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New report pieces together toll of environmental damage in Venezuela in 2021

  • A report from the Political Ecology Observatory of Venezuela (OEP) lays out the worst environmental conflicts that the South American country faced in 2021.
  • Among them are oil spills, deforestation, mining, and a lack of clean water in areas with degraded watersheds.
  • The report notes the continuing difficulty of tracking environmental parameters in Venezuela, due to the lack of transparency by government at all levels.
  • Regardless, it notes that last year’s events contributed to numerous public health crises.

While trying to put together a review of what happened to Venezuela’s environment in 2021, conservationists ran into a problem. The government publishes virtually no statistics on things like deforestation, infrastructure or mining, and it often actively blocks researchers from investigating threats to local ecosystems.

Last year, the government appeared to lean more heavily on the country’s natural resources, expanding mining activity and increasing oil production in hopes of creating some economic stability.

The result was another year of significant environmental devastation. Although there are few reliable statistics to show whether it was better or worse than past years, 2021 was marked by widespread tree cover loss, pollution, water shortages, and violations of Indigenous groups’ rights, according to a new report by the Political Ecology Observatory of Venezuela (OEP).

The organization compiled news reports, social media posts and research from local conservation organizations to fill the gap in data.

“There is a lack of official information on the environmental and social consequences of most issues,” said Elsa Rodríguez, a member of the observatory. “There are no statistics that allow us to know the dimensions and scope for many things.”

Garbage covered in oil on Lake Maracaibo. (Photo via Wikimedia)

The impacts of a collapsing oil industry

Government reports on oil spills, one of the most concerning threats to biodiversity in Venezuela, haven’t been published since 2016, according to the report. To understand what happened in 2021, the OEP relied on independent satellite readings and complaints posted online by local fishers.

There were at least 73 spills in the country last year, the organization found. One of them included 3.6 million liters (951,000 gallons) of oil from a facility in the state of Falcón that had gone years without a maintenance check. The oil poured into the ocean for nearly two weeks, blackening marine ecosystems and mangroves that are vital to preventing coastal erosion.

In September, NASA published photos of Lake Maracaibo, spanning 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles), covered in oil slicks and algae blooms. The lake is home to the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) and Maracaibo wood turtle (Rhinoclemmys diademata), but also hosts thousands of oil wells and pipelines.

Venezuela has more than 300 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the largest in the world. Oil continued to be the country’s main export last year, despite the fact that many facilities are breaking down and neglected.

“In Venezuela’s case, what we see is the simultaneous impacts of the oil industry’s traditional operations, and at the same time the impacts resulting from abandonment,” the report said.

Cattle ranchers in Los Llanos. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Deforestation in many forms

Other satellite readings show that the mining of gold, cobalt and other minerals expanded dramatically, not only polluting many rivers and streams with chemicals like mercury, but also clearing large sections of forest in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar.

There were at least 2,000 miners working in Yapacana National Park in Amazonas this year, contributing to 2,227 hectares (5,503 acres) of deforestation, the report said. In Canaima National Park, 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) were deforested for mining.

In other protected areas and surrounding forests, it was almost impossible to tell exactly how much was cut down as a result of mining in 2021, or if the rate of clearing marked an increase or decrease from previous years.

Based on local reports and the work of other environmental organizations, the OEP identified unregulated cattle ranching and other agricultural activities, as well as illegal logging, as additional drivers of deforestation throughout the country.

“In the case of Venezuela, the main driver of forest loss is agricultural activity,” Rodrigo Lazo of Provita, an NGO working on socioenvironmental solutions, told Mongabay. “There has been a lot of information about mining, but mining only makes up a small part of it.”

A fisherman on the Santa Domingo river. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The report noted that an absence of regulations and environmental management has left forested areas largely unprotected, allowing for logging and wood trafficking to be carried out uninterrupted, in some cases in coordination with local authorities and other powerful individuals.

“Environmental crime enjoys extraordinary impunity,” the report said.

Even in urban areas, trees were cut down at an alarming rate by residents suffering from shortages of cooking gas or who relied on charcoal production as a main source of income, the report said.

A public health crisis

Oil spills, deforestation and mining all helped contribute to an increasing public health crisis last year, the report said. Residents were exposed to toxic chemicals and water shortages, and were put at increasing risk of natural disasters.

“Environmental problems should not be seen as a separate element from the daily problems that Venezuelans experience,” Rodríguez said. “All these elements are connected.”

She pointed to mudslides as an example, since increased deforestation in places like the state of Mérida, where thousands of residents were displaced during the spring and summer rainy seasons, contributed to higher rates of erosion and left the ground bare and unable to capture higher flows of water.

The degradation of watersheds across the country also pushed many Venezuelans into a water shortage crisis in 2021, the report said. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said many of the protests throughout the country last year were sparked by a lack of access to potable water.

Landslide devastated communities in Mérida last year. (Photo courtesy of Merida state government)

In some cases, the water available to residents left them ill because it wasn’t naturally filtered, or because the government failed to maintain the infrastructure needed to create healthy delivery mechanisms. According to the report, around 80% of the country’s garbage resides in open-air dumps, which sometimes leak into drainage systems and other waterways.

“The economic crisis and institutional collapse, indolence and corruption, and private businesses in charge of waste and residues, are some of the main factors that currently contribute to the state’s failure to adequately guarantee the Venezuelan population proper management and sustainability of these matters, which leads to numerous environmental and public health problems,” the report concluded.

Banner image: Canaima National Park. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

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