How Venezuela fights the environmental crisis

By Zoe Kenny and Shua Garfield

The corporate media’s recent focus on the global economic crisis has all but eclipsed a much greater crisis — global climate change and the general destruction of the world’s environment. But if the environment “goes bust”, the implications for humanity and millions of plant and animal species are well known and horrifying. Unfortunately, the response of the developed capitalist nations, including Australia, has been far from adequate.

Governments in the rich, “First World” countries have been happy to let their environment ministers and departmental staff engage in a merry-go-round of international climate summits and the commissioning of endless reports. But the discussions and rhetorical flourishes have not been matched by a willingness to take the urgent and massive action needed to counter the growing climate-change catastrophe. Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s pathetic offer of reducing greenhouse emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 was described as playing “Russian roulette with the climate system, with most of the chambers loaded” by CSIRO climatologist James Risbey.

The dominant response by First World governments has been to promote the implementation of carbon pollution trading schemes as a way of encouraging corporations to adopt renewable energy and reduce their greenhouse emissions. First World governments are not interested in challenging the power of the fossil-fuel using corporations that dominate the developed capitalist economies — the coal mining, oil, automobile and electricity generation corporations.

However, some governments are posing an alternative. Revolutionary Cuba, which has been under economic blockade by the US for 47 years, was deemed the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development by the World Wildlife Fund in 2006. Cuba’s socialist-oriented economic system prioritises social needs and the environment over corporate profits. New left-wing governments in Latin America are attempting to follow Cuba’s course. The most advanced example is Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez has instigated a profound process of reshaping the country called the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. As well as reducing the proportion of the population suffering extreme poverty from 42% in 1998 to 9.5% in 2008 and making all healthcare and education free, the Chavez government is also tackling environmental problems.

Social missions

The Venezuelan revolution is well known for its “missions” — a diverse array of social programs funded by the nationalised oil industry to improve the lives of poor and working people. While the best known missions are those that provide free health care and education and subsidised food, several also exist to repair and protect the environment. Mission Guaicaipuro, launched in 2003, aims to increase awareness of and respect for indigenous peoples’ culture and history and to uphold their rights to their land. This includes the right to accept or reject applications for economic activity, such as resource extraction, on their land. More than 5000 land committees have been established as a result of Mission Guaicaipuro.

Mission Tree, established in June 2006, reforested 38,200 hectares of land with 33.6 million trees in its first two years. Conservation minister Miguel Rodriguez has explained that this was possible only due to the organisation of 2418 conservation committees, composed of 54,495 members, taking responsibility, along with community and school leaders, for the collection of 106 tonnes of seeds. Mission Tree also aims to stop harm to forests from slash-and-burn practices by promoting more sustainable agriculture. The projects aim to achieve this through self-organisation of the local populations.

Mission Energy Revolution was also launched in 2006. Inspired by a similar scheme in Cuba, and by solar power projects in Vietnam, the program includes projects for increasing the use of natural gas (the burning of which emits 50% less CO2 than oil or coal) and installing wind- and solar-powered electricity systems. The first stage distributed 52 million energy-efficient light globes to more than 5 million homes, reducing consumption by 2000 megawatts per year and saving US$2 billion in fuel. Similar plans are in place to install 27 million energy-efficient globes in the commercial, industrial and public sectors. The program aims to reduce the oil used for electricity production by 25 million barrels per year by 2012. The government also plans to increase the percentage of clean renewable energy consumed by establishing a solar energy research centre and a wind-power farm on the Caribbean coast.

Investment in more environmentally sustainable transportation systems has been increased, primarily through the National Plan for Railways Development, which was initiated in 2006 and is expected to continue until 2030. The plan includes the construction of 15 railway lines, totalling 13,000 kilometres, connecting the north with the centre and west of the country, and extensions to the Caracas Metro and a line to the airport. When construction has been completed, the new railway system will be capable of transporting 210 million passengers and approximately 190 million tonnes of freight per year via 1548 trains. This will increase the efficiency of transportation, ease congestion on roads and decrease energy consumption for commuting and transportation.

The Socialist Factory of Synthetic Wood was inaugurated on April 24 in Carabobo state. The factory will produce materials for housing construction and furniture. The products will decrease Venezuela’s dependence upon natural wood, thus saving 150,000 trees a year.

Environmental aid

The Venezuelan government is well known for providing cheap oil to poorer countries and even to poor communities in wealthy countries like the US and Britain. It is less well known that Venezuela has also helped extend renewable forms of energy and eco-friendly construction methods to poorer countries. Venezuela has financed the installation of more than 8400 solar panels in Bolivian communities that had previously been without electricity.

Venezuela has pioneered the manufacture of petrocasas — light, easy-to-construct and highly durable houses manufactured from by-products of oil refining. As well as reducing waste in refining,  these houses have high thermal insulation, reducing the energy needed to heat or cool them. Tens of thousands have been constructed in Venezuela, Cuba (where they have been used to rebuild after the immense damage caused by hurricanes in 2008) and Peru (where they have been used to aid reconstruction after a 2007 earthquake). With Venezuelan assistance, Bolivia now plans to construct a petrocasa factory to provide new housing in poor areas.

Unlike governments that protect the profiteering of the rich, Venezuela’s government has not shied away from stopping corporate activities that threaten the environment. In 2004 Venezuela banned US company Monsanto from planting genetically modified soybeans. The fields where the GM crops were to be planted were instead used to plant yuca, an indigenous food crop.

In April 2007 the government banned all new coal mines on indigenous land in the state of Zulia after indigenous people led a campaign to stop them. The government banned fish trawling on March 13. Chavez noted that trawling “destroys flora, plankton, the sea bed, and 70 to 80 percent of yield is wasted; it is lamentable to see how millions of fish die on boat decks as they separate out the shrimp, which is used for export”, adding that it “is a crime of capitalism”.

In August, the Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Clubs are organising a national tour of a Venezuelan youth leader and environmental activist, Heryck Rangel. He is one of the new generation of political activists being inspired by the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2005 he helped to form the Venezuelan Eco-Citizens Movement, of which he is currently the national coordinator. Rangel is also deeply involved in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), in particular in attempting to mobilise and organise young people to become involved in its youth section. Rangel is a student in political and administrative studies at the Central University of Venezuela. For more information see Heryck Rangel speaking tour.