Photo: EFE

Venezuelan Cities Are Losing One of Their Treasures: Their Trees

Venezuelan authorities and thoughtless neighbors raze the urban woodland, our cities’ green heritage, at a victor’s pace

This article is also published in Spanish in Cinco8

We see it every day: the trees in Venezuelan cities are disappearing. In some places, where huge trees once stood, they plant species that neither give shade nor cool the environment. Others are being pruned, and while pruning is necessary for the balance of the trees who lose some of their natural processes in the city, these are indiscriminate.

Joaquín Benitez, director of Sustainability of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, explains:

“In many cases, especially in Caracas, it’s seen as poor judgment. Pruning and clearing of trees is necessary for cities because of the risks associated with the trees themselves, but I think that there’s a lack of technical experience or proper guidelines and supervision which can justify the removal of a tree and not just the criteria of the one holding the chainsaw.”

By 2018, according to the Public Space Characterization Study by the Development Bank of Latin America, 1076 trees had been cut down in Caracas in 100 roadways (and there were 7066 left of the 14000 trees needed per eight to ten meters). In 2021, the deficit is more evident. According to the recent count by Ciudad Laboratorio, over 300 trees have disappeared in four of the five municipalities in the Metropolitan Area. This is just the capital, who knows how many trees have been cleared inland, where the use of timber for cooking food is now common in towns and cities.

The Root of the Problem

Venezuela has been urbanized with some hits and many misses. Tree planting wasn’t always planned using the same technical criteria, which would consider the purpose of the urban woodland and the conditions of the areas such as roads, buildings, and the daily routines of the citizens who commute or live in those areas. In other words, not all cities took their green spaces and the maintenance or inclusion of green elements into consideration in their planning and reorganization. Benitez says: “In many cases, it’s about taste and fads among urban developers, because trees become a fad. Mahogany trees, for instance, were a hit in El Cafetal, but they require a lot of resources from the street cleaning company because of their falling leaves. A miss, for example, was Los Jabillos Avenue: these trees (possumwood) gave shade and gave it a spectacular character, but it turns out that it’s one of the least recommended species to line roads and avenues because they break urban furniture. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, many acacia trees were planted, but they grow and crack very easily and they’re susceptible to disease. Ficus trees became fashionable in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but they strangle pipes and they even make their way into water tanks because they aggressively look for water…The problems arose later on and they started being tackled when the situations became extreme.”

Outside of Caracas, blunders are also quite clear: giant branches from saman trees go across several spots on the Autopista Regional del Centro; trees in Choroní are still in the outskirts of the town; in 2011, Maracaibo was already three million trees short. In Paraguaná, they still haven’t reforested and in several eastern cities they planted mango trees, even when the falling fruit posed a risk to pedestrians.

For environmental activist Cheo Carvajal, the sense of unity was also lost with the reorganization of the cities. At least in Caracas, the metropolitan vision became a municipal vision, many times reduced to a competition of buildings, street paving, and widening of highways, although they all seem to agree that the city had a tree surplus to be cut down. Carvajal recalls:

“Highway engineering achieved its maximum when they widened the Francisco Fajardo and Valle-Coche highways in 2015, done by Haiman El Troudi. They razed hundreds of trees with the clearance of the Ecosocialism Ministry and, what happened to all those mahogany trees they cut down? They spoke of seven hundred of them. Few specimens were replanted in La Carlota or the curb of Río de Janeiro Avenue and most of them didn’t take, because the way they moved them was wrong. What about the others? What happened to that timber? Was it used to make desks for public schools?:

A city’s reorganization also entails preserving what’s already growing. Carlos Peláez, biologist, ecologist, and member of Provita, says:

“Good phytosanitary maintenance is necessary, but it’s spasmodic here. Although the Ley de Bosques (Foresting Law) says that the service is the State’s responsibility, it seems that they neglect vegetation in all cities until elections are approaching, so then you start to see crews or some reforestation going on. The consequences of these spasms aren’t just cities with few trees, but also citizens who believe that trees are dirty, that they serve to hide delinquents, rip up the sidewalks, and break pipes. So when the decision to remove the tree is made, no one says that a new one has to be planted in its place.”

We’ve all seen it: neighbors who clear facades of buildings, houses, or stores so that the names are visible, to build parking space, or to avoid having to sweep up leaves, flowers, and fruit. So Caracas is heading to desertification by sections.

In 2021, with our cities urbanized and reorganized, the problem keeps growing: few people in the country understand the environmental service trees provide, especially urban woodland.

