Electronic Bilingual Review       Nº 7     August 1996
Environmental problems in Venezuela
Prepared by María Gabriela González
and Juan Nagel for the Ann Arbor,
Michigan Nucleus*

For the last years, he deterioration of the environment, has been a most important issue for first world countries. Ironically, in Venezuela -a country having been classified as one of the six "megadiverse" countries of Latin America, because it is deemed as one of the ten most important places in the world in terms of conservation of biodiversity- the debate on the environmental problems has not been as strong.

The purpose of this paper has been to present a brief diagnosis of the environmental problems being faced by Venezuela, their causes, their relevance for development and their possible solutions. In the first part some arguments are shown in favor of the environmental policy, with an emphasis on their importance for development. A sketch follows of the problems related to the management of aquifer, mining and agricultural resources, as well as to institutional affairs determining the effectiveness of public and private management in all these areas. Last, conclusions are given with certain recommendations.

I- Environmental Policy and Development
The improvement and conservation of the environments, in opposition to what was thought some decades ago, does not hinder the economic development process. On the contrary, environment and development go hand in hand. As countries develop, the possibilities of improving the environment grow. Besides, since the most needed social classes are found in regions with environmental problems, effective environmental policies help to alleviate poverty by generating employment and improving the workers' productivity and the condition of nearby soils and waters.

To give an example, pollution may cause health problems because of diverse factors as continuous exposition to solar radiation, malnutrition or illnesses. In the same manner, water pollution is damaging to fishing and tourist activities, and soil salinization reduces drastically its productivity. When attacking environmental problems one also attacks the causes of socioeconomic problems such as these and the ground is laid for sustained and harmonious development.

Environmental policies are important also for strategic reasons. The degradation of the environment entails negative external consequences for other countries. Currently, there is a great number of organizations being ready to finance environmental reparation projects; there are other initiatives, also, leading first world countries to grant economic benefits in exchange for environmental care. The protection of the biodiversity of our tropical forests -in view of the value they have for medical investigation and for the production of medicines- as well as the caring of other environmental problems could mean that Venezuela could "sell" ecology and related activities, such as ecotourism, for instance.

II- Venezuela's Environmental Situation:
The Problem of Managing Fresh Water- In Venezuela, most of the population and a great portion of industrial activity are located in regions with scarce natural water sources -two thirds of our country's water, without including the State of Amazon, are found in the States of Bolívar and Táchira. The conservation of existing resources has vital importance for their effective management, but the lack of conservation and efficient use policies are as guilty of the scarcity of water as is the population concentration. It is in this area where most government efforts should concentrate.

One of the main problems in water service lies in the collection processes' deficiencies. In 1988 INOS [the central Water Agency] invoiced 37% of used water and collected only 71% thereof. The distortion generated by the processes lead to exhaustion of resources. There should be no surprise in the fact that fresh water consumption in Venezuela -some 440 per head per day- is twice as much as the accepted general standard. Deficiencies collection, also, results in interruptions of service and, for some towns, in total lack of it.

This situation has evolved during recent years with the regionalization and/or privatization of water service in many locations. In 1990, Hidroven (regulating federal agency) was created and the service, as such, was divided into independent companies that try to increase the fees to reflect costs. We do not have current information on this process' evolution, although we feel that the initial establishment of more sincere fees has been recently abandoned losing the few gains had. The fee structure must be realistic when considering that water is essential to health. A solution could be to create a fee system whereby all user would have access to a minimum basic service, and from there on to implement increased fees by consumption brackets.

Other than the excessive use, the Northern region of Venezuela shows great problems of pollution in waters sources. The extraction of oil, food processing, textile industries and heavy steel and aluminum industries are, and have been, highly polluting activities in our country. Toxic waste treatment systems have only being partially implemented. However, even if acceptable water treatment systems were installed, there is years old accrued pollution, to be treated with highly expensive technology. The assistance of international organizations and multilateral agencies is vital in this regard, and should be sought.

In view of the fact that most pollution problems are founds in the Lakes of Valencia and Maracaibo, we will now present some interesting data on each basin's problems.

Lake of Valencia:

  • The concentration of industries in a water reservoir having no outlets nor natural drainage capacity are the Lake's most serious problem.
  • Although more than 70% of the industries around the Lake have installed treatment plants, many of them do not operate adequately. The Lake has been polluted during many years of ecological mistreatment prior to the adoption of these measures; without a "resuscitation" process for the Lake, it could be effectively dead before the end of the century.
  • Pollution, lack of drainage and excessive affluence -in 1978, the Cabriales river was deviated to the Lake- have raised the Lake's level, threatening towns, industries and plantations along its shores.

