Venezuela’s Environment Under Stress

Water pollution, gold, diamond and coal mining, oil drilling, gas exploration, wood logging, soil erosion: it all exists in Venezuela, and according to three environment NGOs in Caracas, the pressure on Venezuela’s environment under the rule of the Chavez government is increasing.

Water pollution, gold, diamond and coal mining, oil drilling, gas exploration, wood logging, soil erosion: it all exists in Venezuela, and according to three environment NGOs in Caracas, the pressure on Venezuela’s environment under the rule of the Chavez government is increasing. 

This author randomly picked three of the ten-or-so big environmental NGOs (Amigransa, Tierraviva, Bioparques) in Venezuela to discuss the state of the environment in the country. Surprisingly or not, all the three of them were very critical about the environmental policies of the Chavez government, although each of them emphasises that they are strictly non-political organisations.

Though all of the NGOs fight for the same cause, which is a sustainable development of Venezuela, they all have their own, distinct character. The first one, Tierraviva was founded in 1992 and is closely linked to the British NGO Living Earth. It is one of the biggest NGOs in terms of employees: Tierraviva has 15 paid workers in three offices (Caracas, Valencia, Tucupita). The main area of focus for Tierraviva is environmental education. Links with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) are relatively good. “Every now and then we are asked by the Ministry to conduct research, workshops, etc”, says Alejandro Luy, Director of Tierraviva.  

The NGO Bioparques was founded only three years ago, and is closely linked to the US-based NGO Parkswatch. Bioparques counts six employees in Caracas. Its mission is the protection of the national parks in Venezuela. In order to protect them, Bioparques regularly conducts standardised quick scans (taking two to three months) on the state of the environment in Venezuela’s 43 national parks. “We mainly focus on the human impact on the parks,” according to Rodolfo Castillo Ruiz, coordinator of Parkswatch in Venezuela. “Of course we want to keep the human impact as low as possible”. Relations with MARN do exist on lower levels, but Bioparques has more to do with Inparques, the state organisation responsible for the National Parks.

The third interviewed NGO, Amigransa (Amigos de la Gran Sabana), has a more activist profile. “By principle, we don’t have employees”, emphasize Alicia Garcia and Maria Eugenia Bustamante, two of the activists of Amigransa. The activists pay for their activities themselves; they want to stay totally independent. “We are about ten active people, depending on the issue”, says Alicia Garcia. One of the successes that Amigransa is proud of is their successful campaign against British Petroleum (BP) a few years ago in the Orinoco delta: after a campaign of Amigransa, in which they proved that BP polluted the Orinoco Delta with its testing drills, they left. Amigransa seems to have the best overview on the overall state of environment in Venezuela.

Q: What are the main environmental issues currently in Venezuela?

Alejandro Luy, Tierraviva: The two main issues, apart from the lack of environmental consciousness in general, are issues connected to water and the waste situation. Starting with water, less than 25 percent of all used water in Venezuela is treated before it gets back into the ecosystem. About 80 percent of Venezuelan population lives in the coastal area. All the water in that region is polluted, despite the fact that we have so many rivers, lakes and seas. We even have problems of water shortage, for example in Valencia. This is partly caused by the fact that we don’t save water. In Venezuela, we use about 400 litres of water daily per person. You could live comfortably from 150 litres as well! There are no incentives to save water. Take the situation in Caracas; it doesn’t matter if you live alone in an apartment or with 50 people and use much more water: you still pay the same. Hidrocapital [the water company] should do something about that. Our new Minister of Environment, Jacqueline Farinas, comes from Hidrocapital, so we can expect something from her in that area. She already announced that water will be one of her priorities.

The other main problem is the lack of waste treatment. In the whole country, you cannot even find ten waste treatment plants. So far, all collected waste is dumped into open pits. The waste of 25 million inhabitants lies around the whole country. Why? A genuine waste treatment plan was simply never planned. Here, the lack of environmental consciousness comes around again. We, as Tierraviva, have been working on various projects at lake Valencia for many years. `Why is this lake so polluted?`, inhabitants of the region ask us sometimes. It will never come up to their minds that it’s they themselves who are the polluters. It’s always other people who did it. 

Alicia Garcia and Maria Eugenia Bustamante, Amigransa: There are so many huge threats for the environment in Venezuela at the moment. One of them is the coal mining in Zulia, west of the Maracaibo lake [see The Environmental Cost of Coal Mining in Venezuela]. Another is the continuing construction and expansion of the electricity line towards Brazil, where the government neglected the protests from indigenous people and environmentalists in the Gran Sabana, which is one of the worlds’ most spectacular landscapes. Another problem is the continued issuing of gas and oil concessions, especially in the eastern part of the country, such as in the Orinoco Delta and the Gulf of Paria, which is a very important fish breeding area. The ecosystem of lake Maracaibo has suffered a lot already from the oil industry. Another oil- and gas-threat comes from the plans to construct pipelines towards Colombia, Panama, Brazil, and the United States. Another main threat is the mining and logging activities in the Imataca forest reserve. We are also worried about the activities planned under the IIRSA, the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure in South America. This plan for instance includes megalomanic plans such as linking the South American rivers Rio Plata in Argentina, up to the Amazonas in Brazil and then further north towards the Orinoco in Venezuela. It’s ridiculous! Further, we fear the increase of monocultures in agriculture, because these depend on the use of pesticides and other chemicals and lead to a diminishing of biodiversity. More in general, we are very worried about the permissive culture of the current government towards squatters, miners, etc. This leads to deforestation, illegal mining, etc, where instead the rule of law should be enforced.

