The Many Tasks of Environmental Protection in Venezuela

As one of Latin America's most ecologically diverse and potentially at risk countries, environmental protection is an important issue in Venezuela. Jacqueline Faria, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources in Venezuela, speaks about drinking water supply, illegal mining and deforestation, climate change, lake pollution, and biodiversity.

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Jacqueline Faria.
Credit: Ronald deHommel

It’s amazing: behind the desk of Jacqueline Faria, Venezuelan Environment Minister, stands a white box with the MARN (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) logo on it. On top of that, there are two words: solo papel, only paper. It must be one of the very few paper recycling boxes in Venezuela, a country rich in nature and biodiversity, but with a lot of pressure on her environment as well. How can one of the world`s biggest oil producers combine the extraction of natural resources with a sustainable development? Is the Bolivarian process even sustainable by its own nature? Venezuelanalysis talked to the person responsible, Minister Jacqueline Faria. The powerful woman has been in office since January this year. Before, she was Director of Caracas’ municipal water company, Hidrocapital. No wonder that water is one of the priority issues for Ms. Faria.

Venezuelanalysis.com: Minister Faria, how many inhabitants of Venezuela receive treated tap water on a daily basis?

Minister Jacqueline Faria: First of all, I want to say that clean drinking water is the most essential source of life to all of us. In Venezuela, we are treating 100,000 litres of water each second, in order to provide the 26 million inhabitants of this country with drinking water. In the cities, by now 94 percent of all inhabitants receive treated tap water. In the countryside, this percentage is 78. With this data, we already reached the Millenium goals set by the United Nations for 2015. Under the Bolivarian government, Venezuela increased the number of people receiving treated drinking water by 3.5 million. We managed to do so mainly through the mesas tecnicas [community committees that negotiate with the water company], in which the inhabitants of this country themselves participated. They know where water is most needed. In the past five years, we built 150 water treatment plants.

The treatment of used water has been a neglected area for a long time, although treated water is very important from a health perspective. We have increased the percentage of treated sewage water from 12 to 21 percent. Our goal is to get to 40 percent within the next five years. On the island of Margarita, a very important region for tourism, we are currently constructing a water treatment plant at El Tirano. Once that one is finished, on Isla Margarita we will even have 100 percent treated water. In the region of Barcelona, such a treatment plant is still missing. We will start constructing it in the next year. In order to make clean drinking water available for all citizens, we set up an investment plan for a period of six years. This year we will invest about US$ 500 million in water treatment plants. In the coming five years, this sum will increase to US$ 600 million annually.

Does Venezuela have a water shortage?

We had three very dry years, which meant that we had to ration the use of water in some areas of the country during the past few years. That is why we, as a Ministry, want to make our citizens more aware about the need to save water. For this, we use the mesas tecnicas. Here, together with water companies, we as a Ministry made it clear to our citizens that water does not simply come from the tap once you open it. We made it clear to our citizens that water comes a long way before it arrives to their homes. That is also a reason why we should think about the adaptation of the water prices. Currently, water costs 700 Bolivares per 1,000 liters, which is very cheap. We want to adapt this, because something that is valuable for us, should get its right price.

It is not a secret that much illegal mining is taking place within Venezuela. What is the government doing against it?

Indeed, the Council of Ministers [Cabinet] regards illegal mining as one of the most serious problems in this country as well. We already held five discussions within our Council on this topic, both on gold and diamond mining. We have set up a work plan. We want to revise all mining in the state of Bolivar, and we want to forbid all mining in the state of Amazonas. In the state of Bolivar, President Chávez already ordered the Theater of Operations Nr. 5, [a specialized army team, ed.], to act against all illegal mining along the Caroni river, with great success. More than hundred mines have already been closed there. This is necessary, because much of the illegal mining causes pollution of the rivers. At many illegal mines, pools with highly toxic mercury and cyanide-contaminated water exist.

In the state of Bolivar, we want the state company Minerven to produce according to the environmental laws that we have. Mining should happen in a sustainable way.

In which way exactly do you want to combat the illegal mining activities?

First of all, at the mines that already have been closed by the Theater of Operations Nr. 5, we need to clean the contaminated water pools and we need to replant the deforested areas. Secondly, we should take more care of the status the miners live in. They often live in very bad circumstances; mining is a very unhealthy job. Many miners live under a piece of plastic; they do not even have a proper home. There are no shops or health services in the areas where they live, so everything is very expensive. There are more than 10,000 people living in such circumstances. We want to bring our misiones, our social programs, to them. And we have to offer them alternative sources of income, for instance in tourism.

Another region where mining is taking place is in the Sierra de Perijá, in the state of Zulia. There has been much controversy over the coal mining there, with indigenous people coming to Caracas to demonstrate against the mining. Will you prohibit mining in that area?

The Ministry of Environment is not the one deciding about that, the Ministry of Mining is issuing the mining concessions. What we do is asses the environmental damage the mines are causing. At the moment, in Guasare there are two mines operating. According to us, it would be the best if those two mines keep producing, in order to efficiently use their production capacity. Other mines which are planned further upwards, will not be opened.

Some media reports say that a new port, Puerto America, is planned on the western side of Lake Maracaibo, in order to export the coal from the region. Is that true?

We have heard this story as well, but nobody applied for the construction of such a port with us. We are however constructing a port outside the lake Maracaibo, because the current harbor inside the lake, which is used by oil tankers, causes enormous pollution.

One of the biggest environmental threats worldwide is climate change. Your Ministry of Environment recently published the First National Communication on Climate Change in Venezuela. Which measures are you planning to combat climate change in Venezuela?

