18 January 2023

Out-of-control mining fuels deforestation in Venezuela


Mining exploitation in Venezuela has doubled the rate of deforestation in five years. A phenomenon fueled by guerrillas in neighboring Colombia with the acquiescence of president Maduro’s government according to NGOs

by Matteo Cavallito


Deforestation in Venezuela is growing at an impressive rate under the pressure of indiscriminate mining, New Scientist wrote in recent days. The magazine said the loss of pristine forests is increasing at a rate of 170 percent per year. A phenomenon fueled in particular by the gold rush and government support.

“No one is seeing this destruction because it’s happening so fast that it’s impossible to measure,” Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, coordinator of Clima21, a Venezuelan environmental and human rights organization, told the magazine. “The environmental damage and the speed with which it’s happening is disastrous.” And this is not an isolated warning.

Serious consequences for the environment and people in the Orinoco area

Fueling deforestation in Venezuela is mainly the exploitation of the Orinoco mining area in the south of the country. Five years ago, the Spanish newspaper El País wrote last December, the government of President Nicolás Maduro authorized the exploitation of this area, which covers about 12 percent of the national territory. The management of mining activities was reportedly “totally opaque” with serious consequences for the environment and its inhabitants.

In 2022, the newspaper continues, “United Nations reports sounded the alarm about uncontrolled mining in the southern Orinoco, which has gone beyond environmental damage and has become a serious human rights crisis, with reports of labor and sexual exploitation, slavery, and the presence of criminal gangs and even the Colombian guerrilla group ELN, involved in the exploitation of gold, coltan, diamonds and bauxite in this vast region with the consent of Venezuelan authorities.”

NGOs accuse the government

Government complicity in the development of the phenomenon has been denounced by local NGO Fundaredes, among others. In a recent report, quoted by the U.S.-based organization Mongabay, the authors pointed to the growth of deforestation paired with an increase in the illegal activities of Colombian guerrillas. The government’s acquiescence, Fundaredes denounces, would stem from the need to compensate for the collapse of revenue from the domestic oil industry, which has long been in crisis due to U.S. sanctions suffered in recent years and mismanagement.

“The so-called Orinoco Mining Arc has been subjected to large-scale and unsupervised mining processes of various minerals exploited,” the report says. This is “a strategic action by the state to try to cover the revenue deficit resulting from the oil crisis, the dismantling of basic industries and misguided economic policies.”

Fundaredes also denounced the construction of illegal runways, used to take off and land planes involved in drug trafficking and mineral smuggling operations. A phenomenon which also affects other countries in Latin America.

The pace of deforestation in Venezuela has doubled in 5 years

According to Global Forest Watch, a project of the Washington-based nonprofit organization World Resources Institute, from 2001 to 2021 Venezuela lost 2.29 million hectares of tree cover, or 4.1 percent of the total. This decline produced about 1 billion tons of additional CO2 emissions. Over the same period, more than 550 thousand hectares of primary rainforest disappeared, a 1.4 percent decline from the beginning of the century.

According to estimates by Sociedad Venezolana de Ecología, quoted by Mongabay, since 2016, when Maduro ruled the start of mining operations in the Orinoco and the Colombian government and guerrillas signed their peace agreement, the average rate of deforestation has doubled.

“These two political events,” Mongabay writes, “aalso appear to have drastically changed the distribution of deforestation: shifting it from Venezuela’s northern urban areas and the plains bioregion, far to the south beyond the Orinoco River.” Between 2000 and 2015, the average annual loss was 43,267 hectares. From 2016 to 2020 the destruction of forested areas increased by 107 percent, exceeding 89 thousand hectares per year.