Enchanted by tales of El Dorado, the first conquistadors struck out in search of riches down the Orinoco river in 1531. Few returned. And those who did came back empty-handed. The same cannot be said of the region today. In Venezuela, faulty pipelines are quite literally bursting at the seams with crude oil, while militia groups vie for control over the country’s vast mineral wealth – all with devastating consequences for the environment.
One of the most eye-catching headlines to come out of Cop26 this month was the commitment by 141 countries, representing 90 per cent of the world’s forest coverage, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Venezuela was not among them – the only Amazon nation to shirk its responsibility for protecting the rainforest – even merely in principle. Conservation experts fear the wanton destruction of natural habitats by President Nicolás Maduro’s regime will leave behind a ravaged landscape, almost lunar in its barrenness and suitability for life.
“It’s ecocide,” said Francisco Dallmeier, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Sustainability. “It will be impossible to support people and societies under these kinds of unsustainable practices.”
The problem is complex, but it can largely be attributed to a miasma of economic mismanagement, hyperinflation, US sanctions and – somewhat counter-intuitively – falling oil production.
In 2019, the US administration headed by president Donald Trump slapped sanctions on Venezuela to pressure Maduro into resigning after a series of protests and human rights abuses. Despite holding the world’s largest proven oil reserves, exports of crude oil cratered and the industry plunged deeper into decline. Venezuelan oil production, which peaked at 3.5 million barrels a day in 1998, shrank to just 310,000 a day in August 2021 – not even enough to meet domestic demand.
Less production has not meant a less polluted environment, however. The state-run oil company PDVSA has struggled to maintain its critical infrastructure, causing spills and leakages, while the Venezuelan government has resorted to seeking out new sources of revenue, such as illegal mining.
But the rot had well and truly set in long before sanctions. “From 2010 to 2016, PDVSA was responsible for upwards of 50,000 separate crude oil spills. That’s not 50,000 gallons – that’s 50,000 separate incidents,” said Michael Eddy, acting deputy assistant administrator for the US Agency for International Development’s Latin America and Caribbean bureau in Washington, DC.
Eduardo Klein, an associate professor at Simon Bolívar University, studies environmental degradation through satellite imagery and has noticed a pattern of recurring oil spills, primarily in the coastal states of Zulia and Falcón.
“This is a continuous problem that has been there for decades,” he said. “The difference was that before 2010, the industry contained and controlled the amounts of hydrocarbon products they discharged into the sea.”
The eutrophication of Lake Maracaibo – a process through which the excessive richness of nutrients in a still body of water causes algae blooms – is a useful, albeit startling, tool for keeping track of spillages. Klein likened the lake’s 10,000-kilometre network of underwater pipelines to a pack of spaghetti, with each piece stacked in rows, layer upon layer. Whenever there are leaks, long black oil slicks crisscross the green surface and reveal their multiple points of origin. At their greatest extent, these oil slicks can stretch 60km offshore.
To put this into perspective, last summer, an oil spill from the El Palito refinery in Carabobo state emptied up to 26,000 barrels of crude oil into the Caribbean Sea, or enough oil to cover the capital city of Caracas two-and-a-half times over, said Klein.
Yet rather than simply retiring troublesome pipelines and dilapidated oil refineries, the Maduro regime has doubled down: it sees the fossil fuel industry as its greatest asset. In fact, the country went so far as to issue its own oil-backed cryptocurrency in 2018 (the excitement around which has long since petered out). But short of the ability to export its crude oil, the government is struggling to fund itself. This has forced Venezuela to tap into its gold reserves, resulting in depletion to their lowest level in 50 years.
The Maduro regime’s response was to set aside 12 per cent of Venezuela’s territory for mining bauxite, coltan, diamonds and, above all, gold. In total, the so-called Orinoco Mining Arc encompasses an area the size of Portugal. The area includes 59 mining sites in Canaima, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is rich in biodiversity and home to many unique indigenous communities.
To the west of the arc, along the border with Colombia, there is an overlap between illegal mining operations and the presence of armed militants. “Mining sites are exploited by state and non-state groups, including the Colombian ELN and Farc dissidents who promote violence, slave labour, prostitution and the disintegration of indigenous social structures,” said Cristina Burelli, director at the V5Initiative, a non-profit organisation.
Farc, an internationally recognised terrorist organisation, entered into a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016, only for a splinter group of dissidents to reconstitute themselves in Venezuela. ELN, another guerrilla group from the decades-long Colombian conflict, has also found refuge in the country in exchange for its armed support of Maduro. The predatory practices of Farc and ELN, as well as their mismanagement of the territory, has exacerbated environmental degradation, said Eddy.
Mercury is commonly used in gold mining because it is an effective solvent of most metals. Its low boiling point makes it highly useful for extracting gold from its ore through a process of amalgamation and distillation. As illegal mining has spread in the region, mercury-laden tailings and sediment from the mines have bled into waterways, poisoning drinking water and wildlife.
An explosion in the number of malaria cases across the wider region has accompanied this trend. When trees and areas are cleared for mining, it creates pools of stagnant water, which are breeding grounds for malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
“The malaria epidemic doesn’t stay within the borders of Venezuela,” explained Burelli. “For the past few years, we’ve seen malaria all over South America after being imported by Venezuelan migrants.” Between January and October 2019, the World Heath Organisation reported 323,392 cases of malaria in Venezuela.
The best way to shut down these mines is for “all OECD countries to take note that Venezuelan gold… is in its entirety illicit and may even be funding international terrorism,” she argued.
In recent months, it would appear some governments and politicians have begun to heed that message. In October, Switzerland, the world’s largest gold refining hub, told its refineries to step up audits on bullions arriving from the United Arab Emirates due to the Gulf state’s lax rules around the provenance of precious metals. That following week, the Wall Street Journal reported Turkey had been added to the Financial Action Task Force’s list of countries requiring special regulatory oversight, given “strategic deficiencies” in the country’s ability “to counter money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing”.
The US senate foreign relations committee also issued a bipartisan resolution condemning illicit gold mining and its downstream supply chain. Several Republican senators have gone further and drafted legislation to curb these activities by empowering the US to take direct action against those complicit in mining and distribution.
“I’ve long worried about the use of gold as a monetary instrument of illicit finance. The Maduro regime traffics gold and precious metals to fuel its malign activities, including by exporting it abroad,” said Texas senator Ted Cruz, who accuses Turkey of purchasing nearly a billion dollars of Venezuelan gold in 2018 alone.
As a pariah nation, sustainability experts warn that Venezuela must not be dismissed as a lost cause and be allowed to slip under the radar unchecked. “The oil spill in El Palito was two times the size of the spill in Mauritius,” said Klein, in reference to a 2020 incident that attracted global media attention. “In the international community, it’s easy to say this is just another problem for Venezuela. There are human rights violations, protests and political prisoners, and this is another example of that – but these oil spills will have very long-term effects.” The Venezuelan Society of Ecology said it will take more than 50 years for ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, to recover from the spills.