‘When Rebuilding, Remember the Environment’

Venezuelans joined in on the anguish for the Amazon rainforest fires in Brazil, while their own surroundings are in awful shape. Alejandro Luy sums up the environmental situation in Venezuela.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Alejandro Luy is one of those people that the enemies of the environmentthose who ignore the problem on purpose, those denying the human impact on climate change, those defending the extraction of fossil fuel over other energy sourcesdon’t know exist, or don’t want to acknowledge. A biologist, a man of science, a writer who knows how to get the point across. An environmentalist of life-long dedication.

The Fundación Tierra Viva, managed by Alejandro for many years now, is focused on building sustainable development as a cultural feature, as a productive social activity that goes beyond using hashtags like “#CryForTheAmazon.” They go to the field, where the extremely diverse landscape of our country meets a population in unquestionable poverty. This is what they’ve done at the Delta, with Warao communities, and up on the hills of Carabobo and Aragua, with local farmers working on organic cocoa projects.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Alejandro several times through the years, and I’ve asked him to describe the current environmental situation in Venezuela, a topic as relevant as any of the others we constantly discussand just as overwhelming, only it’s way more mysterious.

On social and traditional media, as well as at home and in the street, we’re constantly talking about several overwhelming national problems: Hyperinflation, healthcare collapse, the dictatorship and mass migration, but the environmental issue, connected to all of this, isn’t mentioned; the loss of quality of life, diseases, shortages. Do you also get that feeling that we’ve become more indifferent towards the environment?

We should be capable of seeing and understanding the relationship between development and the environment, health and the environment, quality of life and environment, and generate actions.

I don’t know if the right word would be “indifferent,” because that’d imply knowledge of a fact that, due to personal reasons, I decide to neglect. I think it’s more serious. It’s ignorance, and it happens not only to common citizens, but also to those with a more significant role in society: people in the media, researchers, ministers, governors. It’s understandable that a layman doesn’t go out of his way to be informed about these issues while they’re caught up in the dynamics of finding food or medicine, but this attitude is inexcusable in the other groups. They should be capable of seeing and understanding the relationship between development and the environment, health and the environment, quality of life and environment, and generate actions.

There’s an environmental drama that, because of its political visibility, is indeed discussed, and that’s the Arco Minero (Orinoco Mining Arc).  There are several studies, all of them partial, talking about the complex social reality of regional and indigenous communities derived from  gold mining in Guayana. As a Venezuelan environmentalist, how serious is this gold fever situation? Is the damage irreversible in, for example, the Caura basin, which used to be one of the most pristine?

This is a very serious situation, both because of the damage to the environment through mineral extraction and because of the “gold will save us” notion, a maxim used since the Decree for the Mining Arc. The ecosystems in the Southern region are extremely delicate, and disturbances caused by mining will be very difficult to reverse. It’s not just about “planting a few trees,” which is what Mining Chambers, champions for business, and the Ministry of Ecological Mining have been promoting as an actual thesis. And it’s not just the Arco Minero. It’s also national parks like Canaima and others in the Amazon that aren’t within the Arco Minero, but have illegal mining activity, too. Mercury is polluting bodies of water and food, making the miners sick. Coalición Clima21 and Wataniba estimate that, from an environmental point of view, 40% of the country is in some way affected, either by deforestation, water pollution, loss of land quality, use of animals as a resource, and poisoning or damaging biological diversity. Meanwhile, a large part of the population believes what the European explorers believed centuries ago: the mining exploitation is the new El Dorado that’ll free us from poverty.

The presence of irregular groups and neglect from the government must be overshadowing other environmental problems. The same happened in Colombia during their armed conflict, differences aside. I think it’s not only in Guayana, taken over by criminal leaders and ELN guerrilla, it’s also in Paria and Delta, with drug trafficking. At those lawless areas, what could be happening with the environment?

The technical approach was dropped many years ago, based on laws and regulations, consolidating a so-called “ecosocialism,” like a magic solution to the environment. Its essence is the lack of institutionalism. In your question, you mention serious problems and extremes that point to a void in authority, but what kind of authority are we talking about when the National Parks Institute is apparently incapable of addressing governors who go against conservationism? What authority exists on the solid waste disposal that 336 mayoralties have to deal with, if the 2010 law still has no regulation and no management plan for garbage? There’s no data on the quality of water that we consume, on deforestation. We don’t know if the ministry inspects oil companies, what their oil spilling protocols are, or the conditions of the air we breathe in our cities. The absence of government affects not just remote areas, it affects the whole nation.

A couple of years ago, Andrea Wulf, an Alexander von Humboldt biographer of international renown, stated that the first time a scientist ever described the effect of human activity on climate was when the Baron wrote about the impact of colonial agriculture in the Valencia Lake, in 1799. Today, the situation in that lake seems to be one of the most severe in Venezuela. What’s its status?

The issues in that lake, which basically are pollution and the rise of water levels, lack a coherent and sustained plan, and it’s been like that for years. It makes sense to think that it’s only gotten worse.

