Conservation news

Venezuelan crisis: Government censors environmental and scientific data

  • Venezuela is among the most biodiverse nations in the world. But it has become increasingly difficult to measure, assess and protect the nation’s environment as the federal government spreads a dense cloak of secrecy over environmental and scientific statistics — concealing invaluable baseline, annual and long-term data.
  • When the country was experiencing prosperity in the first decade of the 21st century, data was readily available on the Internet. But from roughly 2011 onward, as the nation spiraled into economic and social chaos, statistics began disappearing from the Web, and being unavailable to the public, scientific researchers and activists.
  • Many important government environmental and social indices have been hidden from public view, including updated data on inflation, unemployment, crime, deforestation, ecosystem and wildlife endangerment, mining, water and air quality, pollution, climate change, energy, national fisheries production and more.
  • Compounding governmental restrictions on transparency are difficulties in collecting scientific data in a nation suffering economic and social freefall. For example, 70 percent of Venezuelan weather stations are inoperative, meaning that regional temperature and rainfall patterns are no longer being measured.
Tepui shrublands in Venezuela. A lack of baseline data within this and other ecosystems prevents biologists, botanists and climatologists from knowing how to help species adapt to the climate crisis, which will bring higher temperatures and less rain to Venezuela in coming years. Image by Jailsoncmjunior licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

CARACAS – Venezuela is counted among the top ten most biodiverse nations on Earth. Its aquatic and terrestrial wealth stretches in the north from the waters, mangrove swamps and beaches of the Caribbean Sea; inland along a vast network of biologically exuberant rivers, such as the Orinoco; westward to the Andes; and southward to Amazonian tablelands and highlands draped in lush rainforest. The country hosts everything from manatees, to sloths and jaguars, to 1,400 bird species and 25,000 varieties of cloud forest orchid alone.

That’s why it became typical for Venezuelans to proudly boast in the past that their nation possessed so many ecological riches that the people didn’t even know what they had. But that happy truism has now been turned on its head, and in less than a decade converted into an ironic reality.

In 2012, the federal government officially discontinued publishing its index of national fishing production, along with a list of beaches suitable for human use — safe for fishing, swimming and surfing. Since then, many other important environmental indices have been hidden from public view. This trend toward data secrecy in a democratic society has greatly intensified under the government of Nicolás Maduro, with many negative impacts.

The concealment of national data on the environment means that researchers, regulators, NGOs, activists, courts and other institutional bodies no longer have baseline data against which to measure. The lack of annual and long-term statistics prevents the comparison of past and present conditions, and thereby hamstrings a host of vital activities including the creation of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), the enforcement of laws against polluters, and the making of forecasts and adapting successfully to climate change.

Venezuelans gather water from the polluted Guaire River during the countrywide blackout in March 2019. Updated water quality data has gone missing from the nation’s official government websites. Image by Christofer Garcia.

Closing the doors on data

During the government of President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) many macroeconomic and social indexes were disseminated publicly to show society’s advancements in health, education and personal income — mostly the result of Chávez pouring the nation’s oil wealth (then flowing at $100+ per barrel) into various income distribution mechanisms that caused Venezuela to become the most affluent nation in South America.

However, when the drastic crash in oil prices came, along with a collapse in Venezuelan oil production, those societal indices nosed downward, and statistical censorship arrived. One example: On Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics website, the Environmental section displays figures for deforestation, air quality, energy produced and consumed, number of cars on the road, and even garbage collection — each frozen since 2011.

“All statistics are measured and collected, but their publication is not allowed,” explains a former Ministry of Ecosocialism employee who spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity.

The hiding of statistical records is rampant across the Maduro administration. Official data on Venezuela’s disastrous inflation — projected by outside sources to hit 1 million percent in 2019 — has not been available from the government since 2017; causes of death have not been posted since 2012, nor have the numbers of stolen vehicles. Unemployment rates, school attendance records, even numbers of births, divorces and suicides are long outdated.

The typical excuse for missing data offered up to citizens, activists and journalists is a lack of “authorization from a superior.” The Kafkaesque nature of the Venezuelan bureaucracy under President Nicolás Maduro (2013-present) is demonstrated by a 2015 accountability report released by the Ministry of Health. The document notes that state agencies have provided the national ministry with data for its 2013 Mortality Index, whose pending publication is “only awaiting approval.” As of 2019, the data for 2013 remains hidden.

