Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 by the support of one third of the electorate; Venezuelan democracy was highly discredited, the abstention rate was high and the traditional parties in disarray. Because Chavez “preached plain talking anti-neo liberal rhetoric in the Barrios”, but talked pragmatically of the ‘Third Way’ with representatives of international finance his support was “regardless of socio-economic or demographic characteristics” (Buxton, 2001, p205-6). On the day of his inauguration (Feb. 1999), he announced plans for a referendum on constitutional reform.
By December 1999 the constitution had been written (by the new National Assembly elected to do so) and was endorsed by the people on the 15th (71% in favour). The new constitution was riddled with radical clauses that came from the involvement of the grass-roots in the drafting procedure. These included chapters on indigenous and environmental rights and, crucially, land reform. In 2001, a radical land law built upon the sentiment of the new constitution.
By 2002 Venezuela had become extremely polarised due to the redistributive efforts of the Hugo Chavez Administration. The traditional elite organised the overthrow of Chavez and annulled the new constitution and laws. The people restored him to power within 48 hours. When Chavez returned to the Miraflores palace he declared to the crowds outside that they (the oligarchy) could “disagree with him but they could not disagree with the constitution” (Bartley, Ó Briain, 2003).
Inequality is increasing world-wide with the notable exception of South America where a coalition of countries, with Venezuela at its heart, is making significant gains in living standards for the majority. Issues such as economic growth, poverty alleviation, food sovereignty, biodiversity conservation, and empowerment of disenfranchised people are all very much interrelated. Oil-based economic growth since 2003 has been crucial to the large reductions in poverty, but what are the environmental and long-term costs of this growth? The new constitution prioritises indigenous and environmental rights but to what extent has this been adhered to?
In this essay I will examine the extent to which land reform has been carried out and the likely environmental impact this has had. I will look at the extent to which environmental concerns have taken priority over resource extraction in environmentally sensitive areas. The degree to which deforestation rates have increased is also of great importance.
Since 2002 ‘Socialism of the 21stcentury’ has replaced ‘The Third Way’ and new institutions, such as the environmentally-oriented Missions ‘Zamora’, ‘Arbol’ and ‘Agro’, have been set up in order to by-pass the old state bureaucracy in the pursuit of the government’s agenda. The priorities and achievements of the Revolutionary Government have had a huge impacted on the environment of one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries. The new constitution and laws aimed at protecting the environment, native peoples and campesinos (agricultural workers) have great potential for environmental protection and have restrained exploitation of natural resources in some instances. Whilst the revenue from mega-projects has been used to fund social programs they have been pursued in much the same way as before 1999.
Regional integration has been prioritised over conservation, although fortunately most of the larger schemes have been aborted due to being economically unviable. The reform of the agricultural system has meant that jobs have been created in rural areas and food production has replaced imports, with environmental benefits accruing from de-urbanising the population and reducing food miles. Improved land-ownership structures has promoted greater environmental stewardship and associated gains in biodiversity and efficiency. Deforestation rates seem to have continued to be unacceptably high, especially due to high diversity and the pristine nature of the tropical forests being logged. Mission Arbol has been successful as a reforestation program, although is not a viable alternative to the preservation of the remaining ancient tropical forest.
Environmental Concerns in Venezuela: Past and Present
Venezuelais one of 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries, its high biodiversity due to the convergence of four important bio-geographic regions: the Amazon, The Andean, The Caribbean and The Guianese. It is among the World’s top 20 for biodiversity in plant, bird, reptilian, and amphibian species (Zent, 2007, p93). A major portion of this diversity, including 75% of the plant species (and over half of avian and mammalian species (Bevilacqua, 2002)), is located in the Guyana Region which is 83% forest. Twenty-three of the Venezuela’s twenty-eight indigenous ethnic groups are found here (Zent, 2007, p93).
