The forests of the world continue disappearing at a rate like never before seen on the face of the earth. Currently, over 13 million hectares (32 million acres) are destroyed annually in a race for more arable land, housing, primary resources, and as an effect of global warming. Venezuelan trees have not been spared, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, over the past five years Venezuela has ranked among the top 10 countries with the highest deforestation rates on the planet. However just two weeks ago, Venezuela began to fight back.
On Sunday June 4th, President Hugo Chavez launched “Mision Arbol” (Tree Mission) from Guaraira Repano or Mount Avila looming over Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. While planting dozens of trees with members of Venezuela’s newly formed Conservation Committees, Chavez explained, “If you are going to utilize a tree, you have to do it with consciousness and respect for the environment. If you cut down a tree you need to plant 10 more.”
Mision Arbol is an attempt to combat the deforestation of Venezuela, with a vision of “generating in the Venezuelan population an environmental consciousness about the importance of the forests, ecological equilibrium, and the recuperation of the degraded spaces as a result of the predominant model of development.”
The goals are simple: in five years, collect 30 tons of seeds, plant 100 million plants, reforesting 150,000 hectares of land. Luckily they are not starting from scratch. Last September, Venezuela launched their National Productive Reforestation Plan, which has now essentially grown into Mision Arbol. Well along phase one, they have already collected 15,000 bags of seeds and, according to Chavez, already have 15 million seedlings growing in nurseries, under the second phase of the program.
These are huge steps towards reforestation, but Venezuela has its work cut out for it. Between 1982 and 1995, Venezuela suffered an average annual deforestation of over 260,000 hectares, or about 1% of its forests per year. Certain areas were especially devastated with several states losing a third or more of their wooded regions. Zulia, a volatile western state bordering Colombia, and the heart of the Venezuelan oil industry, lost over half of its forests in a little over a decade.
“South of the lake [Maracaibo, in Zulia state] is totally deforested,” said Americo Catalan recently, Director of Forest Investigation and Projects, of the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment. “In the Turén Forest Reserve, it’s ridiculous. There is almost no forest left. It’s a forest reserve without a forest… In Ticoporo and Caparo, it’s nearly the same situation.”
Catalan is the director of the most extensive Venezuelan forest studies over the last 25 years, and affirms that the number one cause of deforestation in Venezuelan is by far agricultural expansion, or the destruction of the forests to be used as agricultural or farm land.
The World Resources Institute verified in their 1998 report on Venezuela’s forests, All The Glitters Is Not Gold, that “by 1994, 1,262 illegal occupants affected 39 percent of the Ticoporo Forest Reserve; 44 percent of the Caparo Forest Reserve had been occupied by illegal squatters.”
Logging (illegal and permitted), fire and mining also play important roles in the deforestation of Venezuela. Southern Venezuela is considered one of the five major tropical wilderness hotspots in the world, but mining, logging and the resulting deforestation has already started to take its toll. The Imataca Forest Reserve, located in the region of Guyana is a 3.6 million hectare reserve, which is home to no less than 19 different indigenous peoples, but it could also hold the largest gold ore reserves in all of Latin America. Since the 1980s, logging and mining companies have become increasingly more active in the region, and the Venezuelan government has responded by ceding them higher percentages of the territory. In 2004, Chavez signed in to affect decree 3,110 which designated a total of 72% of the massive reserve for mining and logging use, thus highlighting the difficulty of attempting to reconcile the competing development and conservation interests.
Interestingly, before the 1950s, forest cover in the Venezuelan llanos (plains) actually grew as a result of the huge migration to the cities, which turned Venezuela in to the most urbanized country in Latin America. But from 1950 to 1975, Venezuela’s forests were “drastically reduced” due to development, roads and increased population. Under this model, President Chavez’ current “revolutionary” policies of attempting to move people back to the “interior” while building thousands of homes for those in need, may also be further encroaching on the nation’s forests, although it is still too soon to tell.
Nevertheless, Catalan believes that deforestation rates in Venezuela have actually diminished since studies were done in the 1990s, because of the creation of the Areas Under Regulations of Special Administration (ABRAE).