Bitter Fruits

Even the identity of the cities decays this way. Just take a look at what’s left of the “city of eternal spring” in sectors like Los Palos Grandes, Las Palmas, Las Acacias, El Cafetal, and Los Naranjos. Or how little blossoms or bears fruit in the “Garden city”. In Boca del Río, trumpet trees which would shelter fishermen’s conversations at day’s end, protect children playing in the afternoon, and allowed for the town to come together as a community, have disappeared.

Enilde Gotopo, researcher for the Centro de Investigación en Ecología de las Zonas Áridas (Arid Zone Ecology Research Center) of the Universidad Nacional Experimental Francisco de Miranda and member of Infalcosta, says:

“Here in Falcón, they deforested one of the green areas in the Indio Manaure Park to make way for a greenery design with palm trees. That’s the current trend now: they remove native trees and then plant a palm tree, without counting on the fact that wind speeds here are too high and can knock them down or uproot them. They’re looking for ornamental species or adult trees so that they look eye-catching, even though the survival rate is low.”

Gotopo adds that the scarce upgrades of the city’s avenues start with cutting down trees in the central aisle and sidewalks to plant other specimens which aren’t fit to withstand high radiation and low water environment. “Besides, they plant them, they water them the first week and then they leave them alone. Within a few weeks, the plants are dead,” says the researcher. 

Carvajal insists on the underlying problem: “Urban contexts always require more trees, never fewer. But there are trees here that aren’t seen as something that should be protected, as a living asset of the city, an active heritage, but as a problem which is better to minimize.”

Minimizing the problem means maximizing the worst consequence: one of the most megadiverse countries in the world with vegetated tropical cities is losing its biodiversity. “Trees relate to other living beings, so there’s urban biodiversity where you have trees and no proliferation of damaging fauna. Where there are trees, you’ll have a balance in the fauna that lives in the city. This can’t be lost,” explains Benitez. 

What’s looming is that Venezuela is running out of functional cities.

The Crooked Branch

Peláez also says something that everyone with common sense should know: “In tropical cities, you need to be cool and the difference in temperature under a tree makes people go out, find a job near their home so they can walk there, have a social life, and not have them depend on air conditioning for many activities. In other words, the coolness given by trees helps in adding quality of life for those who live in the city, having a social life and security in the areas where people know each other.”

For example, the Chinita Square and Monument in Maracaibo, inaugurated in 2004, was covered in purple coral trees, so Zulianos and tourists gained that space to spend their free time, since you’ll get 50% less radiation and up to ten degrees cooler temperature when you’re under a tree. 

But the wise urban concept of those spaces isn’t widespread across the country, despite what Peláez warns: “In cities like Caracas, the Coastal Range and areas with slopes, trees are essential to control water volumes. In torrid regions, when heavy rain falls, trees help lower the amount of water reaching the ground and decrease the speed and the overflowing of currents. They prevent landslides, faulting, and floods. They help to pump the water when the volume is too high.”

There’s a great example in Catuche: the bio-wall built by planting bamboo trees on the shores of the ravine after the rains of 1999, has worked to stop it from overflowing.

Yes, trees are an important environmental service for the citizens. The World Health Organization establishes that every place in the world needs to have one tree for every three people living there, because a tree in a city is much more than a green ornament that regulates micro-weather and noise, it also re-establishes environmental balance. A dense foliage tree is a biological controller that decreases polluting particles and thus, the risk of respiratory diseases. You only have to look at our streets to know they’re short on green. 

In terms of sustainability and maintainability, the discussion is just as important. Benitez insists: “Environmental literacy, promoting tree planting, recovering vegetation coverage, and protecting green spaces isn’t a dream for rich countries only. We can do it here too and do it well, an example is UCAB’s green roof. Let’s take this to the city, because you can’t consider that a city is headed towards sustainability if it doesn’t have a good proportion and handling of its green areas, because it’s been proven that green is fundamental, not only for its relationship with relaxation, but because we’ve been living and depending on plants and animals for centuries as a species all throughout our evolution.” 

Of course, applying these principles to Venezuelan cities will mean taking on the challenge of planting trees in popular areas, be it with green base platforms or pocket parks, like the ones which sprung up in Sucre municipality in Caracas until 2017, as a way to reduce the spaces for violence.

A tree is an important environmental service for the community, it truly is, but the people, the citizens, also have to know and believe it. Maybe picturing the scenario proposed by Peláez might help:

“Think about the post-oil era, what will Venezuela live off of? Tourism? Maybe. But, for example, what will a tourist see in Caracas? Barren and hot streets, tree stumps, and flooded Macarao. So, it might be a good idea to think that trees give Caracas an appeal that can be financially embraced, and this is also an environmental service. So we have to take care of them like we were taught in school.” 

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.