For the last 90 years Venezuela has been dominated by oil; “in 1922 [Venezuela] suddenly became a fountain of oil” (Galeano, 1971, p93) and its economic development has been based on this wealth. By 2010 the Venezuelan Orinoco had 513, billion barrels of oil, making it by far the largest source of hydrocarbons in the world (Persaud, 2010). The long term environmental consequences of this include 1) the concentration of environmental impacts (Note1), 2) high resource consumption and inefficiency and 3) limited capacity to incorporate a large portion of Venezuela’s population and environments into its economic model (leading to sub-utilisation of important regions, and deterioration of rural areas) (Gutman, 1998, p224). The combination of high bio-diversity and huge mineral resources make environmental concerns extremely important in Venezuela.
In addition to its high diversity and vast mineral wealth, “Venezuela was second last [in Latin America] in the percentage of agricultural land redistributed (up until 1979) and last in terms of the percentage of workers who benefitted from that redistribution” (200,000 families) (Wilpert, 2006, p251). “[B]ig commercial plantations were untouched, [by this land-reform] and such generous indemnities were paid to the latifundistas that they bought new land in other areas with the profits” (Galeano, 1971, p128). When Chavez came to power 70% of agricultural land was owned by 5% of the population, second only to Brazil in concentration (Ellis, 2011b).
Latin America experienced dramatic rural to urban migration from the middle of the 20thcentury, but in Venezuela it was especially pronounced: the rural population fell from 69% in 1941 to only 12% in 2001. Agricultural workers earning only 20-30% of the average wage of other sectors resulted in the area of cultivated land falling from more than 2.3 million hectares in 1988 to 1.6 million by 1998(Fredrico, 2011). Venezuela became characterized by a highly urbanized population concentrated north of the Orinoco in half a dozen cities and low overall population density (Gutman, 1998, 206). This Urban population now has a larger environmental foot-print, due to the nature of urban living, whilst the depopulated forested and agricultural areas have been exploited for elite gain. “In the last forty years, about 80% of Venezuela’s estimated deforestation has occurred north of the Orinoco River, where most of the major population centres are located” (GFW, 2007). Foresting practices enabled quick profits to be made at the expense of long-term management: pre-1989 almost 50% of logging was annual with no reforesting requirements. In addition policies encouraged forest impoverishment through non-selective stumpage fees (Gutman, 1998, p224).
Over half the total territory of Venezuela is protected in some way (ibid, p210) but its record on environmental standards, pollution control, health hazards, biodiversity management and impact assessment has been poor (ibid, p221). In spite of a well-developed legal framework environmental capability in Venezuela was regarded as low due to limited resources, little regard for the environment in economic planning and non-compliance with public regulations (ibid, p222).
The 1999 Constitution represented an important change on in terms of the natural environment, as it made clear that the country should follow a path to Sustainable Development (Embassy, 2011). Whilst Article 107 makes Environmental Education obligatory Chapters 8 and 9 are entirely dedicated to the rights of the environment and native peoples. Article 125 guarantees native representation in the National Assembly. Articles 304 to 307 cover issues such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘optimum’ land use, land tenancy, and states that ‘the predominance of large estates is contrary to the interests of society’.
In 2001 Chavez passed by decree 49 laws including the Land Reform Law. This law limited the size of private estates to 5000 hectares for low quality land and 50 for high. A subsequent law in 2005 reduced these sizes but made the designation more flexible and at the discretion of the National Land Institute. Since then, the Integral Agricultural Health Act of 2008 placed emphasis on sustainable tropical agriculture based on the science of agro-ecology and the education and well-being of the producers (MPPAT, 2011).
In 1998 Venezuela had a highly urbanised population, extremely concentrated land and wealth, and relied on imports for 70% of its food (Ellis, 2011b). It had a high proportion of protected areas with a poor record of protection and a history of mineral extraction benefitting only the elite. The new constitution and laws indicate an intention to change this.
Land Reform and Biodiversity
According to Wilpert, Venezuela is “currently trying to pursue an ambitious land reform program” which is “one of the most controversial policy endeavours” of the Chavez administration (2006, p246). Predominately state-owned land at first but increasingly latifundios (huge private estates), where they are found to be ‘under-used’, are being put under the control of impoverished campesinos. Whilst the majority of the previously state-owned land was being farmed similarly before, the function of redistributed latifundio land has changed dramatically.
