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Venezuela’s environmental crisis is getting worse. Here are seven things to know.

  • A new report from the Venezuelan Observatory for Political Ecology (OEP) details the most pressing environmental issues facing Venezuela.
  • They include oil spills, illegal mining, deforestation, tourism, poor waste management, water shortages and climate change.
  • The Venezuelan government has done very little to address these problems, the report said, and has even turned a blind eye to them in order to improve the country’s economy.

The environmental issues facing Venezuela are serious and wide-ranging: illegal mining in the Amazon, national water shortages, mudslides and flooding exacerbated by climate change, the degradation of protected areas, oil spills and human rights violations against Indigenous communities. The list is long and, for the last decade, has basically gone unchanged.

The government institutions designed to combat these issues either don’t have the funding to act or turn a blind eye to their duties, critics have said, making the situation there some of the most urgent in Latin America.

“The dramatic socio-environmental situation facing Venezuela continues to be part of the general crisis that’s being silenced despite how obvious it is to political and economic decision-makers,” said the Venezuelan Observatory for Political Ecology (OEP) in an annual report.

At the same time, the government ranks as one of the least transparent in the region, making it difficult to know exactly how bad the situation has gotten. Local NGOs, journalists and scientists have tried their best to provide a glimpse into what’s going on. Below are the seven issues they’re discussing the most.

Oil spills are becoming more frequent, and the government isn’t doing anything to stop it

US sanctions on Venezuela have been in place for over a decade. But last year, in hopes of normalizing relations with the Maduro regime, the Biden administration gave Chevron a six-month license to operate and export oil from Venezuela’s state-owned facilities. Production has been mostly up in 2023, and the government said it expects revenue from oil exports to supply around two-thirds of this year’s budget.

But increased production hasn’t improved regulations. If anything, it puts more stress on them. Venezuela’s oil infrastructure is in drastic need of repairs, according to OEP. Oversight is lacking and spills are becoming more frequent. Government transparency on the problem is virtually non-existent, forcing researchers to rely on social media posts, satellite images along the Caribbean coast and the testimony of local communities to keep track of the spills.

Last year, OEP counted at least 86 oil spills in the country, or around seven per month. The state of Zulia was hit the hardest. Its 31 spills have polluted Lake Maracaibo — one of the largest lakes in South America — so badly that many fishermen have left the industry or resorted to subsisting on clams, OEP said.

Last October, the spills in Zulia went viral after a famous flamingo nicknamed Vitico Petróleo was photographed covered in oil. Workers reportedly tried to clean the bird but were unable to save it.

Other states like Falcón, with 29 spills, and Anzoátegui, with 14, have also seen local biodiversity and Indigenous communities impacted by the constant oil and gas spills, according to OEP.

Mining is destroying Venezuela’s rainforests

The Venezuelan government, still looking to mitigate the impact of sanctions, has leaned heavily on revenue from the gold mining industry going back to at least 2016, when President Nicolás Maduro formally opened the Orinoco Mining Arc in the middle of the rainforest. The area also has bauxite, coltan and iron.

Despite international criticism of the human rights and environmental situation on the ground, the government has doubled down on the mining arc’s importance, with Vice President Delcy Rodríguez saying last December that it is vital for “promoting economic growth.”

Officials say they issue permits for legal mining yet there’s no evidence of environmental impact studies or prior consultation with Indigenous communities, OEP said. As much as 90% of Venezuela’s mining activity is illegal, according to the Science Panel for the Amazon, an environmental initiative.

A man sifts gold in a Venezuelan mine. (Photo courtesy of InfoAmazonía/Correo del Caroní)

In a recent report, the NGO Amazon Conservation estimated that over 750 hectares (1,870 acres) of deforestation had taken place between 2021 and 2022 as a result of mining in Yapacana National Park. Satellite imagery also counted over 4,000 mining camps and 3,800 pieces of machinery in the area.

Armando Info, an investigative outfit, counted at least 42 clandestine landing strips and at least 3,718 illegal mining sites in southern Venezuela last year. Many of them are believed to be operated by dissident factions of the FARC guerrilla group, the ELN guerrilla group, mining syndicates and the armed forces.

Farther south, Brazilian miners known as garimpeiros invade the Alto Orinoco-Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve in the state of Amazonas, where the Indigenous Ye’kwana, Sanema and Yanomami suffer threats and attacks. Around 13,000 Indigenous people have fled the area, according to Fundaredes, a Venezuelan NGO.

