Venezuela’s Destruction of the Amazon

The Venezuelan environmental disaster is the worst in all of Latin America, says Miguel Henrique Otero. (Wilmer González)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miguel Henrique Otero, Madrid, December 3, 2019 — The Venezuelan chapter of the destruction of the Amazon is, probably, the most brutal and savage of all. While on an international scale the fires happening in Brazil or the advance of deforestation in countries like Peru and Colombia never stop being reported, the southern region of Venezuela only makes news when there are enormous massacres, like the one that just happened in Ikabaru, a small mining town only 6 kilometers from Brazil. On November 22, six people were murdered and an undetermined number wounded as, with their bodies the target of bullets, they crossed the border in an attempt to save their lives.

The first thing that must be said is that this is not an exceptional incident. Since 2000, there has been an intensification in violence around mining. A superficial review of the news archives turns up a surprising number: at least 43 cases where the number of deceased is greater than 2 people.

I speak here of publicized incidents. Because, according to the testimonies of the region’s inhabitants, there have been other massacres which have not been recorded in the media. There are testimonies of entire families who have disappeared, who were living in very remote areas, whose fates are unknown. Social leaders from the region suspect that they were kidnapped, brought to other places, and executed. It is part of the practices established in the region: you either eliminate competitors or devastate an entire community, to clear territory and create the conditions to begin mining exploitation.

The entire southern region of Venezuela, especially the Great Savannah, which has National Park status meaning that it should be especially protected, and the Venezuelan Amazon — which extends more than 450,000 square kilometers and is distributed throughout the territories of the Bolivar, Amazonas, and Delta Amacuro states — is a kind of invisible and opaque area for a wide majority of Venezuelan society. The main reason for this, among many other reasons, is the fact that it is a precarious region in many senses: its highway administration is irregular and risky, its infrastructure fledgling and ruinous, its public services nonexistent, sporadic, or simply terrible.

The main thing is that it is one of the most dangerous areas in the world, spread out in fragments. The most peripheral strip is in the care of military officials, whose primary function is to impede free circulation, preventing photojournalists, television teams, journalists, special investigators, academics, parliamentarians, NGO members, and others from entering. Their task consists of guaranteeing that the area is an unlimited field of mineral extraction, under the most brutal techniques, without taking notice of the consequences of that activity that advances without any controls.

Operating in this territory, as has already been reported, are groups of narcoterrorists from the National Liberation Army (ELN) from Colombia; gangs who practice illegal mining, supported by armed groups who operate with an arsenal of extraordinary power; and mafias composed of civilians and soldiers, who control the distribution of food, fuel, medicine, and other basic goods.

Brazilian journalists working in the media in the north of that country, who have managed to travel to some of these settlements, refer to the “overpopulation” of weapons, drug trade, brothels, illegal alcohol sales, gambling houses, and other presences, which show how violence and the groups who exercise it in a systematic way have control over almost the entire territory.

The destruction surpasses the worst expectations. Satellite images show devastated land and lakes contaminated with mercury. The arrival of the rains is a disastrous factor: it drives contaminated water toward the rivers and small sown fields. As a result of all this, traditional fishing and vegetable harvesting leads to the consumption of contaminated foods.

The river basins are being deforested, with the impact that has on the climate and the water cycle. Experts have warned that the quantity of sediment that is being deposited in the rivers will continue to cause increasingly lethal floods. The systematic destruction of the Caroni river basin will end up affecting the entire country, because its capacity to feed the Guri Dam is in decline.

The Venezuelan environmental disaster, which will not occupy the place it deserves in the agenda of the Climate Summit beginning on December 2 in Madrid, is the gravest of all Latin America, almost comparable to those of China and Russia: infected drinking water systems; accumulation of toxic waste in all the oil and mining operations of the country; unmanageable quantities of trash in the State companies; collapsed systems of waste collection; cities, towns, and small settlements eaten away by black water, rodents, and bad odors.

Of the multimillionaire operation of Arco Minero one can only say that its results are on display: the social and economic conditions of the region’s inhabitants have n improved, nor has the promise of “ecological mining” (a false statement in itself) been kept, nor has any good been generated for the Venezuelan economy. Arco Minero is the purest and most extreme expression of the savage, murderous, violent, and impoverishing extraction that is the hallmark of the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.

Editors’ note: Miguel Henrique Otero is director of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera


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