“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.
As the world gets accustomed to the effects of global climate change such as increasingly frequent extreme weather events including forest fires, government are compelled to direct greater attention and resources to mitigate environmental impacts. In the United States alone, the cost of fighting ever-intensifying forest fires has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000.
In contrast, in Venezuela, the Environment Ministry has launched a nationwide tree-planting campaign known as Misión Árbol, or “Tree Mission”, an integral reforestation and conservation effort that depends largely on popular participation.
Global estimates for 2009 cite deforestation as the source of one-fifth of the human-caused greenhouse effect and note that worldwide forest fires release an amount of carbon dioxide equal to 50% of what is released from fossil fuel combustion. Forest fires are especially problematic since they are both a cause and result of global warming. In 2006, researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson published a report claiming that as a result of climate change, western wildfire season in the United States is now starting earlier, involving fires that last longer and occurring during fire seasons that end later. The report noted that increased global temperatures on the whole would lead to more frequent and intense forest fires.
According to a 2010 assessment on global forest resources released by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the loss of forested area worldwide was 5.2 million hectares per year from 2000 to 2010, which represents a decline compared to the 8.3 million hectares per year of the 1990’s. The FAO notes that reductions in deforestation rates offset by the planting of new forests, have served to lower the high level of carbon emissions tied to deforestation. Venezuela, ranked by the FAO in 2005 among the top ten countries with the highest deforestation rates, is now at the forefront of international reforestation efforts as a direct result of the Environment Ministry’s Tree Mission.
As Green Left Weekly’s Federico Fuentes points out, “before President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, successive Venezuelan governments allowed the multinational companies operating there to massively contaminate Venezuela's lakes and rivers, and carry out rampant deforestation.”
Then, in 2006, Venezuela launched the Tree Mission, a government initiative seeking to construct a new community-driven development model based on the restoration, conservation and sustainable use of forests for quality of life improvements.
The central players behind the Mission, known as Conservation Committees, are groups of concerned citizens that have come together in local assemblies to define priority projects for reforestation in their community. Committee members elect coordinators who serve to communicate priorities to local government representatives of the Environment Ministry, which also works directly with Consejos Comunales (Community Councils), an entity central to the Bolivarian Revolution’s participatory democracy. Conservation Committees are entirely responsible for implementing the projects they propose, managing the funds provided by the national government and following-up on project implementation and management.
At the time of the launch of Tree Mission 2010, there were over 5,100 Conservation Committees at work nationwide. According to Jesús Alejandro Cegarra, Vice Minister of Environmental Conservation, “The Tree Mission to date has produced over 37 million tree seedlings and built over 3,000 greenhouses across the nation, 80% of which are managed by the communities themselves and the other 20% by schools.” In the process, a National Forest Seedbank has been recovered and 19 million tree seedlings have been planted across a 23,000 hectare (56,810 acres) area.
Tree Mission was founded at Warairarepano National Park, also known as Mount Avila, back in 2006. The park is home to a diverse array of endemic plant and animal species found only in the Cordillera de la Costa, separating Caracas from the Caribbean Ocean, and is visited by thousands of locals, nationals and internationals each year.
In 1999, heavy rains and unprotected soils caused massive mudslides off the northern coast off Mount Avila that resulted in the most devastating natural disaster in 20th century Venezuela. The Vargas Tragedy, as it is known, resulted in an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 deaths, displacing more than 100,000 people. This catastrophic event led the then newly-elected Chavez Government to bring civilian and military forces together to address the immediate needs of those most affected. This was also the first time that Venezuela rejected U.S. offers of military personnel for emergency support, a preview of the future Venezuela-U.S. relationship.
At Warairarepano National Park, known to many as the living lungs of Caracas, fires burned 2,000 hectares (4,950 acres) of forested parklands during the 2009 – 2010 dry season with new burns reported in the 2010 – 2011 period that just began. In an effort to restore the affected areas in this important national resource, the Tree Mission recently began the first of two phases in reforestation efforts.
Phase 1, which began on May 30th and continues weekly through the end of September, stipulates the planting of 120,000 tree seedlings, the sowing of 2.8 million seeds from 47 plant species, and the construction of 12 nurseries with a total capacity of 245,000 seedlings. This first phase is expected to restore 65% of damaged areas within the park.
Phase 2, scheduled to begin in October, will see the planting of 179,000 tree seedlings produced by on-site greenhouses and the culmination of recovery efforts by December this year.
On Sunday, June 13th, over 500 people; Caracas residents, public sector employees, young and old - came together with their Conservation Committees to plant over 4,000 tree seedlings. The following Sunday, over 14 Committees, represented mostly by their youth and student members, went into the park and planted over 2,000 more trees. Every weekend for the rest of 2010, different members of Conservation Committee will come together to move this effort forward.
 University of Arizona (2009, April 29). Fire Influences Global Warming More Than Previously Thought. ScienceDaily.