Now Reading
Venezuela’s environmental crisis: the beginning a wave of destruction

Venezuela’s environmental crisis: the beginning a wave of destruction

Miners use a high pressure hose to erode river banks in a search for gold in a recently dug mine at the edge of the Canaima National Park

The Canaima National Park, south-east Venezuela, is a stunning landscape when seen from the top. The lush green jungle is home to giant table-top mountains. Through the undergrowth, dark rivers run.

The park is Unesco World Heritage Site and home to Angel Falls (the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the entire world).

The aerial view looking west however is not as appealing. The land is pockmarked with bare, brown patches of earth — tell-tale signs of mining activity. Dirt tracks ran through the forest to create temporary camps. Environmental destruction, clearly visible from the air, blights the west bank of the River Caroní, the border of the park.

“The mines are right on the edge of the park, inside the buffer zone that Unesco demands for World Heritage Sites,” says Cristina Burelli, founder of SOS Orinoco, an advocacy group seeking to protect the Venezuelan Amazon. “In many cases they’re even inside the park.”

Canaima is under threat, but it is not the only one, Burelli says. In two decades in power, the revolutionary socialist governments of first Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro have presided over what she calls “the systematic dismantling of Venezuela’s environmental institutions”.

Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crises have been well-documented in recent years. Media coverage has focused on the fight for power between Maduro and his US-backed opposition; on the nation’s monumental economic collapse, which has been exacerbated by US sanctions; and on the resulting exodus of around 6m migrants.

Miners use a high pressure hose to erode river banks in a search for gold in a recently dug mine at the edge of the Canaima National Park
Miners use a high pressure hose to erode river banks in search of gold at the edge of the Canaima National Park © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The country’s ecological woes have been less well-chronicled but campaigners say they should be just as concerning to the international community.

As the economy collapses and oil revenue dwindles, the Maduro regime seeks cash from other sources, including the exploitation its abundant natural resources. It has promoted mining in parts of the Amazon — designating a chunk of it as a so-called mining arc in 2016 — mostly for gold, but also diamonds, coltan, bauxite, iron ore and copper.

At the same time, the country’s oil infrastructure is becoming more dilapidated. Spillages and slicks are a common occurrence in one of the most biodiverse nation on earth.

Francisco Dallmeier, a Venezuelan and director of the Center for Conservation and Sustainability at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, described what is happening in southern Venezuela as “ecocide”.

“We have one of the richest places on earth, some fantastic natural resources, we have a whole system of protected areas that was created to protect those resources, and now we have the beginning of a wave of destruction, and there’s no indication things are going to change.”

Deforestation did not begin in the Chavez and Maduro era but over the past 20 years some 3,800 km2 of tree cover in the Venezuelan Amazon — 1 per cent of the total or an area larger than Rhode Island — has been destroyed.

The pace is also increasing. About half of this area was lost in the last five year.

Scars on the land

Only a modest corner of the Amazon rainforest sits in Venezuela — less than 6 per cent. Yet, the Amazon is so vast that even this small portion represents a huge area of land. Half of Venezuela’s entire territory — almost all of the area south of the Orinoco river — is, or once was, rainforest. It is larger than California.

The Venezuelan forest was largely spared the destruction caused by logging and farming in Brazil and other countries. According to the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a civil society consortium that uses satellite imagery to monitor the Amazon, 82.9 per cent of the Venezuelan part is intact compared to 74.5 per cent of the Amazon as a whole.

Image of silhouettes of a few trees against a red smoky sky durning a fire in the Canaima National Park. Fires are deliberately set to clear land for cattle ranching and agriculture
Fires are deliberately set within the Canaima National Park to clear land for cattle ranching and agriculture © Charles Brewer/SOSOrinoco

But this is changing. Mining has become a major threat. RAISG reports that the amount of land used to mine south of Orinoco has tripled over two decades. It rose 20 percent between 2015-2020.

In 2016, Maduro established the “mining arc” on the southern bank of the river, an area rich in gold, diamonds, coltan and other minerals. It runs from Venezuela’s border with Colombia in the west to the eastern frontier with Guyana and covers 12 per cent of national territory, an area the size of Portugal.

While the government claims that mining in arc is well-regulated, many reports suggest a violent free for all in which criminal groups and Colombian insurgents fight to control lucrative, illegally plucked resources.

Last year, The OECD described it as “an uncontrolled and often violent experiment in the exploitation of resources, regions and communities”.

