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Venezuelan Amazon deforestation expands due to lawlessness, mining, fires: Reports

A turquoise tanager

A turquoise tanager (Tanagara mexicana) in the Amazon. Image by cuatrok77 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

  • Multiple recent reports show that deforestation has greatly increased in Venezuela’s Amazonian states of Bolívar and Amazonas, largely due to illegal mining, expanded agriculture and fires.
  • Venezuelan protected areas have been especially hard hit, with illegal incursions and major deforestation occurring inside Caura, Canaima and Yapacana national parks.
  • Soaring deforestation rates are blamed partly on Colombian guerrillas operating illegally within Venezuela’s borders, an invasion that one report alleges has been supported by the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Forest loss has been well confirmed via satellite, while ground truthing has been obtained via firsthand accounts.

More than 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) of primary forest in the Venezuelan Amazon were lost between 2016 and 2020, deforestation that was driven by illegal mining, agricultural expansion, and fires. This is according to a report generated using extremely high-resolution satellite images and published by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

This significant Venezuelan deforestation accounts for 1.6% of all forest cover loss in the entire Amazon over that period. Other reports confirm this finding.

Most Venezuelan deforestation hotspots, says MAAP, are south of the Orinoco River, in a region designated as the Orinoco Mining Arc, covering 11 million hectares (27 million acres, or an area the size of Cuba), and created by a controversial presidential decree in 2016. Though announced by Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro to promote transnational mining concessions, the region includes an extensive network of protected areas.

The most impacted Venezuelan protected areas within the mining arc, according to the report, suffered more than 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) of deforestation, which occurred inside Caura, Canaima and Yapacana national parks.

Venezuela’s Pará Falls, a tourist attraction deep inside Caura National Park and also found within the so-called Orinoco Mining Arc. Caura, visited by Mongabay in 2018, has since been subject to Colombian insurgents who have greatly disrupted traditional communities and set back their sustainable agroforestry efforts. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

Satellite imaging conclusively documented 550 hectares (1,360 acres) of forest lost since 2000 in Yapacana National Park, where the presence of guerrilla forces from neighboring Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) has grown. Between 2017 and 2020, 1,175 hectares (2,903 acres) of forest were lost within and around Canaima National Park, with satellite imaging showing major fire impacts in 2019. North of the protected areas, river-based mining deforestation resulted in more than 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres) of deforestation between 2017 and 2020. Another 400 hectares (990 acres) of forest was cleared for agricultural and livestock use in remote areas; MAAP suspects those losses were incurred due to mining as well — likely converted from forestland to feed the region’s influx of miners.

Matt Finer, author of the report, told Mongabay that the document is the most updated independent analysis of the Venezuelan Amazon, presenting all the impacted protected areas in a single document. He said future MAAP reports will feature images of similarly high resolution showing in detail the magnitude of the mining camps and the machinery used inside Yapacana National Park.

The findings were arrived at by examining the Venezuelan Amazon biogeographic area described by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG), encompassing the rainforest states of Bolívar and Amazonas. MAAP then compared high-quality satellite data from the SOSOrinoco organization with those of the Areas Under Special Administration Regime (Áreas Bajo Régimen de Administración Especial, or ABRAE), which meet the internationally recognized definition of protected areas. The precision of the images, with a resolution of 30 meters (100 feet), were enhanced by the University of Maryland and presented by Global Forest Watch.

Amazon Base Map. Forest Carbon Flux across the Amazon, 2001-2020. Data from Harris et al 2021. Map by Amazon Conservation/MAAP.

Criminal infrastructure

In another recently released report, the NGO Fundaredes documented the deforestation and illegal infrastructure created by the Colombian guerrillas for their illicit economic activities, which were allegedly allowed by the Maduro administration as a means of replacing federal funding lost due to drastic decreases in income from Venezuela’s failed oil industry — once responsible for 96% of the federal government’s economic receipts.

Fundaredes in its report exposed the presence of ELN guerrillas, in the country for years in many communities on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. The report validated the firsthand testimony of former local congressman Americo Di Grazia, as the NGO documented “construction of illegal runways, used for the takeoff and landing of aircraft involved in drug trafficking and mineral smuggling operations,” including the transport of mined gold and coltan, and also bauxite, diamonds and iron ore.

According to the July 2022 Fundaredes report, two helicopters, 400 armed men and 30 bulldozers are part of the criminal machinery and infrastructure established by the Colombian guerrillas.

