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Venezuelans hit by cooking gas shortages look to forests for firewood

  • National propane shortages have forced Venezuelans to search for firewood and charcoal to cook with.
  • Conservationists have expressed concern that a national shift to firewood could result in deforestation, especially in protected areas with dense rainforest.
  • Because there is a lack of scientific research in Venezuela, it’s almost impossible to know how serious the ecological impact has been. Conservationists have so far relied on empirical data for their investigations.

A one-minute audio clip made the rounds on Venezuelan Twitter last year, in which a state official being interviewed on a radio show tells citizens that, because of ongoing national shortages, they should pick and choose when to cook with gas.

“Save it to make pasta, rice and those things,” said Dante Rivas, protector of Nueva Esparta state. “When you go to make beans or some other grain, you are going to do it with firewood.”

The backlash to his comments was so strong because many Venezuelans had already been cooking exclusively with firewood for years, having given up on finding a consistent source of propane for their stoves and ovens.

Firewood and charcoal have become a part of life for millions of Venezuelans across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas where access to gas is even scarcer than it is in cities. Yet as firewood becomes a domestic staple, some conservationists are expressing concern about what impact it might be having on the country’s forests.

“The Venezuelan state is not able to provide its citizens with basic services,” said Bram Ebus, an investigator for international policy think tank Crisis Group. “Therefore, the country’s most marginalized populations are condemned to destroying their natural surroundings as they try to cope with multiple crises.”

Gas canisters stacked up in the state of Miranda, Venezuela. Image via Twitter, Gobierno de Miranda

More than 80% of Venezuelan families rely on propane gas, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services. The gas is delivered to households in cylinders rather than piped in through gas lines. But over the years, as the country has descended into political and economic crisis, the delivery trucks have stopped coming.

From the Caribbean coast to the interior highlands, there have been reports of Venezuelans breaking down wooden furniture, collecting dried sticks and branches, and cutting down trees in public plazas. But there have also been accounts of more serious deforestation in some protected areas, according to the Venezuelan conservation group Provita.

In a report published last year, the group identified Henri Pittier National Park, the country’s oldest, in Aragua state, and Morrocoy National Park and Cuare Wildlife Refuge, in Falcón state, as being particularly susceptible to tree cover loss.

In some of the parks, families venture out in search of smaller, younger trees that are easier to cut down. In others, groups of men ride out with machetes and collect wood for their community.

“The government needs to guarantee access to domestic gas cannisters and discourage the use of firewood for food preparation to avoid affecting forests in urban and rural areas,” the report said, “especially in protected areas.”

But addressing the propane shortage might be a long way away. Oil processing facilities involved in propane production consistently experience fires, breakdowns and spills that sometimes halt operations for weeks. Earlier this year, Mongabay reported on the high number of oil spills at major facilities due to a lack of oversight and maintenance.

Last year, only one propane production complex was operational, Bloomberg reported. And it was only running at half capacity.

Venezuelans protested in 2019 in response to mass shortages. Image via Flickr/Valentin Guerrero

In the northwestern state of Lara, residents have taken to organizing into groups to search for wood to make charcoal, often venturing into Cerro Saroche National Park, according to Edgardo Lugo, a resident who has been denouncing local deforestation. In his community, a ton of charcoal can yield around $100 on the black market.

“The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has dire consequences for the poor,” Lugo said. “So people are getting together [to make charcoal] because it’s practically the only thing they can do. There aren’t very many other jobs.”

The deforestation, he said, is starting to flood parts of the 440-kilometer (273-mile) Tocuyo River, possibly because the lack of tree cover has allowed the soil to erode around the riverbanks.

This kind of empirical observation is almost all that conservationists have to go on right now. It has proven almost impossible to measure the environmental impact of firewood collection with any scientific certainty because the Venezuelan crisis has driven away many research projects due to lack of funding and the high security risks involved in doing fieldwork, several scientists told Mongabay.

Deforestation from firewood collection also tends to be less systematic than other types of forest loss, which makes it even more difficult to track.

“On the agricultural frontier, you can count 3, 4, 5 hectares [7-12 acres] of expansion,” said Provita’s Carlos Peláez. “But when people are entering the forest and cutting down trees, and you’re only looking at satellite images of the forest — it’s difficult to attribute to one thing or another.”

Peláez said it’s unlikely that the need for firewood is driving more deforestation than agriculture or illegal mining, which together have accounted for thousands of hectares of tree cover loss in densely forested states like Bolívar and Amazonas.

“Within many communities that use firewood,” he said, “there seems to be a general preference for dead branches, since they’re easier to burn. But how long can that supply sustain everyone before deforestation becomes necessary?”

Editor’s note: Bram Ebus was previously a Mongabay contributor.

Banner image: The edge of a treeline in the rainforst in Venezuela. Image via Rhett A. Butler.

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