In total the Zamora mission, an institution created in 2003 in order to carry out land-reform, had distributed 4 million hectares of mostly state-owned land by 2005 (Nakantani, 2008). By the end of 2008, 2.7 million hectares had been recovered from latifundios of which campesinos had been given title deeds and contracts for a total of 1.9 million hectares (Toussaint, 2010). In total 1,650,000 campesinos had officially gained land by 2006 (Wilpert, 2006). The redistribution of 4 million hectares represents 4.5% of Venezuela territory and 19% of the total agricultural land (world stats, 2011). Venezuelan peasant organisations claim that over half of this land was previously farmed by campesinos (Wilpert, 2006, p257). The above none-the-less demonstrates that very significant levels of land-reform have been carried out in the last 10 years.
Unlike previous governments, the post 1999 administration “has offered [campesinos] credit and technical assistance” (Denvir, 2008). The Venezuelan Academy of Agricultural Sciences “recognizes the importance of ‘small… producers, indigenous communities, peasants, and fisher-folk’” (López, 2011). In March 2011 Chavez announced $372 million to be spent on agriculture and land (Pearson, 2011). This was then followed up by $2.3 billion to “be used to promote national agricultural production and food sovereignty through Mission Agro Venezuela (Boothroyd, 2011). In conjunction, Mission Vuelvan Caras (Mission ‘return to the country-side’) has offered to 325,000 scholarships for “agricultural training with an emphasis on co-operation” (Fredrico, 2011). This demonstrates a genuine commitment to a new kind of agricultural production.
Venezuela’s policy of providing campesinos with agro-ecology training and land of their own is crucial to ecological conservation, as Matson concludes that it “appears that food security and biodiversity conservation cannot reasonably be addressed independently” and that the “problem of food insecurity is a matter not of total availability but one of access, political power, and equity” (2011). Also, “a meta-analysis found that alternative agriculture increases biodiversity [by] an average of 30% more species and 50% more individuals”. Furthermore, “small farms almost always produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms” (many authors as in Matson, 2011) and “secure land tenure, can lead to higher and more stable production from family farms due to [labour intensive] practices that minimize and reduce degradation… and reliance on industrial inputs” (ibid.). This shows the many links between land reform and environmental stewardship.
Of five factors driving extinctions, “habitat loss and degradation may be the most significant cause” (Hanski, as in Matson, 2011). Furthermore, “intensification—increasing yields per unit labour or unit capital—can strongly encourage greater deforestation” (Note3) and so “maximizing productivity per unit land area… with increased labour would… do more to avoid agricultural land expansion” and “would lessen rural unemployment and urban in-migration”. Matson continues “encouraging re-ruralization and urban agriculture will be key areas of focus” to both conservation and food sovereignty (2011). This shows how Venezuela’s efforts at land reform may slow the pressure to clear land for agriculture.
High levels of cooperation with Cuba and Brazil have characterised post 1999 Venezuela. These countries “appear to have taken sustainable regional food security as a serious goal” (ibid.). “Reports indicate that produce for the capital city of Havana is almost entirely supplied by alternative agriculture in, or on the periphery of, the city itself.” “In terms of biodiversity and agriculture in Cuba, some farms have up to 180 species under cultivation, and integrated poly-cultures appear to be becoming the norm” (Funes, as in Matson, 2011). In Venezuela “access to land has been slowly extended in urban zones thanks to the Committees of Urban Lands, ruled by the Law of February 4, 2002” (Nakantani, 2008). Venezuela’s growing relations with other Latin American countries appears beneficial to land reform and urban agriculture, and hence also for the natural environment.
The continuing reform of land ownership in Venezuela is important environmentally in several ways: reducing environmental impact of population through de-urbanisation, reduction of food miles, increasing efficiency and biodiversity of agricultural land, and the slowing of land clearance. However, this reform is jeopardised by the on-going assassination of campesino leaders. On October 2010, two men were sentenced to 17 and 9 years for the assassination of campesino leader Nelson Lopez (Ellis, 2011b). This was the first of such prosecutions despite 300 murders since the Land Law of 2001. On June 8th 2011 peasant collectives organized 10,000 people to march on the National Assembly to demand justice (Sprague, 2011). The extent to which these demands are met is crucial. According to Elías Jaua (former Minister of Agriculture and Land) “in the last 2 years there have only been a few [assassinations] and they have been resolved by the police, the physical perpetrators detained and even some of the intellectual perpetrators behind them” (2011).