In a special 2022 media report created by El País, Armando.Info, Earth Media Rise and the Pulitzer Center, satellite maps and algorithms were used to pinpoint 3,718 mining locations in Venezuela’s Amazonas and Bolívar states, identifying 42 active illegal runways used for smuggling minerals and drugs. This media report comes a year after the head of Fundaredes, Javier Tarazona, was arrested by the Venezuelan government and accused of “terrorism and hate incitement,” an arrest that occurred two days after Fundaredes presented new evidence of the close relationship between Venezuelan government officials and Colombian guerrilla leaders.

María De Los Ángeles Ramírez, a local reporter for the Correo del Caroní newspaper and one of three special media report authors, identified Caura National Park as a hotspot of clashes for the control of territory between the Venezuelan Army and Colombian guerrillas. Ramírez stressed the coordinated coexistence and violent history of FARC dissidents and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela before 2016. These criminal elements took advantage of the federal government’s many years of regional neglect, along with high levels of poverty found there. Insurgents frequently offered bribes of food, medicine and the purchase of crops to win over traditional communities — with those communities allowing illegal activities out of economic necessity, Ramírez told Mongabay.

Mining deforestation in Yapacana National Park. Data from Planet/Skysat. Image by Amazon Conservation/MAAP.

Caura National Park under assault

MAAP’s findings highlight two areas deforested for mining in January 2022 within Caura National Park. This once pristine preserve, covering 7.5 million hectares (18.5 million acres), was created in 2017, despite strong criticism from environmentalists and Indigenous people, who pointed to a lack of any scientific studies or the local presence of public institutions capable of surveillance and/or monitoring of the new park.

In 2018, a Mongabay team visited Caura to report on the functioning of the newly designated conserved area. The trip corroborated the warnings of environmentalists and Indigenous observers: there wasn’t a single park ranger, or any environmental monitoring office or park headquarters to be found, while the military allowed the presence of a few miners who coexisted with Indigenous leaders and communities.

What Mongabay’s field reporting found then was that Caura existed only as a park on paper. This despite nongovernmental conservation agreements signed by the NGO Conservation International and the French-Swiss company Givaudan with Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan groups to protect 147,000 hectares (363,000 acres) through agroforestry for the commercialization of tonka beans and other non-timber products.

Based on that agreement, traditional Caura communities in 2018 successfully nurtured local agroforestry projects, resulting in economic gains that allowed for the eradication of hunting and fishing of protected species, while also improving traditional settlement incomes, disincentivizing them from succumbing to mining interests.

By 2020, several Indigenous communities in the southern Orinoco region had denounced new mining activities promoted in their territories by FARC dissidents — rebels who had defected from the demobilization agreement with the Colombian government after the signing of that nation’s 2016 peace deal. The guerrillas invading Venezuela even appropriated a local tourist inn for their operations.

The Caura River Basin in Suapure. Here, Phynatura, an NGO, preserves forests in alliance with Indigenous communities using sustainable agroforestry techniques to harvest organic cocoa and orchids. This model of sustainable industry, say critics of the Orinoco Mining Arc, is the sort of development appropriate for the nation’s rural southeast. Image courtesy of Luis Jiménez/PhyNatura.

Luis Jiménez, director of the NGO Phynatura, which implements the sustainable forest product conservation agreements in Caura, confirmed the deforestation found in MAAP’s report, but said he had even worse news gathered from local sources: “We’ve lost the Tzazenai Conservation Agreement, [an area of] 32,600 hectares [80,600 acres]. Everyone there is being mined now,” he told Mongabay.

Jiménez was referring to the community of La Colonial, where Piapoco Indigenous people reside. In 2018, Mongabay had met Tulio García there, and he had shown the reporting team how the community sustainably used riverside forests, harvesting copaiba oil, which they then exported with support from the European Union.

According to Phynatura, 39 deforestation locations have been documented in the area around La Colonial, with 30.3 hectares (75 acres) lost to mining since 2016. Nearly 80% of these affected areas were deforested in 2019 and 2020, a sign of how fast the area is being transformed.

Something different is happening in the Suapure conservation agreement area, home to the Afro-Venezuelan community of Aripao that has continued with its agroforestry and community monitoring efforts. In 2020, Phynatura detected 10 newly deforested hectares there (25 acres), on top of the 40 totally deforested hectares (99 acres) detected since 2009.

In fact, the number of hotspots reportedly quadrupled in 2020. Because of the small size of these hotspots, the deforested areas are presumed to be conucos, small farms, spurred into creation as a result of Venezuela’s food and economic crises.

