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Opinion and Analysis: Environment

Greening the Venezuelan Constitution: Proposals from the Grassroots

The new Venezuelan constitution must be green. This was the rallying cry of over 100 activists, researchers, educators, and students who met this July 11 at the Bolivarian University in Caracas. The event, the Jornada Econstituyente, aimed to generate constitutional proposals for an emerging “communal, post-petroleum nation” driven by “ecosocialist values and principles.”

During a full day, participants debated ideas related to seven themes: water, biodiversity, habitat and housing, agroecology, territoriality, cities and alternative energy.

Bolivarian University professors organized the event, which was facilitated by Agroecology Professor Nicanor Cifuentes Gil. Among keynote speakers were agroecologist and environmental activist Prof. Miguel Ángel Nuñez, Prof. Dayana Ortíz from the Bolivarian University’s Urban Ecology Nucleus, and historian and activist Casimira Monasterios from the Colectivo Trensas Insurgentes, an Afro-Venezuelan women’s cultural rights collective.   

Emerging proposals

In the afternoon, working groups debated proposals to present to the Constituent Assembly, to be elected this July 30.

President Nicolás Maduro called for a Constituent Assembly (Constituyente) in May of this year as in response to the country’s economic challenges and political deadlock. According to Venezuelan law, the assembly’s tasks can include drafting a new constitution and reorganizing Venezuela’s public powers.

Among the Econstituyente proposals include the need for constitutional protection of Venezuelan watersheds and the right to water. This would include stronger language that fully bans water privatization: currently a grey area in Venezuelan water law.   

The agroecology working group advocated prioritizing agroecology and food sovereignty in the constitution, which now refers to the vaguer notion of “sustainable agriculture.”

For the cities group, there is a need for integral urban planning at the level of interconnected “systems of cities.” Over 93% of the Venezuelan population is urban, and cities historically developed with little foresight.

The territoriality group called for stronger protections for the territorial rights of Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans.

But for the participants, all of these environmental rights must also come with responsibilities, especially to future generations.

The next step is to further consult with other community groups across the country. The final proposals will be presented to the elected Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting the new Magna Carta.

An ecosocialist Venezuela?

As a petrostate, environment has always been an uncomfortable topic in Venezuela, but one that has recently been top of mind.  

With the vast majority of the population living in a small belt along the Caribbean coast, as many as 85% of the population suffer from water stress.

Water risk was exposed in 2016 when a severe drought led to water and electricity rationing nation-wide. The proximate cause of the drought was an intensified El Niño/La Niña phenomenon related to global climatic change.

The vulnerability of Venezuela’s import-oriented food system has also been sharply accentuated in recent years, when petro-dollars for importing basic goods have been in short supply.

Meanwhile, the Arco Minero Project – a multibillion dollar mining project in the Orinoco Arc announced in early 2016  – has come under fire from environmental and indigenous activists for its social and environmental impacts. Its defenders cite it as a much-needed revenue source, and suggest that it will bring state regulation to the region where illegal mining is already rampant.

Despite these challenges, the Econstituyente activists draw inspiration from many local successes, from the recuperation of watersheds in Merida state to communities experimenting with alternative energy in Zulia.

The Constituyente controversy

Not everyone is as convinced about the potential of the Constituent Assembly to bring about progressive change in the crisis-ridden country, however.

The right-wing opposition and some Chavista factions critique the executive branch for unilaterally calling the Constituyente without consulting the population.

While the constitution grants the president the right to do so, the right-wing opposition argues that the move is illegitimate given the erosion of the Bolivarian government’s approval ratings since the economic decline began in 2013.

According to opposition figures, an unofficial “popular consultation” hosted by the right-wing coalition on July 16 yielded over 7.5 million votes, with over 98% rejecting the constitutional process.

Even Chavistas sympathizers worry that amidst current challenges and the government’s increasingly top-down orientation, the process will not involve the same widespread public participation as the 1999 Constituyente convoked by the late President Hugo Chávez, which drafted the current constitution.

For example, activists cite the failure of the Congreso de la Patria (Congress of the Fatherland), that periodically brings together movements associated with the Bolivarian Revolution.

Grassroots activists argue that spaces like the Congreso de la Patria create the illusion of participation without actually allowing space for grassroots proposals.

For this reason, the Econstituyente activists do not want to leave the constitutional process solely in the hands of the elected representatives, some of whom appear to be more interested in “taking photos than really hearing proposals from the grassroots” as one participant put it.  

“Our responsibility as the constituent power must be an ongoing,” exhorted organizer Cifuentes Gil, “it should not stop on July 30 once we go to the polls.”

For more information on the Econstituyente proposals as they progress (in Spanish), follow the Clorofil Azul Blog.

Rebecca McMillan is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Toronto. She has been in Venezuela since April 2016 conducting research on Venezuelan water politics.