Maduro and his government boast of their country’s flourishing biodiversity and rich resources. However, their initiatives to develop industries based on extractivism and export have countered this narrative. While Maduro has defended the model of extraction as being a necessary stage of development in order to rejuvenate the economy, expanding production in the oil and mining industries have caused widespread environmental damage. With a lack of transparency from Maduro’s government on environmental data, experts are only estimating the extent of this damage.
The Cost of Oil
Economically, Venezuela has been dependent on oil for decades. However, the oil industry has produced an inordinate amount of pollution to contribute to ecological degradation. Because of the Venezuelan oil industry’s lack of resources to update infrastructure, Venezuela has experienced numerous oil spills, especially stemming from coastal refineries. This has led to contamination of ecosystems and dangerous conditions for the fishing industry. In addition to environmental contamination from oil spills, PDVSA is responsible for significant carbon emissions from the country, as it is one of twenty firms that produce a third of all carbon emissions.
Yet, Maduro and his government have shown an unwillingness to make an effort toward environmental consciousness or restoration. Starting in 2016, PDVSA announced it would no longer report oil spills. Maduro and his government have facilitated this movement toward a lack of transparency, preventing scientists and experts from examining oil spill areas and refusing to release information about clean up efforts. Therefore, external organizations and governments have been unaware of contaminations until surrounding ecosystems have already been damaged. The frequency of oil spills has also increased with increases in oil production. Maduro has encouraged increases in production to revive the pertrostate’s economy, including making deals with Iran and a potential agreement with the United States on the horizon. However, without improvements to the oil infrastructure, these production efforts will bring negative consequences to the environment.
The Value of Land
Because of declining revenue from the oil industry as a result of falling oil prices, Maduro has encouraged expansion of the mining industry. In 2016, Maduro promoted mining in the Orinoco Mining Arc, which contains gold, industrial diamonds, bauxite, and coltan. Since 2016, third party groups have overwhelmed the region with the hopes of enriching themselves with the profits from mineral extractions. These groups include private companies, state owned companies, gangs, paramilitary groups from Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil, and military groups from Venezuela. These groups conduct illicit extraction and export networks in the region to illegally obtain and sell the minerals.
Maduro’s government and military have been complicit in this system and benefit from it in several ways. First, state owned mining enterprises, like CAMIMPEG, obtain minerals from illicit mines and export them to other countries, like Turkey and the UAE. Additionally, Venezuelan armed forces, both army and national guard, play an important role in perpetuating illicit mining activity, as they sell fuels to gangs and guerilla groups and collect bribes at checkpoints on smuggling routes. Allowing the military to profit off the illegal mining industry is a significant way that Maduro secures loyalty from his security forces. He also maintains loyalty among local political leaders by offering each the administration and profits from certain gold mines to support local budgets. Distributing these mining profits aids Maduro in sustaining support.
This area, consisting of about 12% of Venezuelan land, also contains the protected lands, like Canaima National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. Therefore, the rapid increase in mining in this area has also led to rapid deforestation in the area. This is reflected in the data, which show that 84.7kha of primary forest were lost in 2016, the year Maduro announced the opening of the Orinoco Mining Arc. Comparatively, only 15.5kha of primary forest were lost in Venezuela in 2015. Tree cover loss in these years also substantially increased from 61.4kha lost in 2015 to 207kha lost in 2016, largely driven by commodity driven deforestation, as well as shifting agriculture. With the Orinoco Mining Arc primarily in the state of Bolívar, Bolívar had the most tree cover loss in Venezuela between 2016 and 2020, losing 158kha, compared to the average of 30.7kha. Both primary forest loss and tree cover loss have remained high since 2016 compared to the average from 2002 to 2015. While there are a variety of causes of deforestation in Venezuela, its connection to the growth of the mining industry is a significant factor.
Mining in the Orinoco Mining Arc also takes place on indigenous land. As a result, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their ancestral homes and take on dangerous work for little pay. While Maduro’s government frames their promotion of the mining industry as an inclusive program of national development, the reality is that indigenous peoples and their land protected in the International Labour Organization’s 196 Convention are being exploited.
The lack of annual and long-term statistics on environmental conditions prevents effective comparisons between past and present data and makes it very difficult to determine the extent of the environmental situation in Venezuela. Maduro’s government has closely restricted environmental research and data collection in the country over the past decade. With deteriorating humanitarian conditions, many researchers left the country. Researchers have also been restricted from entering the country or areas where environmental conditions need to be studied. Venezuela’s infrastructure also lacks the necessary instruments to collect data, with 70% of the weather stations damaged or out of service. While scientists have estimated forecasts about how climate change will affect Venezuela, Maduro’s policy of secrecy means they are only able to guess.