Marvys Martínez, seen seated, is the leader of Aripao and a member of the Board of the Afro-descendant Civil Association. The local people actively grow, protect, gather and process their agroforestry crops. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.
The people of La Colonial, a community within Caura National Park, process moriche, which is made into juice, ice cream and other desserts. The NGO PhyNatura is working to obtain international financing to produce moriche oil; its properties resemble those of olive oil, but with better yields. However, guerrillas from neighboring Colombia threaten this and other sustainable initiatives. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

Agriculture to feed miners

A recent analysis by the Venezuelan Society of Ecology (SVE) corroborates MAAP’s suspicions about agriculture as a driver of deforestation. Compared to the year 2000, forest lost to crops and livestock increased by 76% inside protected areas — disappearing at an average of 4,500 hectares (11,100 acres) per year.

Specifically, SVE estimated that 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) within Caura National Park are now dedicated to cultivation, while in Canaima the total is 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres).

Vilisa Morón, a biologist and head of SVE, concurred that the new MAAP report is impressive in its detail, and he noted that even though there are some differences in the precise figures arrived at by MAAP and SVE, the overall trend is crystal clear: deforestation in the Venezuelan Amazon is rapidly increasing due to mining, fire and agriculture.

SVE estimates that the average rate of deforestation doubled since 2016, when Maduro decreed the Orinoco Mining Arc, and the Colombian government and FARC rebels signed their peace agreement.

Those two political events also appear to have drastically changed the distribution of deforestation: shifting it from Venezuela’s northern urban areas and the plains bioregion, far to the south beyond the Orinoco River.

Between 2000 and 2015 the average forest loss in Venezuela was 43,267 hectares (106,915 acres) per year, but between 2016 and 2020 this rose by 107% to reach 89,363 hectares (220,821 acres) annually.

Experts agree that all the recent reports point to similar causes for Amazon deforestation inside the Orinoco Mining Arc: the failure of government management and enforcement inside protected areas, and the limited capacity of NGOs to perform fieldwork as illegal mining and violence escalate in the lawless region.

Maripa, a port and military checkpoint on the Caura River. All of the agroforestry commodities grown in El Caura must pass through this small town. Image by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres.

The malaria time bomb

María Eugenia Grillet said she fears an impending crisis that is invisible from orbiting satellites: a resurgence in the Orinoco region’s malaria epidemic due to increased deforestation.

Grillet, a researcher from the Tropical Ecology Institute of the Central University of Venezuela, noted that malaria cases had gone down in the region from 500,000 infections in 2017 to fewer than 150,000 by 2020, due to the joint action of three NGOs — Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross and the Global Fund — which teamed up to provide diagnosis, treatment, and the distribution of mosquito nets.

“But as mining continues, deforestation increases,” greatly enlarging mosquito populations in disrupted areas along rivers. “[T]here is [also] a great dependence on international cooperation [to fight malaria], but the State [of Venezuela] has disengaged. What if the [international NGOs] leave again?” she asked.

Grillet’s concern is justified, she asserted, by the frequent misunderstandings occurring between President Maduro and the international agencies, which he accuses of working with the U.S. to pave the way for a foreign military intervention.

“It is a time bomb. We could surpass the previous [malaria] peak because deforestation has worsened. And if the availability of gasoline and food to travel to the mines returns, more people are going to [come to the Orinoco Mining Arc to do prospecting] and there will be more potential guests,” and more people to be infected, Grillet said.

Abandoned gold mines turn into perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can transfer the malaria parasite. Deforestation due to mining, surging numbers of miners coming to the Orinoco Mining Arc to seek their fortunes, and a lack of government health programs are increasing the risk of a runaway malaria epidemic. Image courtesy of Ana Gisela Pérez.

Abandoned mines, full of rainwater, as well as an increase in surface temperature due to the reduction in forest cover generated by mining camps and conucos created to feed miners, are resulting in a proliferation of mosquitoes, the epidemiologist said.

All of this could change for the better, experts agree, as the political climate evolves. For example, if Venezuela experiences a strong economic recovery, fewer desperate people may turn to subsistence mining in the Orinoco Mining Arc; or if a revised peace agreement is negotiated by the newly elected president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, that could lead to a withdrawal of the ELN from Yapacana National Park.

But those future hopes continue to be blunted by current events. A few weeks after MAAP’s report was published, an Indigenous leader who denounced mining in the Venezuelan Amazon was killed. What seems certain is that deforestation will continue to worsen so long as Venezuela’s official presence in the region is weak.

Banner image: A turquoise tanager (Tanagara mexicana) in the Amazon. Image by cuatrok77 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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