2020 saw the publication of the UN’s 2020 Report. A reportThe arc was based on interviews conducted with locals. It highlighted the cases of “a miner beaten in public for stealing a gas cylinder; a young man shot in both hands for stealing a gram of gold; a woman beaten with sticks for stealing a phone . . . and a miner having a hand cut off for not declaring a gold nugget”.

The land has been impacted by the arc for a long time. “The most widely-used technique is open pit mining, whereby large cuts or holes are made in the earth,” the UN report said.

An aerial view of an Illegal mine on the Caroní River, on the edge of the Canaima National Park
An aerial view of an illegal mine on the Caroní River, on the edge of the Canaima National Park © Rodolfo Gerstl/SOSOrinoco

Open-pit mining can destroy biodiversity, release toxic gases and contaminate the groundwater, according to environmentalists.

Although it is said that mining is limited to the arc region, environmental groups contend that it has spread beyond that area and is encroaching onto national parks such as Canaima.

Using satellite imagery and aerial photographs, SOS Orinoco has mapped 27 mining areas on the edge of the park, many on the Caroní river itself, and a further 32 inside it. One is located just 24 km from Angel Falls.

Mercury used in gold mining can also seep into water, which is equally concerning to environmental groups. SOS Orinoco estimates that up to 70 per cent of the course of the Caroní — the second-biggest river in Venezuela and nearly 1,000km long — “may be at risk of contamination resulting from the use of mercury in gold mining operations”.

Tests carried out by the NGO on members of the Pemón community — the main indigenous group in the area — showed that “in most cases” mercury levels “exceeded the limit established by the World Health Organization” as safe for human consumption.

“The highest concentrations were evidenced in samples of children under 18 years of age who do not work in mines,” the NGO noted, suggesting the Pemón are at risk even if they have no connection with the industry.

Brutal work

Mining communities are not just about exploiting resources, but also employing workers.

Tourism used to be one of the main sources of employment in Canaima but that has dried up as Venezuela’s economy has slumped in recent years. A Pemón tourist guide who spent weeks working in a gold mine on the edge of the park described to the Financial Times the conditions there. For fear of reprisal, he declined identification.

They worked in teams of six — five miners and a cook — and slept on bunk beds in basic camps right next to the mine. The team received 40% of all the gold they found, and the mine owners got the rest.

“You get paid in gold. You can change it into cash on site but at a really bad exchange rate,” he explained. “Otherwise, you can take it to Puerto Ordaz [a city north of Canaima]You can melt it down and make a small ingot. Then you can sell it for more.”

Map showing Venezuela and the Amazon region and Orinoco mining arc

“We were watched carefully all the time,” he said, sitting on the edge of Lake Canaima, where waterfalls plunge down from the rocks above. “The owners would tell one miner, ‘I’ll pay you more if you keep an eye on the others and make sure they don’t steal’. They would say it to us all. They’d play us off against each other.”

“The work was brutal — 24-hour shifts sometimes — and there was so much violence in the camp. I got out as soon as I could.”

Another Pemón guide said hundreds of young men had left Canaima to work in the gold mines, abandoning their small-scale farming and tourism projects. “We Pemón are not mining people but with all the problems that Venezuela has the tourism industry has collapsed. We had no choice.”

It is difficult to assess the impact of mining on the park, and the wider area. “It’s very difficult to get into some of these places and get information, and it’s dangerous,” says Dallmeier.

But there is much at stake. Canaima is teeming with wildlife — armadillos, anteaters, cougars, jaguars, sloths, tapirs, monkeys, frogs, snakes, macaws, hummingbirds and toucans, as well as an estimated 500 species of orchid and an extravagant array of plants.

The park’s distinctive table-top mountains — the tepuis — are among the oldest geological formations in the world, each housing its own unique ecosystem.

“There is an extraordinary degree of species richness on these isolated mountaintops,” according to one World Heritage ReportPrepared for Unesco “They have some of the highest plant endemism in northern South America.”

Crude awakening

While the threat to the Amazon is from mining and farming, further north on Venezuela’s long Caribbean coast it is from oil.

Since crude oil was discovered on Lake Maracaibo a century ago, Venezuela has produced trillions upon trillions of barrels of petroleum and there have been spillages and slicks. For example, in 1997, the Nissos Amorgos oil tanker ran aground and spilled 25,000 barrels of oil.

However, environmentalists claim that the situation has worsened over the past few years, despite the fact that the country is producing less oil.

US and European companies have either left the country or reduced operations to a minimum, leaving the industry largely in the hands of Venezuela’s state-owned and cash-strapped PDVSA, which does not have the resources to maintain its creaking infrastructure. Trade unionists claim that explosions and fires at refineries are quite common, as well as leakages and burst pipes.