Mining, Mega-Projects and Conservation
“The new rights sanctioned by the 1999 constitution have remained merely words and have not contributed to resolving the grave environmental conflicts” (García-Guadilla, 2009) (Note 5). Three projects started under the previous administration have been given the go-ahead by the Bolivarian administration: The mining of the Imataca Forest Reserve (Note 6), the coal extraction in la sierra Perijá and the construction of electricity cables to Brazil. According to Denvir, the latter was completed after the Pemon (Note 7) were promised land titles and economic development assistance, and the communities went on to play a major role defining the indigenous rights provisions in the Venezuelan Constitution (2008).
One of Chavez’s key foreign policy goals has been Latin American integration and is a keen advocate of the Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana (iirsa). Iirsa consists of 507 projects which involve the “construction of large infrastructure works like lines of communication and transport (motorways, damns, gas and water pipelines)… some of which would be located in zones considered extremely fragile and bio-diverse by MacElhiny (García-Guadilla, 2009) (Note 8). Two examples are the construction of Puerto America and Puerto Sucre and the associated infrastructure for exporting hydrocarbons. The now mothballed, ‘Gran Gasoducto del Sur’ is mega-plan to build 8,000km of pipeline through the amazon basin and would have destroyed of highly valuable rainforest. “Lamentably the ecosystem was not the principal reason the projected was discontinued” (BBC Mundo, as in ibid.) (Note 9). However, President Chávez did “suspended all new coal projects in la sierra Perijáfollowing protests led by indigenous groups in 2007” (Suggett, 2011).This highlights a number of mixed responses to environmental concerns by the Hugo Chavez administration, in different situations.
The “synergistic loss of biological, agricultural and cultural diversity” has become well established in the academic literature and increasingly in policy oriented discourse (Zent, 2007, p92). The Hoti (Note 10) are thought to have “considerable impact on the composition, diversity and structure of the Maigualida forests” where they live and which are extremely diverse (Zent, 2002). The highest tree diversity recorded in the Guyana Shield region is in close proximity to Hoti population centres (Zent, 2007, p101). Zent believes that it is necessary to integrate the conservation of both as well as directly incorporate the native people in the conservation program (2007, p104). “As a result of [post 1999 Legislation] Venezuela may be considered to have the most progressivelegislation with regards to Indian Land rights in all of Latin America, but in terms of implementation little has been achieved” (ibid., p107). The success of the Hugo Chavez Administration in terms of environmental policies depends on the ability to turn the ideals it articulated leading up to 1999 into reality.
Deforestation “surged dramatically” in the years leading up to 2002 in the Venezuelan Guyana region (Bevilacqua, 2002) and increased dramatically from 2005-7 in all three height categories. This was especially true of Amazonas whilst deforestation in Bolivar remained at a high level. The highest rates in 2007 were in the states of Portugesa and Monegas (INE, 2010). Government spending on environmental protection (as a proportion of the total) averaged only of 78% of 1998 levels between 1999 and 2003. It then climbed to an average of 134% of 1998 levels between 2004 and 2007 (INE, 2010, p). Between 2002 and 2007 the Government designated approximately 20 hectares a year for conservation (ibid.). Whilst the government shows a willingness to fund environmental protection when possible (Note 11) it is reluctant to forego the revenue that it earns from the destruction of ecologically invaluable forest.
1999 Constitution v Other Priorities
As the World’s population increases, 800 million people are malnourished today. Malnutrition and hunger are currently more related to poverty and inequitable food access than to inadequate food production per se (Mason, 1997). Given Venezuela’s high reliance on imported food, and the pressure to clear diverse forest for agriculture this makes Food Sovereignty a central issue to environmental concerns. The fact that much of the reformed land was already farmed by campesinos none-the-less represents advancement in security for these people and associated productivity and diversity gains are to be expected. The figures from Toussaint (2010) indicate land previously under-used and their redistribution can be expected to have produced still greater gains.