Lake Maracaibo:

  • - Most pollution is created by oil extraction and transportation.
  • - Municipal and industrial effluents -mostly petrochemical- contribute to the Lake's pollution.
  • - Only one third of polluting industries have waste treatment equipment.
  • - The Channel's dredging allowing the access of high draught vessels from the Gulf of Venezuela have contributed to the Lake's salinization, seriously damaging fishing activities in the area.

We must mention the work having been done until now:

In order to treat these two basins, the Ministry of the Environment has received significant assistance from international entities (the European Community) and from regional non governmental organizations (NGOs).

Clearly, the contamination of water sources is a typical problem of the excessive use of pollutants. Economic incentives should contribute to lower the pollution levels to an optimal point. In this sense, a suggestion would be to establish an environmental taxing system based on the pollution level. Also, fines and/or taxes should be imposed to discourage highly polluting activities and to promote substitution by other more ecological techniques.

Problems Related to Mining Activities
Gold extraction activities in the Guyana zone have resulted in significant mercury pollution in water. The appropriate use of mercury should not cause environmental problems and is a safe and effective way ox extracting gold. However, the indiscriminate use of it affects the water sources nourishing agricultural, cattle raising and fishing activities. To give an example, a study of drawn fish in the region of Guayana found that the mercury levels in the fish livers were seven times higher than the acceptable level. For humans, excess of mercury is a serious problem leading to many brain, motor and skin diseases.

Two are the main causes for this phenomenon. The first is the indiscriminate sale of mercury, both in Venezuela and Brazil. The second is the result of the scarce border watch which adds to the presence of hundreds of illegal miners operating in our country without any concern whatsoever for the environmental damage caused by them.

To prohibit the sale of mercury would only increase smuggling of it and would not solve the problem. Again, one should use market tools -taxes or duties- coordinated between Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia, raising the price of mercury and hindering its use until it reaches rational levels. Income generated by this kind of tax could be use to adequately provide the border facilities thus preventing illegal economic activities damaging the environment in our territory. One could even think of achieving an environment treatment process by attacking the two damaging factors and with its own financing.

The Land Management Problem
Venezuela natural resources are clearly seen in its forests. Around 58% of national territory is covered with forests. Our country has a great forestry potential, since more than one half of our forests have marketable species. Forestry, however, has been hardly planned until now. Around 0.7% of our forests is lost every years and, although this figure is below the regional average, it could be improved.

The primary cause for deforestation in Venezuela is the search for cattle raising land, and activity degrading the soils' vegetal layer very quickly. This is more frequent in the Andean piedmont. Government's permissive attitude contributes to stimulate this activity: many peasants have occupied lands owned by the National Agrarian Institute (NAI) to deforest and establish cattle raising activities. The NAI allows for the acquisition of ownership rights on occupied lands after certain requirements have been met. When acquiring their rights on lands having already been degraded by cattle raising activity, the peasants transfer them in order to occupy new lands and restart the cycle. This process is an example of how government stimulus hinders sustainable development.

On another side, exploitation of forests for lumbering purposes has lacked a vision of the future. The policy of declaring forest zones as "controlled exploitation areas" have been invective because of contradictory decisions by other State agencies -as the above cited case of NAI and of the Venezuelan Guayana Corporation [CVG]. The Ministry of the Environment has been forced to recover certain forest reserve zones in order to award the to private companies. This policy, however, has not been pursued aggressively enough.

Short term exploitation permits -even a year sometimes-, also, have prevailed during the recent twenty years, thus originating an irrational exploitation of forests. Although the Ministry of the Environment has begun to grant thirty year concessions -with excellent results-, full derogation of short term permits is not yet a fact.

Disposition of toxic and solid wastes is also a serious problem in Venezuela. The waste dump deficit has been attacked for the last years at a municipal level, allowing for NGO participation; this has led to excellent results. It is a sign that, in the specific case of our land resources, cooperation is needed from local organizations controlling the compliance with ordinances and looking for the fulfillment of specific environmental goals. In this sense "local" knowledge of each region's features and of the actors having influence on the environment make this private activity quite welcome.

Institutional Problems
The former section dealt with the indication of specific problems related to certain economic resources and/or activities. Institutional deficiencies, however, prevent any environmental policy from being efficient at all levels and raise a series of problems that we wish to consider separately from the others.

It is no secret that environmental policies should run parallel to the economic ones in order that development may be sustainable and lasting. The role of government in guiding policies towards care of the environment is primary. Formerly, concern for the environment had not been totally absent from government action. The Ministry of the Environment was the first Department of its kind in Latin America. Some of the money from the oil boom of the seventies was used to create the national system of parks we have today.

Non governmental organizations came to life also in those times and, contrary to what one may think, Venezuela has one of the best human capital stocks prepared for environmental work in all of Latin America.

