask in the scorching sun. Salazar said the flow of visitors, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of income, has held steady since the takeover in the fall of 2008. “But now, the principal objective is the peoples’ food security,” she said.

Goods produced at the farm are distributed by a state-run company to government-subsidized supermarkets. In addition to its 20,000 cattle, Hato El Cedral now houses 2,000 buffalo, which produce milk that is made into cheese and other products. Operations coordinator Ruben Gonzalez said authorities are taking measures to protect the area’s fauna, including limiting agricultural projects to the outer edges of the ranch, and using biological controls rather than harmful pesticides. One pilot project with Vietnam is testing the use of fish to control pests in rice paddies, he said.

While some experts say much of the land in Los Llanos isn’t conducive to planting crops, Gonzalez disagrees. “We didn’t plant anything before,” he said excitedly. “Now, we’re breaking out of this routine and realizing that we can do other things.”

At nearby Hato El Frio, where soldiers with AK-47s man the entrance, such ambitions remain in the planning stages. The gate is freshly painted bright red, and adorned with the ranch’s new name: The Marisela Socialist Ecological Livestock Farming Company. But inside, activity seems to have come to a standstill. Some 20 tractors, assembled in Venezuela with Iranian help, sit idle. At the main office, a woman plays solitaire on the computer while a handful of other employees stand by.

Luis Gamarra, the 27-year-old human resources coordinator, said he moved up from his position as a ranch hand after aiding the government in the takeover. As he spoke, Gamarra paused occasionally to grant employees’ requests for cash, at one point handing over a wad as thick as his wrist.

“I’ve been with the revolution since Chavez arrived,” Gamarra said, adding that the previous owners had exploited the workers by requiring them to labor for 12-hour days at minimum wage — a situation that he says has since improved dramatically. “Chavez has helped many people.” The former owners of Hato El Frio could not be reached for comment on the allegations.

For now, the ranch is producing little, but Gamarra said this will change: The first of five milk production centers should be finished this year, while authorities aim to plant some 3,000 hectares of rice — 125 times the size of last year’s crop, he said. The ranch, which previously housed some 60 guests at a time, has also been closed to tourists since the takeover — but Gamarra said that efforts to reopen it are underway.

“They’re going to fix this so that they come again,” he said, pointing to huts in various stages of reconstruction. “They can come and take their photographs, do their tour.”

For Ramon Gonzalez — the owner of nearby ecotourism ranch Rancho Grande, which has been hosting visitors for 25 years — this, too, is vital for conservation efforts.

“I learned from tourism,” he said. “A tour without animals, without birds? It’s nothing. So we protect these animals.”

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