Venezuela’s biodiverse environment, from its share of the Amazon rainforest to its lakes and coastline, has suffered increasing levels of pollution and degradation in recent years. Venezuela’s reliance on extractive practices including mining and its ageing oil industry is one of the main drivers of the degradation of its environment. Given the attitude of the Maduro regime, the situation is set to worsen.
Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, located along the country’s northern Caribbean coast, provides an example of the devastating impact which oil extraction has had on the country’s environmental situation. Oil extraction has occurred in the region around Lake Maracaibo since the early 20th Century, as it was in this region where many of Venezuela’s largest oil fields were discovered. However, after around a century of extraction and numerous oil spill incidents in the region, the environmental impact on the lake has been disastrous. Reports by local fishermen indicate that many species can no longer be found in the lake, having either migrated elsewhere or died. Fishermen still manage to eke out a living from the lake, but expose themselves and those who consume their catch to the various pollutants dumped into the lake.
Though Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, stopped releasing statistics on oil spills in 2016, it is likely that the number of annual oil spills has been increasing for some time. PDVSA’s statistics indicate that the number of oil spills in 2016 was four times higher than the number in 1999. Moreover, José Bodas, director of Venezuela’s Unitary Federation of Petroleum and Gas Workers, stated in November 2020 that in the state of Anzoátegui alone three to four oil spills occur per week, painting a worrying picture of Venezuela’s oil infrastructure and its impact on the environment. This apparent increase in oil spills over the last few decades is likely connected to PDVSA’s decline, which has been beset by US sanctions that restrict its ability to do business with key markets like the USA, and by chronic underinvestment, which has resulted in failing infrastructure and a decrease in the number of skilled technicians.
Beyond oil, the Venezuelan government has also endangered the country’s natural heritage through its mining policies. In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro approved the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a wide swathe of land accounting for around 12% of Venezuela’s territory, along the Orinoco River. This decision has put Venezuela’s share of the Amazon rainforest at risk, with environmental advocacy group SOS Orinoco warning that between the years 2000 and 2020, approximately 780,000 hectares of forest have been lost in the Mining Arc region. In addition, illegal mining operations have expanded in ostensibly protected national parks across Venezuela, such as Yapacana and Canaima, many of which are in or around the Mining Arc.
The increase in mining activity is likely to contaminate the environment by leading to an increase in the use of mercury by small-scale gold miners in the region, which in turn is likely to lead to high levels of toxicity across the natural food chain. Furthermore, the security of the area’s inhabitants has been jeopardised as a result of the exploitation of illegal mining activity by armed criminal and paramilitary groups. Numerous reports have emerged of violence against indigenous communities perpetrated by groups linked to illegal mining, leading to condemnation by local advocacy groups and the United Nations Human Rights Council. These illegal mining activities are likely to contribute to prolonged insecurity in the region, as groups such as the ELN and FARC dissidents with which neighbouring Colombia has been struggling for decades reportedly earn 50-60% of their revenue from mining operations in Venezuela.
In the face of growing illegal mining activity, President Maduro announced a plan in 2018 dubbed “Manos de Metal” (Metal Hands, in English) to tackle the issue. However, the scheme has been accused of not going far enough in cracking down; though 9 people were arrested in connection with illicit mining activity, many others have evaded arrest. Moreover, it has been alleged that the government’s crackdown failed to go after the biggest players in illegal mining in Venezuela and, according to members of the opposition to President Maduro, may have been a premeditated plan to concentrate control of operations in the Mining Arc in the hands of a small number of individuals linked to the government.
Further suggesting that the Venezuelan government is turning a blind eye to threats to the environment, the government and organizations linked to it, like PDVSA, have gradually ceased collecting and publishing data on key indicators of environmental health ranging from water quality to deforestation. Though various domestic NGOs such as the aforementioned SOS Orinoco are working to publicize Venezuela’s environmental degradation, many environmental NGOs are in a precarious situation owing to abysmal exchange and inflation rates which make receiving sufficient funds from international bodies harder, the scarcity of key resources like fuel and water and a tense relationship with the government .
Venezuela’s environmental decline matters on a global level given that it places at risk thousands of plant and animal species in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. Ultimately, resolving Venezuela’s worsening ecological crisis is highly likely to necessitate steps by the international community towards resolving Venezuela’s political and economic crises. However, taking such steps, which would likely necessitate concessions such as the easing of sanctions in exchange for cooperation, is likely to prove unpalatable to members of the international community like the United States, which does not recognise the Maduro regime.
Nevertheless, stronger, coordinated efforts are required from regional and international stakeholders to create adequate incentives for the Maduro regime to cooperate in cracking down on illegal mining operations and properly address its oil pollution. Without this, there is a high likelihood that much of Venezuela’s natural beauty and ecological heritage will be irreversibly damaged.
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