Venezuela is one of the world’s leading oil producing countries. Although we are only emitting 0.48% of the world’s greenhouse gases, we also want to make our contribution to the reduction of these gasses. That is why we are currently constructing a number of sugar cane factories, where we will produce ethanol which can be used as an additive for gasoline. We also want to phase out leaded gasoline.

Another contribution that we want to make is the reforestation of large parts of deforested land. Trees can capture CO2; forests can be used as so-called sinks for CO2. All new forests that we want to grow should become production forests. That means that we want to breed cacao and coffee plants under the trees. They will be grown with the help of organic fertilizers.  

Wouldn’t it be a wise idea to increase the price of gasoline in Venezuela in order to make people save gasoline? At the moment, water is more expensive than gasoline, and gasoline is even sponsored by the government, although a liter of gasoline costs only about US$ 0.04.

At the moment, our transport system is still very dependent on gasoline. We still have almost no transport that runs on electricity. We have started to construct a railway system throughout the country, as an alternative to cars. But still, our public transport is in a very bad state. The only thing that works well is the metro. Also in the field of taxis, we have been active. Through the financial support of Fontur, a lot of old cabs have been substituted by new white ones. Now we can at least say that taxis in Venezuela in general are white. But there is still a lot to do. We should take some of the old cars off the streets. We also started with the construction of ethanol factories; one is under construction in Cojedes now. And we want to phase out leaded gasoline, although I do not know when exactly that will happen. You should ask the Minister of Oil. But as long as we do not have a well-functioning public transport as an alternative, we cannot increase gasoline prices much.

On one hand you say you want to combat deforestation, on the other hand President Chávez issued decree 3110 in September 2004, which makes it possible to log huge parts of the Imataca Forest in the eastern part of the country. Years before, President Chávez had even stated that he was against logging in Venezuela, which leads to deforestation and other environmental problems while the money earned is mainly flowing to foreign companies. Can you explain these contradictions? 

In the Imataca Forest, concessions have been granted to logging companies for only 12 percent of the total territory. Furthermore, they are only allowed to log three trees per square meter. This means that this logging is something different than deforestation. However, we do know that some people do not stick to the rules, and we will have to act against them.

The Federation of Indigenous People (FIB) in the state of Bolivar is strictly against logging in the Imataca Forest, because it affects their homelands. Furthermore, they have been waiting for the demarcation of their land for years already, something which was promised to them in the new Constitution. When will the demarcation take place?

On August the 9th we will issue the first six land titles, covering 110,000 hectares of demarcated land to various groups of indigenous people, in the states of Anzoategui, Monagas, and Sucre. The state of Bolivar is not yet included. It will be the first time ever that indigenous people in the Americas will receive communal property. The demarcation issue falls under the responsibility of the Mision Guaicapuro, the mission dedicated to the rights of the indigenous people in Venezuela.

Although the indigenous have the right to their ancestral lands, they do not own the resources growing on or under it. If that would be so, then an inhabitant of Maracaibo could also say that he owns all the oil under the lake. If they want to start mining activities, then they can only do this after reaching an agreement with the Ministry. But they are free to practice agriculture and fishery.

Another environmental issue that came to the surface annually over the last years is the problem of the growth of lemna (duckweed) on the Lake Maracaibo. This duckweed caused problems for fishermen, and dead duckweed causes a very bad smell. What are you going to do against that?

Lemna is a water plant, that grows on the surface of Lake Maracaibo. The lake receives many nutrients from its contributory rivers on the southern shore, which is why the lemna grows so fast. Last year in June, 15 percent of the lake was covered with lemna. This year, the area covered by lemna was reduced to only 4,3 percent. At the moment, it is less than one percent. The amount was reduced by natural processes and by actions from our side. Part of the lemna is situated in the middle of the lake, where it doesn’t do much harm. Further, it would be very costly to take out that lemna because of logistical reasons. So we focus on the lemna that reaches the shores. We have been taking this lemna out of the water by workforce and with machinery. We invested 1,600 million Bolivares [US$744,000] in the clean-up work. We expect that we can completely free the shores of lemna this year.

The Environment Ministry has been active in revitalizing the country’s other great lake, the lake Valencia. What works are you undertaking there?

Currently, together with the inhabitants of the region we have set up eleven public works to improve the quality of the water of the lake. Unfortunately, the lake has been strongly polluted by the industry in the region. That is why we have set up the phone number 0800-AMBIENTE [Enivironment], which can be reached 24 hours a day. Anybody who sees an act of someone polluting the lake, can call us and inform us. We have started a big campaign against the polluting of the lake. This includes the cleaning of some of the tributary rivers. Everybody living close to the lake should realize that we all need the water. Unfortunately, I have to warn companies that do not obey to the environmental laws of Venezuela, that we have the right to close these companies.

On one hand, Venezuela belongs to the ten countries with the highest biodiversity in the world. On the other hand, this biodiversity should be protected through national parks, which are often not much more than parques de papel, parks on paper, because there are almost no guardsmen. How do you want to protect the Venezuelan biodiversity?

One issue that we have to deal with is the export of special plants and animals. We have recently cut down on such illegal trading. We detected illegal trading in the internet, among others. For the rest, I do not think that just increasing the number of parks guards would be sufficient. We have to raise the awareness of our citizens about the value of the biodiversity that we own. This includes improved education in schools.

Last year, President Chávez issued a decree against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Venezuela. Still, nothing seems to have been done concretely to stop the import of genetically modified seeds. Why not?

I do not have this information. We are controlling our imports via our experts in this field who cooperate with the Customs office and with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Thank you for your time and information.