The country is losing its forests for a lot of other reasons, too

Mining might cause the most acute instances of deforestation in Venezuela, but the country is also suffering from unregulated cattle ranching, farming and timber trafficking. Over the last five years, there’s been an average of 157,307 hectares (388,714 acres) of annual deforestation, according to Clima21, a human rights and environmental group.

A lot of the deforestation is tied to scarcity. National natural gas shortages have left households without a way to cook, so they have to return to burning charcoal, which is also in low supply. People cut down nearby forests to make the charcoal, in some cases decimating entire forests.

Between 60% and 70% of forests around the Reyes Vargas and Camacaro communities in the state of Lara have been cut down to make charcoal, the OEP report said. And in Mérida, the Sierra Nevada National Park has lost around 12 hectares (29.6 acres), mostly to make charcoal, according to Fundaredes.

Firefighters fend off a fire in Lara. (Photo courtesy of Twitter/Alvaro Zambrano Carrera)

The wealthy elite have helped degrade many of the country’s protected areas

Venezuela’s economy showed signs of modest recovery last year. Inflation decreased from a shocking 686% to 234%, according to government officials. And the National Survey of Living Conditions (ENCOVI) found that poverty decreased by 15%.

But the income gap also widened. While lower- and middle-class households continue to struggle for basic resources, the country’s elite are able to live lavishly, often taking trips to national parks and tropical resorts on the Caribbean coast. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in other countries, but Venezuela offers few protections for wildlife in those areas, making elite tourism an increasingly harmful industry.

Last February, pictures of Canaima National Park made headlines after a group of tourists held a party on top of the Kusary Tepuy, a unique mountain formation off limits to human activity because of its fragile ecosystem and connection to Indigenous traditions.

A resort on Borracha Island, part of Mochima National Park, has been pitched as a premium tourist destination with solar panels and wind energy. But development is technically illegal in the park and the government doesn’t provide access to environmental impact reports.

“They never present the environmental impact assessment and that’s required and should be publicly accessible but right now there aren’t any,” said Elsa Rodríguez, a member of the OEP. “People are finding out about these types of projects through the media but we don’t really know what the impact is.”

The waste management system is collapsing

Venezuela’s trash problem has gotten worse over the years because it doesn’t have the infrastructure and maintenance to supply the population with the landfills, garbage collection and recycling facilities that it needs.

OEP estimated the country produces approximately 28,000 tons of waste daily but that only around 5% of it is recycled. The rest ends up in open-air dumps that often leak into rivers, contaminating drinking water and hurting local ecosystems.

Many communities only collect trash once a month, the report said, forcing residents to come up with their own methods for waste disposal.

Trash scattered on the Venezuelan coast. (Photo courtesy of Twitter/OEP)

Potable water is becoming increasingly scarce

An overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan population has been exposed to contaminated drinking water in some form, the report said. Nearly half of all households have reported using recycled water due to shortages. In the first half of last year, there were 459 protests related to access to drinking water, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, an NGO.

Part of the problem is infrastructure. Interruptions in the country’s aqueducts due to damage and a lack of maintenance, among other things, has resulted in restricted access to water for over 12 million people, according to a report from HumVenezuela, a humanitarian rights advocacy group.

But it is also an environmental issue. Oil spills in Lake Maracaibo and Valencia pollute potential drinking water for millions of residents. And mercury and other chemicals used in mining have spread through countless rivers in the Amazon.

Deforestation from agriculture, cattle ranching and charcoal production also diminishes the land’s ability to absorb groundwater and act as a natural filter for watersheds, most notably in semi-arid states like Falcón or Lara.

Venezuelans wait in line for clean water. (Photo courtesy of Twitter/Correo del Caroní)

Climate change is making all of Venezuela’s environmental problems much worse

As temperatures rise and weather patterns become more unpredictable, Venezuela’s environmental problems have only intensified. Last year, the country saw abnormal levels of rainfall throughout the country, resulting in mudslides, flooding and the destruction of farmland.

These events, worsened by deforestation and erosion caused by mining and agriculture, displaced around 32,000 people in 2021, according to an Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report. Another 200,000 people could fall into extreme poverty as a result of climate change by 2030.

“The most vulnerable people are the ones who are in a situation of poverty and have the fewest resources to get out of that situation,” Rodríguez said.

Banner image: A close-up of a brush fire. Photo courtesy of Guardabosqueusb. 

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Venezuela’s Yapacana National Park suffering increasing mining deforestation: report

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