The Hidrocentro company reflects the potential risks of data secrecy. This regional water company near Caracas, which supplies Aragua and Carabobo, stopped publishing all water quality data on its website in mid-2018 without explanation. Previously, the firm made public just 11 of the 58 indexes required by law, showing, for example, the excess amounts of chlorine used to control poor water quality at reservoirs and water treatment plants, according to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Ecosocialism. Data concerning oil spills into Venezuela’s rivers has also gone missing.

Professor Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry of the Climate 21 Coalition, and part of the team that provides environmental information to Venezuela’s National Assembly, explains the dangers related to a dearth of transparency: “We are paying for this lack of information and environmental knowledge with our right to a healthy, safe and ecologically balanced environment, as well as in the lack of services, such as water and electricity.”

In his opinion, extreme censorship is anchored in the government’s ideological view of the truth. The catastrophic economic crisis, terrible financial insecurity, and deepening national diaspora (an estimated 4 million Venezuelans have left their country), are a grave embarrassment to Maduro’s socialist government. So statistical records, while maybe still being kept, because they reflect negatively, remain unavailable.

Venezuela’s Falcón state has already lost significant amounts of coastal land due to sea level rise brought on by climate change. However, forecasting future trends accurately without baseline and ongoing data will be very difficult. Image courtesy of Foto Arlenis Brito.

Climate change conundrum

This lack of transparency has also impacted Venezuela’s participation in the international community. For example, Venezuela has presented only two National Communications on Climate Change (NCCC) to the United Nations, contrary to the regional average of six by other countries.

In addition, Venezuela proved to be one of just a few countries that didn’t enter a detailed INDC at COP21 as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. An INDC, or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, is the voluntary carbon emission reduction target submitted by each nation to the UN. In Paris, Venezuela pledged an ambitious 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to a business-as-usual scenario by 2030, with a major caveat: those cuts are conditional upon the fulfillment of developed countries’ commitments made to developing nations on finance, technology transfer and capacity building. It should be noted that Venezuela’s carbon emissions are significant. Its fossil fuel company, Petróleos de Venezuela, is among the 20 firms that are producing a third of all carbon emissions.

Possibly in defense of the lack of official data and Venezuela’s failure to produce several UN NCCCs, the nation’s Academy of Sciences offered its own report, hampered experts say, by some dramatic limitations. “Of the 63 researchers [originally] cited [in past reports] less than half attended the last review because they had left the country,” explained biologist Alicia Villamizar, a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Secretary of Climate Change for Venezuela’s National Academy of Sciences.

The most recent Venezuelan climate change report, issued in 2018, forecasts that the nation’s temperatures could rise up to 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, with a loss in rainfall of between 36.5 to 109.5 millimeters (1.43 to 4.3 inches) per year, especially in the north of the country, accelerating desertification. While this summary data is useful, the report lacks precision — especially regional data critical for future climate adaption. Other developing nations, such as India, are far further along in their planning to confront the climate crisis.

Wayúu indigenous communities sometimes illegally catch, kill and sell sea turtles in order to finance education for their children. Current statistics on fisheries production and updated species populations is missing from official websites maintained by the Maduro administration. Image by Héctor Barrios-Garrido.

“We are guessing”

Compounding the purposeful government restrictions on transparency are the difficulties of collecting scientific data in a nation that is in economic and social freefall, where public unrest and street crime are common. Villamizar tells a story of how she and a group of 60 professors and students from Simón Bolívar University were assaulted by an armed group on a field trip to Puerto Cabello, where they planned to measure how much coastal area has been lost to sea level rise.

Ecologist Luis Daniel Llambí told Mongabay that 70 percent of the country’s weather stations are currently damaged or out of service, which means that temperature and rainfall patterns are no longer being accurately estimated.

“There are not enough studies on carbon inventory in ecosystems, or how climatic variations can affect tepuyes [tabletop mesas in the Guiana Highlands], mangroves, sardine fisheries or rainforests,” says Villamizar, who notes that, in addition, “companies [have] stopped obtaining environmental quality certifications due to lack of [government oversight and] budget.”

When it comes to environmental science, says Villamizar. “We are guessing. We do not know how vulnerable we are.”

Despite these challenges, data gathering and its publication, remain vital: Venezuela’s 2005  National Communication on Climate Change — using data from 1999 — warned that half a dozen of the nation’s coastal cities could be drowned by the rising Caribbean Sea, including one urban area on Isla Margarita, along with the seaport of Guanta by 2050. The 2017 climate report — using data from 2010 — warned that the nation could lose 30 percent of the Orinoco Delta, an indigenous territory rich in biodiversity, by 2050. Such losses could be far worse if the country isn’t prepared to respond and adapt.