The first ABRAE were formed in Venezuela in 1983 to protect and conserve the nation’s land and resources in National Parks, Reserves and Protected areas. By 2001, 362 ABRAE had been set up representing 46% of the total territory of Venezuela, and one of the largest extensions of “protected” land in Latin America. Almost a third of Venezuela’s forests are protected under the ABRAE system, but not all of the forests are protected in the same way. Unfortunately, only 15% of the total protected area actually has “rules for appropriate use.” With the lack of regulation, inherent corruption and the rules left open to interpretation it appears that many of the ABRAE designations are protected only on paper, and it is easy to see how in Venezuela, there can exist a “forest reserve without a forest.”
Venezuela’s Forest Inventory
About half of Venezuela is forested, equaling just under 50 million hectares. But over 80% of the forests are located south of the Orinoco River, which cuts an almost perfect diagonal through Venezuela from the southwest to the northeast. Interestingly, compared with Brazil, which is experiencing exponential amounts of forest destruction and land encroachment in to its massive Amazon region, Venezuela’s Amazon, although much smaller, is still fairly well intact. Most of the Venezuelan deforestation has occurred north of the Orinoco River, which makes sense, since that’s where most of the Venezuelan population lives.
Catalan has just finished the latest comprehensive forest study of the Amazon and Bolivar states, which are both located south of the Orinoco River and together register a total of 32 million hectares. The investigation makes up part of the National Forest Inventory, which they plan to finish next year, and will be the first comprehensive national forest study in the history of Venezuela and, they hope, one of the most extensive in all of Latin America.
The last two Venezuelan forest studies where carried out in 1982 and 1995, and were far from complete, and not entirely comparable, which is part of the difficulty of attempting to analyze the state of Venezuela’s forests. Different organizations have different statistics according to the resources and methodology used to calculate the forest cover. But, since there has never been a complete inventory of Venezuela’s forests, it is difficult to say what the actual situation really is.
Which is part of the problem. Catalan doesn’t necessarily agree with the FAO statistics, or their ranking Venezuela as one of the countries with the highest deforestation rates in the world. “The FAO gets all their figures from us,” he says, “and then they make their own estimates according to arbitrary information.”
National Productive Reforestation Plan
Regardless of whether or not Venezuela is on the top10 list, deforestation is a problem and that’s what Mision Arbol and the National Productive Reforestation Plan are working to combat. What’s interesting is their strategy.
In alignment with goals of the “Bolivarian Process,” which is attempting to pass power and responsibility in to the hands of the local community, Mision Arbol attempts to plant understanding, tools, and resources in local communities in order to conserve and reforest the nation’s territory through productive projects. The Mission states:
“With the protagonistic participation of the communities, who organize in conservation committees and cooperatives, and under the concept of endogenous development, contribute to the process of conservation of watersheds and traditional forested zones.”
According to Miguel Rodríguez, the Venezuelan Vice-Minister of Environmental Conservation, the Mission is focused on rural communities that have been forced to move into the hillsides because of a lack of land, “bringing with them, deforestation, as a consequence.”
“We are proposing a Productive Reforestation plan. You can’t tell a campesino to conserve the valley, because he’s going to respond that he has to eat, but you can find a product which can be cultivated along with the trees,” said Rodriguez “In the country, there has been reforestation, but productive reforestation is another thing. The communities are always looking, like workers, to form plantations, but this is different, we are looking for them to take charge, that it becomes part of their environment and of their life.”
As a result, the heart of the mission is without at doubt the newly formed Conservation Committees, whose goals are to develop productive projects for the conservation of the environment, and their own sustainability. Since last September, 831 Conservation Committees have been formed with a total of 10,532 members across Venezuela. So far, 468 community projects have been organized on nearly 8,000 hectares of land, beginning with seed collection, nursery plantation, education programs, and the planting of trees and agricultural products such as coffee and cacao.
So far, this year, the Conservation Committees have received about a fifth of the $23 million budget for the Reforestation Plan and they just held their first national meeting of general coordinators on Mount Avila, last month. But it is still too early to say if the Conservation Committees and Mision Arbol will be able to carry out their mission and offset the increasing deforestation and ensure the healthy existence of Venezuela’s critical ecosystems and habitat.