In spite of the apparent consensus existing in high spheres on the importance of environmental problems, government's work has been featured by inefficiency and by intricate bureaucratic processes constituting incentives for corruption -especially in the case on provisions punishing with arrest in the Criminal Law of the Environment. Two problems are evident: First, the Ministry of the Environment has a deficient internal organization, reflected in delays and lack of coordination between its own dependencies. The division process in the Ministry of the Environment, for instance, until some years ago had not been efficient because it had not been made as a function of specific resources but under area criteria: administrative, research. infrastructure, etc. Currently, a restructuring process has been advanced where divisions are concentrated by areas of specialization -Basins, Air, Environmental Education etc.- where proper use may be made of specific problems' technical knowledge. This program has given mixed results because, in practical terms, there have been budget problems and hidden bureaucracy. In principle, this reshaping of the Ministry of the Environment is aimed at the right direction; it must be constantly evaluated, however, and failing areas must be corrected.

Another factor lending to the Ministry of the Environment's ineffective work is the overlapping of its authority with that of other government entities. This executive Department, for instance, shares its environmental authority with the Ministry of Agriculture -fertilizers, reforestation-, with the Ministry of Health -cleaning work-, with the Ministry of Development -industry localization, pollution control. Cooperation with Government corporations -specially with CVG- has been scarce, originating frequent friction between the agencies.

The lack of environmental legislation is not a serious problem in Venezuela. According to the World Bank, the set of existing statutes makes additional legislative work unnecessary. A defect being attributed to these statutes is the absence of significant and/or invective fines -as it is the case with the arrest provisions in the Criminal Law of the Environment. In the same manner, the existing legislation tends to be punitive with few preventive provisions. This are requires work.

The problems arising from existing legislation are evidenced when one observes that the watching mechanisms in our parks. Only four of our national parks -Henri Pittier, Guatopo, Avila and Sierra Nevada- are being properly managed. The Canaima National Park, for instance, has three guards and some vehicles in charge of watching an area with the size of Belgium. In Los Roques there are hundred of fishermen performing illegal fishing activities. The park guards' pay is low and corruption is rampant.

It is worth pointing out, however, the Ministry of the Environment's rapprochement to ONGs such as BIOMA and FUDENA. Cooperation with these organizations -and with other- is specially important in view of their international expertise, as well as of their most effective agreements with important foreign and local environmental organizations.

III.- Conclusions.
The effectiveness of environmental policy relies to a great extent on how Government is organized. In this sense, we believe that environmental policy should be aimed, first, at environmental watch and control and, second, towards the creation of market incentives eliminating excessive use of resources and the use scarcely ecological of production techniques. The creation of these incentives may be used as a support to incorporate the private sector to environmental work and to finance Government's own activities.

One should observe that the reshaping of the Ministry of the Environment is of vital importance. This Department was created as an agency in charge of watching for a minimum compliance with certain environmental provisions within the frame of economic activities as such. Many of these have intrinsic environmental effects; the diversification from bovine cattle to porcine, for instance, could reduce environmental damage in the Andean piedmont zone; policies threatening the environment and contradicting the ministry's regulations escape from the jurisdiction of environmental authorities. There were higher goals than those of environmental protection when the Ministry was created.

Until recently, the Ministry of the Environment's work had been concentrated on water service. The regionalization process should allow the Ministry to concentrate on preventive and punitive policies and to become a regulating, rather than public service providing agency.

A way should be found also to reduce the Ministry's number of functions in order to make it more manageable.

Government should recognize also the work to be played by private and/or foreign organizations, as well as by local ONGs. These have a lot of experience, capable staff and technical knowledge; they are familiar, also, with each region's specific environmental problems in a more direct manner. Mechanisms should be studies to assign certain activities to these organizations in order to alleviate the burden of government bureaucracy, to eliminate discretionary powers and make of the fight for environmental something more effective.

Although it is true that the administrative decentralization of environmental work has given good results in some cases -such as the handling of toxic wastes-, problems are evident in other areas. Decentralization is work is advisable as to tasks where the local authorities' experience and knowledge make these more effective, and where the benefits of environmental care do not dissipate to other regions. This is why we assume a cautious position when facing environmental decentralization proposals.

Last, we must recognize Venezuela's strategic position. Our country must invest time, money and resources in protecting the environment. Our diplomacy, however, should use more pressure in order that the positive external effects other countries may get do compensate our efforts. Actions such as allowing access to specific by countries reaching specific environmental goals and promoting Venezuela as a center of ecotourism and ecological research, would generate resources and give more relevance to the environmental issue and to the idea of long term sustainable development.

*This paper was enriched with the comments received from the Nuclei of Caracas, Washington, Gainesville and New Orleans. We thank German Ríos for providing bibliography. Special thanks to María Beatriz Orlando of Tulane University and Alejandro Luy of Fundación Tierra Viva, for providing us with their expert vision of these issues.

*Juan C. Nagel
Department of Economics
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
email: jnagel@umich.edu
Phone: (313) 213-0147
Traslation by Carlos Armando Figueredo

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