Rodolfo Castillo Ruiz, Bioparques: The pressure on the national parks in Venezuela is definitely one of the biggest environmental concerns in this country. There are 43 national parks, and we don’t know of any plans to increase this number in the coming years. One of the national parks that suffers a lot is the national park Morrocoy. During holidays, the islands are almost sinking because of the weight of all the humans trampling around on them. The corals are dying, because of all the human presence, the boats that pitch their anchors on them, etc. Another threat for this park is the soil erosion in the surrounding hills on the mainland, caused by intensive agriculture. The soil is flushed into the sea by the rivers in the region, damaging the corals and the fauna. The pressure caused by tourism counts for national park Mochima, east of Barcelona as well.

Other national parks further south suffer from illegal mining, for instance in national park Yapacana. There are many illegal gold and diamond miners from Colombia and squatters starting agriculture… Those areas are enormous, so it is difficult for the government to control these practices which require boats and a helicopter. The national parks in the deep south of Amazonas state we call “parques de papel.” They only exist on paper. The Superintendent for those parks is working from Puerto Ayacucho… How can you control such vast areas from there? Another example: the eastern part of Canaima national park (Gran Sabana), an area of over 1 million hectares, has only six employees. Still, the people working in the field, the Guardaparques, and the `lower` personnel of Inparques are dedicated people, in spite of their low salaries and their bad equipment. Often they don’t even have cars to patrol the parks.  

Since President Chavez issued the new decree 3110 in September 2004 on the forest reserve of Imataca, this region is under threat again as well. There is an effort to make illegal mining legal. The government doesn’t want to stop this mining, because the social costs will be too high. It would be very difficult to turn the mining back. The big international companies have mining concessions from the government. And the small miners would start uprisings if the government would try to stop them. This government is not interested in that. It doesn’t want to turn itself against the common people, though these people are against their own country.

Q: Does this mean that the balance for the environment under the government of Chávez during the last six years is a negative one?

Rodolfo Castillo Ruiz, Bioparques: The main problem is that there is not enough political will to work on sustainable development in this country, although a lot of nice words are usually being said about it.

Alicia Garcia and Maria Eugenia Bustamante, Amigransa: The main problem is the difference between what is being said and what is being done. How can you say that you are in favour of sustainable development, when at the same time you allow an increase of the extraction of gold, diamonds and wood? How can you support the Kyoto Protocol, lash out at the USA for not signing the Protocol, and at the same time announce increases in oil and gas production? How can you say that you prohibit genetically modified organisms, while at the same time importing genetically modified soy beans? There still is no decree forbidding Genetically Modified Organisms!

In general, cooperation with the Committee for Environment in the former National Congress was much better under the previous governments than with the Chavez government. Before `98, we had an excellent cooperation. We delivered our information to the committee and we were sure they would use our information. The committee included many legal and technical experts, who were politically independent. Nowadays, the members of the committee seem to be holding more strongly onto the political lines in the AN. It is a pity. We do have a good environmental tradition in this country. Venezuela was the first country in Latin America with an Environment Ministry. We do have a lot of national parks. At the World Summit of Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, President Chavez said a lot of positive things about the environmental future for Venezuela. Unfortunately, the reality is different.

Q: How did the NGO landscape develop itself since Chávez came to power?

Alejandro Luy, Tierraviva: There used to be a network of environment NGOs, Red de Ara. At the moment it isn’t functioning anymore, but this is not dramatic. We are still functioning, and we still are in contact with each other. Since Chavez came to power, for some NGOs things went better, other went worse. Some of us openly supported the Bolivarian process, some openly didn’t, others kept more neutral. Some NGOs had problems with their funding; a few of them were even incorporated in the budgets of Ministries, or depended very much on funding of PDVSA. But if you are that dependent, you can ask yourself whether you still are an NGO. For us, politics don’t matter that much. Our commitment is towards the environment and we are open to cooperation with everybody.

Rodolfo Castillo Ruiz, Bioparques: So far my work hasn’t been really dangerous, but at times you have to watch out what you are saying. In general, I think that the NGO scene has become much weaker over the last years. According to me, the `big hit` came in the year 2000, when some NGOs organised a caravan (a demonstration with hooting cars in the streets) in Caracas against the electricity line towards Brasil. We were simply protesting against the track of the electricity line, but we must have annoyed Chavez very much with it, because the next day he was very angry at us. We were accused of being traitors, dependant of foreign money. Since then, we seem to be doomed by the government. This actually did scare some of the NGOs. Many of us decided to stay away from delicate issues, and started working on less controversial issues such as environmental education, or work with children. But comments from the government won’t stop me. A long time ago, I fell in love with our national parks, and I will continue to fight for the protection of them.

Tome come: Part 2 of Venezuela’s Environment under Stress – an interview with Environment Minister Jaqueline Farias (requested)