Can we rescue the Valencia Lake?

It’s not my area of expertise, but I imagine we could. The main issue in this lake and its basin isn’t too different from what many other rescued bodies of water had elsewhere in the world. The question is how far can the rescue efforts go. The lake and the surrounding areas have natural and cultural resources that could be part of tourist attractions. It’s a polluted body of water, but it’s alive. If you’re asking for drinkable water from the lake, then maybe you’re asking for the impossible.

Now, talking about the oil industry: production has declined but, because of mismanagement and lack of investment, several environmental accidents have occured. Not long ago we had a spill on the Carabobo coast and we know what happened in the Maturin rivers. How bad is the environmental impact of this abandoned PDVSA?

For over a hundred years, Venezuelans have depended on oil exploitation, with both positive and negative consequences, like environmental debts that didn’t take advantage of the “$100 per oil barrel” era. Personally, I don’t know if the accidents that you mention (or any others) are caused by the lack of prevention protocols, spills, or shortcomings in technical and human resources. Or all of the above. However, considering the reality of Venezuela today, I’d go with the latter.

For over a hundred years, Venezuelans have depended on oil exploitation, with both positive and negative consequences, like environmental debts that didn’t take advantage of the “$100 per oil barrel” era.

What other major environmental problems are happening that are being overlooked in the completely broken and ephemeral public eye?

There are many. Some of them have a large impact on very few people, like air pollution in Guanta, Anzoategui, due to the absence of filters in the cement factory owned by the Venezuelan government. Others affect a large portion of the population, even if we don’t realize it. Deforestation and changes in habitat happen all over the country, and it has an impact on water basins that in the end are the ones guaranteeing drinkable water and energy to over 70% of the population. There’s also a smaller scale tree cutting operation in Merida and Lara states and the island of Coche, where communities have had to cut down trees and bushes to use as firewood for cooking, because they lack domestic gas. The disposal of millions of tons of solid waste in landfills without any management is polluting soil and water all across the country. There are also many communities in urban areas that burn their garbage, as a consequence of inefficient waste collection services. Sewage coming from our homes ends up in rivers, lakes and seas, without any type of treatment. All this must be affecting our health, tourism, and our chances of development.

Tell me how Tierra Viva is functioning in a country where money runs short and it’s harder every day to come across resources.

The first thing we’re doing is focusing on the goals we set out when we created Fundación Tierra Viva, over 25 years ago: sustainable development and quality of life. Our efforts are aimed at tending to the needs of different communities, focusing on topics where we can take action and see results, instead of those we cannot solve. With our human resources, we have projects spread out in three lines: Socio-environmental Management, Somos Biodiversidad (“We Are Biodiversity”) and Productos con Historia (“Products with History”) involving the handling of water supply in three communities, the preservation of water basins and cocoa production in Canoabo. We promote recycling and support the artisan women of the Warao community, in the Orinoco Delta.

With our human resources, we have projects spread out in three lines: Socio-environmental Management, Somos Biodiversidad and Productos con Historia involving the handling of water supply in three communities, the preservation of water basins and cocoa production in Canoabo.

How can you manage an NGO in Venezuela, where financing, government support and human resources are so scarce?

Getting resources is harder. Traveling from Caracas to Tucupita is much more of an endeavor now than when we started 21 years ago, with a three-hour flight connecting both cities. But here we are, a group of professionals working through today’s hurdles, on socio-environmental topics that are crucial for the country, so we count on sponsors and allies both from the public and private sectors, professionals and organized communities. In such a tough moment, where bad news are common, making our efforts visible goes a long way.

We usually say that chavismo has completely ignored the environment, that it shut down the ministry, and that it depends on high impact practices. But, the environment doesn’t seem present in the minds or discourse of those looking to replace it. What does the environmentalist community know about policies in this topic in, for instance, Plan País?

When Plan País was introduced early this year, it was bad news for us how the environment wasn’t included. However, instead of just complaining, an important group of professionals in the field (workers in NGOs and universities, together with the National Assembly Commission for Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change) got together to show how important the subject is. It can’t be just a marginal statement when it’s a fundamental part of sustainable development and quality of life. So an eight-page document was drafted, ending in the formal inclusion of environmental issues to Plan País. I was pleased by how representatives, experts in their fields, understood why the environment has to be considered in the national rebuilding process. It’s also fair to mention that, since 2016, the Commission for the Environment has been working hand in hand with technicians and experts, dedicating its efforts to place the environmental issues within the political and legislative debate. Later, a smaller team was in charge of working on a proposal under the same outline but in different areas, with action plans for the first 90 hours, 90 days and 90 weeks of a transitional government. This was after reviewing research material and documents that were ignored by environmental authorities in the past years. The most important actions focus on planning an environmental order of the territory, climate change, environmental management, environmental legislation and institutions, and biodiversity. They’re in tune with the Sustainable Development Objectives of the 2030 agenda. There’s also been proposals with municipal and global reach, written in each region. Will it be successful? It’ll depend on whether this can be executed or not, and how the civil society and universities participate. And political disposition.