“We are an oil producing country and that obligates us to take even more care of the environment—on an extreme level—and to avoid contamination, and to reduce contamination in all areas: earth, water and air.” – President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, February 24, 2007.
Did anyone from Greenpeace or Earth First! ever imagine that the world’s first environmental president would come from Venezuela? Many Greens might find such an idea ludicrous considering that the South American nation is one of the largest oil producing countries in the world and a major resource for heavy mineral and coal mining. However, ever since Hugo Chávez Frías first won office back in 1998, he has been developing a very green conscience that simultaneously is reflected in the nation’s policies and social programs.
Chávez probably wasn’t an environmental activist in his youth, yet one of his finest characteristics is his openness and his willingness to listen and learn. And President Chávez has been listening to calls from anti-globalization and environmental activists around the world now for years and learning how to change Venezuela’s form of governance so as to support and endorse efforts of conservation, balanced consumption and decontamination campaigns.
Last year, President Chávez launched Misión Arbol (“Mission Tree”) to combat deforestation and to create a community-based model of sustainable development with a social consciousness based on the recuperation, conservation and maintenance of the nation’s forests. The “mission” - or social program - has encouraged local communities, environmental activists, ecologists and Ministry of the Environment employees to together plant more than ten million trees throughout the country, in both rural and urban areas. The program is aimed at generating environmental consciousness nationwide about the importance of ecological equilibrium and the recuperation of damaged forests in order to improve quality of life.
During a press conference on Saturday, February 24, 2007, President Chávez announced the elaboration of a new law to control emissions and to defend the environment. “We have to place controls on those companies that continue to openly contaminate the environment with clear disregard and disrespect, from the largest State industries to the smallest private companies. They must respect the law.” Speaking directly about world environmental concerns, the Venezuelan leader declared, “environmental issues should concern us all, especially climate changes, global warming and other aspects of the planet. We must continue to raise our consciousness about this problem”
No previous Venezuelan head of state has ever addressed these issues on an effective and profound level. In fact, governments preceding Chávez have been responsible for the massive contamination of Venezuela’s lakes and rivers, as well as deforestation efforts in the Amazon region that, thanks to President Chávez, have now been stopped. Moreover, during 2005, the Chávez administration together with the State-owned oil company, PDVSA, announced the elimination of lead-based gasoline. PDVSA has been implementing an environmentally-friendly plan over the past few years that includes recuperating green areas, decontaminating rivers, lakes and land, and reducing emissions. “You should all know that the gasoline produced in Venezuela is now ‘green’ gasoline, we don’t use lead anymore,” claimed Chávez proudly during his Saturday meeting with local journalists.
Through Venezuela’s Ministry of the Environment, thorough and complex efforts are underway to decontaminate the nation’s rivers and lakes in both urban and rural areas. President Chávez himself initiated the decontamination program, bolding remarking that one day soon he hopes to swim in the River Guaire, a stream that runs all through the capital city of Caracas and frankly has looked and smelled like a sewer up until now.
While the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, George W. Bush, denies the existence of global warming, Venezuela’s Chávez has made environmental issues a top concern of his government and is actively engaging in efforts to raise awareness throughout South America about the importance of conservation. Venezuela also recently initiated Misión Energía (Mission Energy), a social program aimed at energy conservation that has funded hundreds of “brigadiers” (young activists) all over the country in efforts to replace common heat-burning light bulbs with more environmentally friendly cold energy bulbs. President Chávez has ordered that all government buildings must use the energy conserving light bulbs and must lower excessive air conditioning in State offices. During television and radio appearances, Chávez never fails to comment on the importance of turning off water faucets when not in use, not leaving televisions on when they are not being watched and switching off unnecessary lights.
A nation under the constant aggression and verbal attack of the United States, as well as the victim of several direct interventions (such as the failed coup d’etat against Chávez in April 2002), Venezuela is setting an important example about how government truly can play a protagonist role in stopping global warming and environmental decay. Greens and activists around the world should support and encourage, as well as aid with expertise and solidarity, Venezuela’s green agenda.Eva Golinger is a Venezuela-American attorney and the author of “The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela” (2005) and most recently, “Bush vs. Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela” (2006). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.