Klaus Essig, a Venezuelan oceanologist who used to be the environmental director at the National Institute of Aquatic Spaces, a government body, found that according to PDVSA’s own statistics there were 46,080 oil spills — big and small — at the company’s operations between 2010 and 2016, an average of 18 a day.

A view from a boat over the river of the Roraima table-top mountain, or tepui, in southeast Venezuela
Canaima National Park’s distinctive table-top mountains — the tepuis — house unique ecosystems © Gideon Long/FT

PDVSA hasn’t reported such numbers since then, but it is not clear if things have improved.

See Also

“There’s been an increase in oil spills in recent years, definitely,” says Eduardo Klein, associate professor at the department of environmental studies at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. “Even though we are producing only a third as much oil as we used to produce the situation is worse.”

Klein highlights a trio of spills that occurred within a few months of 2020 near El Palito refinery west Caracas.

The first one alone drained 22,000 barrels medium crude oil into ocean. Some of this washed up at the Morrocoy National Park mangrove swamps.

“You can see how the mangroves have died from the oil,” says Klein. “If the entire spill had reached Morrocoy it would have been a complete disaster.”

On Lake Maracaibo, home to Venezuela’s oldest oil installations, the problem is leakage from around 10,000km of underwater pipelines.

“It’s like a plate of spaghetti, with pipe upon pipe upon pipe, and most of them are over 50 years old,” says Klein.

Inadequacy of data

The lack of reliable, official information is one of the biggest problems facing Venezuelan ecologists.

Maduro no longer produces basic economic data. The website of the environment ministry is almost a decade old.

For this article, the FT sought comment from the environment ministry, the mining ministry, the head of the national parks’ service and PDVSA. None of them responded.

“They just don’t care about the environment in my opinion,” Klein says.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (R) shakes hands with Venezuelan Oil MInister and president of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, Eulogio Del Pino, in front of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countrie (OPEC) Secretary General, Nigerian Mohammed Barkindo, at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on November 16, 2016
President Nicolás Maduro, right, pictured in 2016 with then oil minister Eulogio del Pino and Opec Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo, has done little to stop the environmental degradation © Juan Baretto/AFP via Getty Images

This official indifference was on display at last year’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, where much of the world committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Suriname, Brazil and Colombia signed up as Amazon nations. The commitment. Venezuela did not.

Because of the veil of secrecy surrounding reporting on environmental degradation, SOS Orinoco must protect the identities of its researchers from reprisals from the government. Klein and the independent Venezuelan Society of Ecology applied for state permission to assess the damage caused by the oil spillage at Morrocoy.

“We have to rely on citizen science,” says Klein. “We set up a website and got people in the area to post their photos of the damage.”

The first of three oil spillages near El Palito in 2020 were twice as big as the one that occurred just weeks later in Mauritius. There, a Japanese tanker ran aground in a coral reef. And yet, while Mauritius’s spill generated international outcry and a clean-up, Venezuela’s went largely unnoticed. It was never acknowledged by the Maduro regime.

A woman takes a picture of a major spill of fuel oil covering Palma Sola beach near the thermoelectric plant of Planta Centro and the El Palito refinery, in Carabobo State, Venezuela, Friday, July 26, 2019
A woman takes a picture of a major spill of fuel oil covering Palma Sola beach near the El Palito refinery, west of the capital Caracas © uan Carlos Hernandez/AP

Sometimes, the government has taken notice of the ecological devastation in its natural parks. In 2018, in one of his rare pronouncements on Canaima, Maduro described what was happening there as “ecocide”, blaming it on armed groups, indigenous people and “a rightwing political mafia”.

“The damage that has been done to Canaima park and the surrounding river system is terrible, painful,” He saidHe pledged that his government would punish the perpetrators. Four years later, it seems that little has changed.

Canaima has been the object of Unesco’s concern and the government has been asked to provide a detailed report about the park’s condition by December.

Ecologists believe that despite recent destruction, there is still time for the Venezuelan Amazon to be saved and reversed deforestation. However, the clock is ticking.

They believe the government should ensure that mining is restricted to the mining arc and stopped in parks. Provita, a Venezuelan environmental NGO, advocates “management policies that are respectful to the indigenous people”. Others believe that encouraging small-scale sustainable agriculture projects would help locals abandon mining.

“The Venezuelan Amazon, like the Amazon in Guyana and Suriname, is in a better state than in other countries in the region,” says Irene Zager, Provita’s director of research.

“But we have to act now and take bold measures to protect it.”

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.