Nevertheless, the World Resources Institute (WRI) might be able to lend a little insight in to what the future may hold. Last year, WRI released a report entitled The Wealth of the Poor, in which they suggested that in order to more effectively manage ecosystems and diminishing poverty, communities should be given more control over the management of their local environment.
“Stewardship of nature is also an effective means to fight poverty,” explains the report, “When poor households improve their management of local ecosystems—whether pastures, forests, or fishing grounds—the productivity of these systems rises. When this is combined with greater control over these natural assets, through stronger ownership rights, and greater inclusion in local institutions, the poor can capture the rise in productivity as increased income.”
According to WRI, Mision Arbol could be on the right track, but important questions remain. Is there a conservation or reforestation plan outside of the promotion of the conservation committees? How do they plan to protect the vital watersheds and forests that may not be directly supported by the Conservation Committees? How to reconcile the competing interests of development, resource extraction, and conservation? Only time will tell, but in the meantime it appears that the mission is a good step in the direction towards reforestation, environmental conservation, and building environmental consciousness in Venezuela. And that is what Jacqueline Faría, Venezuelan Minister of the Environment seemed to stress on the inauguration day of Mision Arbol, when she declared, “We are now going to change all of the Venezuelans in to conservationists.”
Former Forest Ethics Campaigner, Evan Thomas Paul, helped with the research for this article, http://del.icio.us/evanthomaspaul/venezuela
 Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005: Progress towards sustainable forest management. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome, 2005.
A Hectare is a unit of area equal to 10,000 square meters and equivalent to 2.471 acres.
 Situacion de los bosques en Venezuela: La region Guayana como caso de estudio. Informe del Observatorio Mundial de Bosques (GFW); World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch, ACOANA, UNEG, PROVITA; Caracas; 2002, p. 88 http://www.acoana.com
 Marta Miranda with Alberto Blanco-Uribe Q., Lionel Hernández, José Ochoa G., and Edgard Yerena, All that glitters is not gold: Balancing conservation and development in Venezuela's frontier forests. World Resources Institute; 1998
 J. McNeely et al., Conserving the World's Biological Diversity (IUCN, WRI, WWF, World Bank: Washington, DC, 1990).
 Kuiper, Jeroen. The Open Veins of Venezuela. Venezuelanalysis.com; March 18, 2005
 Situacion de los bosques en Venezuela: La region Guayana como caso de estudio. Informe del Observatorio Mundial de Bosques (GFW); World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch, ACOANA, UNEG, PROVITA; Caracas; 2002, p. 16
 Situacion de los bosques en Venezuela: La region Guayana como caso de estudio. Folleto del Observatorio Mundial de Bosques (GFW); World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch, ACOANA, UNEG, PROVITA; Caracas; 2002, p. 6
 Situacion de los bosques en Venezuela: La region Guayana como caso de estudio. Informe del Observatorio Mundial de Bosques (GFW); World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch, ACOANA, UNEG, PROVITA; Caracas; 2002, pg. 22
 Interview, Americo Catalan, May, 2006, Caracas, Venezuela. According to Catalan, the current National Forest Inventory is attempting to use all the resources at their disposition, including satellite imaging, on the ground investigation and the latest techniques. The Ministry of Environment expects to be able to update the study yearly in order to be able to compare forest trends on a small scale.
 Situacion de los bosques en Venezuela: La region Guayana como caso de estudio. Informe del Observatorio Mundial de Bosques (GFW); World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch, ACOANA, UNEG, PROVITA; Caracas; 2002, p. 12
 Aló Presidente, No. 257. June 4, 2006.
Mision Arbol (power point presentation), Ministerio del Ambiente; Caracas; May, 2006
 Aló Presidente, No. 257. June 4, 2006.
 A Guide to World Resources, 2005, The Wealth of the Poor, Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty. World Resources Institute (WRI) in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Bank; Washington DC; 2005, Report Forward, p. 6