“Constitutional reforms in [Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia] have sought to mark a new beginning and to set up new, more democratic and more inclusive political orders” (Pannizza , 2009, p253-4).
Many Latin American governments are now aligned with Indigenous and Afro-Latin American organisations’ which [protect] ‘the environment for the whole of mankind’ (Guardiola-Rivera, 2010, p12). However, the structure of Venezuela's environmental movement stands in sharp contrast with Ecuador's Ecologismo Popular (Denvir, 2008), one of the region’s most militant movements (Kirby, 2003, p181).
Left militants have “sought to convince indigenous peoples of their primary ‘class’ identity as urban workers or, more often, rural campesinos. Once the left got into power, they were promised, their progress would be assured” (Kirby, 2003, p173). It seems that Venezuela’s small indigenous population (2%) is punching above its weight. They now have a chapter in the constitution and the right to representation in the National Assembly. The Pema gained concessions over the electricity development and there have been examples of delays and suspensions of mining on indigenous lands (Suggett, 2008, 2011).
There is a long standing concern with the environment in Venezuela, which has a historically high level of investment in environmental education and research, a history of natural scientists and environmentally conscious public figures (Gutman, 1998, p216). However, the largely urban environmental movement of the 70s made “no attempt to set up a political party instead a general greening of public opinion was pursued” (Munck, 2003, p154). Now “the great ideological heterogeneity and class differences, has hampered the formulation of collective proposals and has contributed to estrangement between different social movements that in the past were articulated around strategic alliances of environmentalists” (García-Guadilla, 2010). The polarised nature of present day Venezuelan politics has left the environmental movement disoriented.
The nationalization of the Orinoco Oil Belt in 2007 was designed to further the goals of the“diversification of commercial relations” and the “assertion of national ‘sovereignty’” (Ellner, 2010). Hellinger believes “one of the main achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution has been recovery of national sovereignty over the subsoil” (2011). “For the very first time in the history of the country the oil rent is used to improve the living conditions of the poor” (Nakantani, 2008). “Millions of Venezuelans have been lifted out of poverty and extreme poverty since 2003” and in addition essential services are now available free of charge (Weisbrot, 2008). These advances in living standards have been funded by increased revenue from the extraction of heavy oil and other minerals. Whilst this is commendable these gains have come at the cost of continuing the previous’ administration’s environmentally destructive practices.
The pursuit of mega-projects regardless of the environmental cost will potentially destroy large amounts of irreplaceable diversity, to the detriment of Venezuela and The World. Venezuela is undoubtedly threatened, and economic integration with neighbouring countries may well be a valid defence, but environmental considerations should be taken into account. Venezuela has the biggest reserves of natural gas in South America (INE, 2010) but plans to export gas, oil and electricity through tropical forest should be abandoned. Electricity can be exported through marine cables causing minimal environmental damage whilst gas should be used domestically in place of petroleum derivatives, so that more petroleum can be exported. In general endogenous development should take the place of the construction of export infrastructure. According to Rangel in Venezuela "over the next few years, the public transport system will be shifted to function on gas" (Rangel, 2009). However, in mid-2009 Chávez backed down on his announced plan to increase gasoline prices (Ellner, 2011)something that would have facilitated a transition to natural gas.
While it is true that the money from coal extraction has been used by Chavez for positive social works, the problem has to do with cost and benefit (Hinestroza, 2006). “Chávez’s administration has promoted a development model that carries out large-scale mining, infrastructure, and agricultural projects under majority control of the state, with better treatment of the workers in these projects and a large portion of the profits allocated to social programs (Suggett, 2011). However, “when greater interests such as mining profits, border security, and food production come into play, the rights of the indigenous peoples have been subordinated to the stability of the ruling party” (ibid.).
Some mining permit suspensions have been declared and compensation negotiated due to environmental/ indigenous protests and concerns (Suggett, 2008, 2011). After suspending all new coal mining in la sierra Perijá,Chavez declared that “if the government discovers a method of extracting the coal without harming the forest or the indigenous communities that would be an option in the future” (ibid). Much depends on what ‘harming’ means. The Chavez administration has not prioritised biodiversity conservation per se, despite the rhetoric. Increased deforestation and renewed mining permits in ecologically sensitive areas pose a threat to tropical forests and native peoples typical of more reactionary governments, unfortunately common among the mega-diverse countries of The World.
