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

Venezuela’s environmental crisis: ‘the beginning of a wave of destruction’
© Rodolfo Gerstl/SOSOrinoco

Seen from above, the Canaima National Park in south-east Venezuela presents a magnificent landscape. Giant table-top mountains rise out of the lush green jungle. Dark rivers snake through the undergrowth.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the park is a haven of biodiversity and home to Angel Falls, the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world.

The aerial view looking west, however, is rather less attractive. The land is pockmarked with bare, brown patches of earth — tell-tale signs of mining activity. Dirt tracks cut through the forest to makeshift 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 alone, Burelli adds. 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 search of gold at the edge of the Canaima National Park © Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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 has imploded and oil revenue has dwindled, the Maduro regime has sought cash from elsewhere, including the exploitation of its bountiful 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 common, staining one of the most biodiverse nations 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.

Furthermore, the pace is quickening. About half of that area has been lost in the past five years.

Scars on the land

Only a modest corner of the Amazon rainforest sits in Venezuela — less than 6 per cent. And yet, such is the scale of the Amazon that even that small share represents a vast swath 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 an area larger than California.

Until recently, the Venezuelan forest had largely escaped the destruction wrought by logging, farming and mining in parts of neighbouring Brazil and elsewhere. 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.

Fires are deliberately set within the Canaima National Park to clear land for cattle ranching and agriculture © Charles Brewer/SOSOrinoco
Fires are deliberately set within the Canaima National Park to clear land for cattle ranching and agriculture © Charles Brewer/SOSOrinoco

But that is changing. Mining has emerged as a potent threat. RAISG says the amount of land used for mining south of the Orinoco has tripled in the past two decades. Between 2015 and 2020, it increased 20 per cent.

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.

The government claims mining in the arc is well regulated but numerous reports suggest a violent free-for-all in which criminal gangs and Colombian insurgents fight for control of lucrative, illegally plundered resources.

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

In 2020, the UN published a report on the arc based on interviews 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 arc has left a long-lasting impact on the land itself. “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 © Rodolfo Gerstl/SOSOrinoco
An aerial view of an illegal mine on the Caroní River, on the edge of the Canaima National Park © Rodolfo Gerstl/SOSOrinoco

Environmentalists say open-pit mining wipes out biodiversity and can release dangerous gases and contaminate groundwater.

While mining is supposedly limited to the arc, environmental groups say it has spread well outside it and is encroaching on national parks, including 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 just 24km from Angel Falls.

Just as disturbing to environmental groups is the threat of mercury used in gold mining seeping into the water. 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

In the mining communities, it is not just resources being exploited but often workers too.

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. He declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

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 got 40 per cent of the proceeds 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] and get it melted down and turned into a little ingot. Then you can sell it for more.”

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

“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’. But they would say that to all of us. 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.”

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

But there is much to lose. 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 report prepared 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.

Ever since crude was found a century ago on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela has produced trillions of barrels of oil and there have been spills and slicks. In 1997, for example, the Nissos Amorgos tanker ran aground on the lake spilling 25,000 barrels of oil.

But environmentalists say the situation has worsened in recent years, even though the country is producing far 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 say fires and explosions at refineries are relatively common, as are burst pipelines and leakages.

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.

Canaima National Park’s distinctive table-top mountains — the tepuis — house unique ecosystems © Gideon Long/FT
Canaima National Park’s distinctive table-top mountains — the tepuis — house unique ecosystems © Gideon Long/FT

Since then, PDVSA has declined to report such figures, but there is little to suggest things have improved.

“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 series of three spills in just a few months in 2020 close to El Palito refinery west of Caracas.

The first one alone dumped an estimated 22,000 barrels of medium crude into the ocean, some of which washed up in mangrove swamps at the Morrocoy national park.

“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.

Lack of data

One of the biggest challenges for Venezuelan ecologists is a lack of reliable official information.

The Maduro government no longer produces even basic economic data, let alone complex environmental statistics from far-flung jungles and ocean depths. Information on the environment ministry website is almost a decade out of date.

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

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

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
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. Of the Amazon nations, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Guyana and Suriname signed up to the commitment. Venezuela did not.

Such is the veil of secrecy and fear over reporting on environmental degradation that SOS Orinoco has to protect the identity of its researchers due to fear of reprisals from the government and miners, and when Klein and the independent Venezuelan Society of Ecology asked for state permission to assess damage from the oil spill at Morrocoy they were refused.

“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 the three oil spills near El Palito in 2020 was twice the size of the one just weeks later in Mauritius, where a Japanese tanker ran aground on a coral reef. And yet, while Mauritius’s spill generated international outcry and a clean-up, Venezuela’s went largely unnoticed. The Maduro regime never officially acknowledged it.

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
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

The government has occasionally taken notice of the ecological despoliation 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 said, vowing his government would crack down on the perpetrators. Four years later, little seems to have changed.

Unesco, which has expressed its concern for Canaima, has asked the government to present a detailed report on the state of the park by December this year.

Ecologists say that despite the destruction of recent years, there is still time to save the Venezuelan Amazon and even reverse deforestation, but the clock is ticking.

They say the government must ensure mining is limited to the mining arc only and is halted in parks. Provita, a Venezuelan environmental NGO, advocates “management policies that are respectful to the indigenous people”. Other environmentalists say one answer lies in encouraging small-scale sustainable agriculture projects that would allow locals to turn their backs on 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.”

Gideon Long

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