Crisis, Conflict & Nature: Venezuela and the Geo-Ecopolitics of Oil

What does the deep crisis of Venezuela’s petro-capitalism mean for territorial environmental struggles, asks Venezuelan ecologist Emiliano Teran.

By Emiliano Teran Mantovani - Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology
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An oil refinery pumps out smoke. (Lacomunidadpetrolera.com)
An oil refinery pumps out smoke. (Lacomunidadpetrolera.com)

Oil has caused numerous conflicts and immense violence in multiple parts of the planet. The mainstream geopolitical perspective on “black gold” has fundamentally emphasized forms of imperialist domination – primarily by the United States of America – over the governments of the Global South, the countries that own this commodity.

However, there is more than one dimension to oil conflicts.

They are not only about seeking to appropriate this strategic resource, but rather a whole world built around it, a world that is now in deep crisis and which demonstrates the emergence of new conflict scenarios.

Venezuela is clearly subject to this. Viewed from here, at least four, deeply intertwined, dimensions of oil conflicts can be highlighted:

  • Geopolitical rivalries and conflicts arising from the oil civilizational crises, the global energy crisis or the "new realities of oil" (Bridge and Le Billon);

  • The disputes over the control of the Venezuelan petro-state;

  • Disputes over the oil rent;

  • Territorial issues and local conflicts that arise from oil exploitation caused by the socio-environmental, economic and cultural impact of the industry.

We are faced with a complex web of conflicts in which these four factors are simultaneously seen.

The collapse of the oil-rich Venezuela is, first of all, the clearest symptom worldwide of the crisis of the hydrocarbons civilization. Secondly, it shows the multidimensional breakdown of the fundamental factors which have sustained this model of contemporary society, and thirdly, stokes existing conflicts while detonating new ones, many of which are not directly related to oil. These new conflicts may be about gold, biomass, land, water, etc. and are ultimately conflicts that people experience in the daily reality of their localities, going beyond the simple oil geopolitics of USA versus Venezuela.

This network of conflicts, in turn, feeds and aggravates the crisis, introducing us into a very dangerous historical spiral that, in the short and medium term, drastically threatens the minimum conditions of peace and survival.

Venezuela's conflict is, as such, deep and complex.

Although decisive, [this crisis] goes beyond the sanctions on the Venezuelan economy by [US President Donald] Trump’s government or the dispute over the control of the executive branch between [ Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro and the coalition of [self-declared “Interim President” Juan] Guaido. Seeing it in this way one can understand the depth of this crisis and its disputes.

Venezuela's environmental conflicts in oil geo-ecopolitics

Despite its appearance, the whole network of oil conflicts is not only based on economics; it is not just about the appropriation of “strategic natural resources” or the income obtained from the hydrocarbons industry.

In essence, this contemporary form of oil-capitalism is grounded on the colonial/patriarchal domination of nature that creates enormous tensions and contradictions in the reproduction of life. The system is dramatically affecting vital ecological cycles (with climate change being one of the most sensitive problems derived from it), and it is dwindling away the ecosystems and livelihoods of millions of people, putting the possibilities of survival on the planet at risk.

As geo-economic conflicts in the world (many of which are armed) have become more aggravated, especially in areas rich in hydrocarbon reserves, so social resistance in defence of nature and localities has intensified, with Latin America being a good example.

Apart from global climate change mobilizations, we can observe the campesino resistance in Tariquía (Bolivia), Shuar and Achuar indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, and Kichwa communities and organizations in Loreto (Peru) to the anti-fracking campaigns in Colombia and the defense of the Yasuní Park in Ecuador.

In Venezuela, there is clearly an international dispute over the management of [resource] extraction which is reaching savage proportions not seen since the time of the Gomez dictatorship of the early twentieth century.

However, it must also be taken into account that, with the debacle of extractive-based economics, the social and political dispute over the appropriation of the oil rent has been losing importance. This has also led to the multiplication of informal extractive economies which are largely aimed at the direct control of resources (gold, diamonds, coltan, timber, protected species, etc.), land and territory, exponentially intensifying and enhancing disputes and the impact on nature, thus creating new conflicts.

At the same time, the collapse of the oil economy leaves the Venezuelan petro-state more vulnerable.

This not only facilitates various forms of imperialist/neo-colonial intervention – mainly from the United States – in its quest for the appropriation of resources, but also undermines the country's historic mechanisms of governance based on the selective distribution of oil revenues, making said governance increasingly violent.

In this way, geopolitical, local economic and environmental conflicts intertwine with great intensity.

Some illustrative examples include the US government's sanctions against Venezuelan oil, which greatly contribute to the Bolivarian government's push toward the gold mining industry. This, in the absence of private and public investment, is being carried out in partnership with informal mining operations which exist in a very grey area between legality and illegality. This informal mining employs mercury and other environmentally devastating practices.

Rampant inflation, which pulverizes the value of the Bolivar currency, also drives the growth of illegal gold mining, a resource that is used as a currency in various parts of the country.

The collapse of oil rents has also affected investment in and maintenance of the national water distribution system, creating very severe problems of access to water for millions of people.

The hegemonic crisis that began with Chávez's death in 2013, and which dramatically stimulates competition between particular interests and corruption, has been a factor in the emergence of “non-metallic mines” comprised by corrupt state sectors, affecting ecosystems and generating micro-looting.

Also, the evolution of the Colombian conflict in the period of "peace agreements" and the post-agreement situation has driven the increase of guerrilla mobilization across the border to Venezuela, coinciding with territorial disputes over natural resources.

Finally, the effects of climate change are intensifying on water basins, and [having an impact on] access to water in many communities in the country. The list of examples can be extended.

Our argument is that today, more than ever, there is no point in trying to understand these localized environmental conflicts without taking into account that they are part of a much larger network of conflicts. But on the other hand, it doesn't make much sense just focus on the interstate geopolitical disputes starring the United States, which hide all other forms of neo-colonial operations, the web of subjects, territories, contradictions, resistances and valuations that, in a downwards direction, conform this web of conflicts.

Neither is it appropriate to ignore or belittle the effects of the crisis of this particular petro-capitalism, which make up the matrix of conflicts we are living today. This multi-scale, integrated perspective is what we understand as the geo-ecopolitics of oil.

Is there space for the utopia of a radical ecological democracy?

The intensity of the disputes and the logic of survival that prevails in Venezuela create a scenario that narrows and corners any possibilities of a popular, sovereign and ecological transformation.

The scenario is open and also creates options for the emergence of new subjectivities and processes. However, it is advisable not to fix a romantic gaze on the situation but rather to connect more with the motives, pressures and reasons behind these struggles that defend from below, in their own way, their self-determination, livelihoods and their own perspectives of nature.

The challenges are enormous, more so when you consider the close relationship between oil and violence. It is not enough for us to call out and denounce imperialism, which is avidly making plans concerning our lives. We must also warn about what is being incubated within our territories which branches out, which makes connections behind our backs, adopting the closest possible form of neo-colonialism, which is global, national and local all at the same time. It is a fundamental task to defend life.

Emiliano Teran Mantovani is a sociologist and a member of the Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology. He is also an associate researcher at CENDES (UCV) and is part of the Working Group on Development Alternatives organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.com

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

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