The reform of four million hectares of agricultural land, and the associated commitment to alternative agriculture, is probably the greatest environmental achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution. Unlike the extractive industry, where the state has taken the role previously carried out by multinational corporations, this reform has meant significant changes on the ground. Alternative agriculture is more productive and more diverse, and if efforts to de-urbanise the population are successful both reliance on food imports and pressure to clear forest would be reduced (Matson, 2011). The recent prosecution of assassins should facilitate continued progress in this area.
The development model remains unchanged for the most part (Nakatani, 2008) but profits from the extractive industry are now being invested in society with undoubted benefits in the short and long term (Weisbrot, 2008). The same cannot be said for the continued pursuit of 20th-century-style mega-projects and regional integration infrastructure that pays no heed to environmental concerns. For the sake of invaluable biodiversity (as well as culture), these plans should be aborted and regional cooperation pursued through different means.
A break-down of deforestation levels and land reform into the various different biomes in Venezuela would give a more accurate picture of the specific threats posed by mega-projects and mining activities. This could be combined with an examination of Mission Arbol’s achievements, which promises to repair some of the damage caused by human activities. An examination of the impact of marine reforms is also essential to a complete picture of the threats to Venezuela’s natural resources. The subsidy of petrol and other commodities, the importation of luxury goods, the approach to waste management and pollution, and other economic policies are all of great concern to the environment. Of paramount importance is an examination of environmentally conscientious regional integration alternatives.
Jack Johnston is studying towards an MA in Interdisciplinary Latin American Studies at Newcastle University, UK.
Note1: Due to the concentration of population, wealth and power in a few locations and social groups.
Note2: The Zamora mission had distributed 4 million hectares of land by 2005 (Nakantani, 2008), it aimed to recuperate 6 million hectares of latifundio (Fredrico, 2011). Up until 2004, 2 million hectares of state-owned land had been redistributed but 1.5 million of the 2 million distributed in 2005 was meant to come from previously private property (Wilpert, 2006, p257). By the end of 2008, 2,675,732 hectares had been recovered from latifundios of which campesinos had been given title deeds and contracts for a total of 1,862,247 hectares (Toussaint, 2010). In total 1,650,000 campesinos had officially gained land by 2006 (Wilpert, 2006).
Note 3: The basic explanatory mechanism is rooted in elementary economics and illustrates the dangers of an analysis that does not look beyond a technical production context. An increase in labor or capital efficiency encourages in-migration of new agriculturalists and encourages farmers to increase forest clearing, due to the fundamental economic pressure to take advantage of successful high-yielding practices. In contrast, intensification that increases yields per unit area, but requires more labor, was found to generally avoid spurring in-migration and expansion.
Note 4: Among the reasons cited for this relationship are: (1) multiple cropping; (2) more efficient use of irrigation; (3) relatively higher labour quality and supervision (likely due to the use of family labour with a greater stake in farm success rather than alienated outside workers), and (4) non-purchased inputs as opposed to the agrochemicals of large-scale intensive agriculture.
Note 5: “Los nuevos derechos sancionados en la Constitución de 1999, se han quedado en el texto y no han contribuido a resolver los graves conflictos ambientales” (García-Guadilla, 2009).
Note 6: The 3.8 million hectare Imataca Forest has been a national reserve since 1963.
Note 7: An indigenous people living in remote areas of Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela.
Note 8: “construcción de grandes obras de infraestructura como vías de comunicación y transporte (carreteras, represas, gasoductos e hidrovías)… las cuales se localizarían en zonas sumamente frágiles y biodiversas que en opinión de MacElhiny (García-Guadilla, 2009)
Note 9: “Lamentablemente, lo ecológico no fue la razón principal por la que se detuvo el proyecto” (BBC Mundo, as in ibid.).
Note 10: An indigenous Venezuelan tribe.
Note 11: The 2002-3 period was marked by economic hardship that resulted primarily from the attacks of the opposition.
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The Environmental Policies of the Hugo Chavez Administration