An illegal mining camp near Las Claritas, part of the Orinoco Mining Arc. Pools of mud, likely contaminated with mercury, have replaced the forest. As the mining boom continues in Venezuela, government statistics on mining have been censored. Source: Google Maps.

Mining and deforestation mysteries

In the absence of official government data, there are now several NGO initiatives collecting and disseminating Venezuelan data, especially on health and food issues, but also on environmental matters.

According to RAISG, the Amazonian Geo-referenced Socio-environmental Information Network, which includes the NGOs Provita and Wataniba as local partners, Venezuela is the only Amazonian country whose national rate of deforestation increased between 2005 and 2015.

In addition, RAISG reveals that, during that same time period in Venezuela, mining displaced the creation of pastures and croplands as the primary cause of deforestation.

That report says Venezuela lost 2,821 square kilometers (1,089 square miles) of forest between 2011 and 2015 alone. This includes 445 square kilometers (172 square miles) within protected areas and 953 square kilometers (368 square miles) within the Orinoco Mining Arc, which includes much of the Venezuelan Amazon. This deforestation rate, which has not been confirmed by the Venezuelan government, was estimated using satellite sensors.

The bad news: despite Venezuela’s depressed economic state, mining continues its meteoric growth, bringing even more deforestation. The lack of government regulation and enforcement, along with corruption, means that goldmining, and extraction of conflict minerals, is mostly managed by the army, national guard, paramilitary groups and mafias who often smuggle processed ore out of the country.

The same RAISG remote sensing data collection approach, backed by Provita and Wataniba field data, led InfoAmazonía, an environmental news source, to publish a storymap that found 2,312 new “mining points” in the Amazon. Of these points, 1,899 were in Venezuela.

Remote sensing data compiled as a storymap that locates 2,312 new “mining points” across the Amazon. Of those points, 1,899 occurred within Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has published little data to document the nation’s mining boom which is causing major deforestation. Data by RAISG and image courtesy of InfoAmazonía.

Bibiana Sucre, executive director of Provita, qualifies this reporting. Most mining data points in Venezuela are due to their isolation from each other, while other countries report more areas of concentrated interconnected exploitation, such as the Madre de Dios basin in Peru. “With this research, we estimate an increase in [Venezuelan] mining after 2010,” explains Sucre. The 2010-2019 period coincides with the withdrawal of concessions to transnational Gold Reserve and Crystallex, Venezuela’s economic collapse, and Maduro’s invitation to miners to exploit the Orinoco Mining Arc.

Besides mining, forest fires are also rife and leading to Venezuelan deforestation, though again, the data does not come from the government. Alfredo Gil, a hydrometeorological engineer counted 18,000 fires in the first quarter of 2019, destroying more than 16,000 hectares (39,536 acres) of forest. Officially, 190 fires were reported.

Another storymap, this time from the SOS Orinoco group — a citizen initiative that collects data from satellites, private services and scientists in the field — graphically displays the destruction caused by uncontrolled mining in the Yapacana National Park in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas caused by some 2,000 artisanal miners, under the control of lawless guerrillas and criminal gangs, with some sites listed in an official registry created after Maduro’s 2016 Orinoco Mining Arc decree. The story has been covered by National Park Traveler.

The Maduro regime insists that mining is currently done “with respect to human[s] and the environment.” The president has even called for creation of a Ministry of Ecological Mining, to ensure that eco-friendly technologies are used — without giving details about what those methods may be. Maduro argues that, as new revenues gush into administration coffers, deforestation rates would drop and damaged habitats would be restored.

But here again, the lack of transparency ends up being a double-edged sword, not only stymying regulators, scientists, NGOs and activists, but also the government itself: So long as Venezuela conceals baseline and annual indices it will remain impossible for this and future administrations to prove claims of decreased deforestation, lowered greenhouse gas emissions or improved environmental protections.

As a result, Venezuela’s environmental record could increasingly become a blank slate.

Banner image caption: View of tepuis tablelands in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. Tepuis are among the oldest large exposed bedrock formations on the planet and are the basis for unique ecosystems in the Venezuelan Amazon. Image by Paolo Costa Baldi GFDL / CC-BY-SA 3.0.