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Climate Change: What Would Lord Russell Do?

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Anthony Bourdain and Rainforest Cattle: Coolness Factor Wearing Thin?

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Movie Review: Crude

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Hugo Chávez: Environmental Hypocrite or Ecological Savior?

During a recent trip to Venezuela, I found myself in my Caracas hotel room watching President Hugo Chavez give a speech on TV.  I had come to the country as a guest of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation (known by its Spanish acronym IVIC), which was helping to organize an environmental conference about Lake Maracaibo.

 

I had long been interested in ecological concerns: my dissertation focused on the environmental history of the Venezuelan oil industry.  In my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martins' Press, 2006), I touched on the role of American oil companies in the Lake Maracaibo area.

 

As usual, Chavez was thundering against the United States, in this case striking an environmental theme.  North Americans, he charged, had pursued an "egotistical" model of development.  Chavez denounced the consumerist lifestyle in the United States, predicated on having more than one car per family. 

 

On other occasions, Chavez has argued that powerful nations are responsible for causing global warming.  What is more, he has publicly regretted pollution resulting from traditional sources of energy.  He has called on developed nations to look more favorably on alternative energy such as gas, hydro and solar power.  To its credit, Venezuela has ratified the Kyoto Protocol reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

 

Venezuela emits only 0.48% of the world's greenhouse gases.  According to government officials, the country is in fourth place in Latin America regarding greenhouse emissions after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.  Nevertheless, Venezuela exports 1 million barrels of oil per day to its northern neighbor and thus contributes to global warming.

 

For Venezuelan environmentalists, the country's dependence on oil exports is worrying.  In an effort to learn more about energy policy in Venezuela, I caught up with Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo and the former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.  We met in Maracaibo, where I was attending the environmental conference dealing with Lake Maracaibo. 

 

"In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy," he remarked.  "I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives," he added.

 

There are encouraging signs, however, that the government is taking some action.  For a country whose economy is almost wholly dependent on oil production, Venezuela has taken some positive steps.

 

Brazil: An Ethanol Giant

 

Since 2002, Venezuela and Brazil have fostered an alliance through the promotion of joint energy projects.  For example, the Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA has joined with Brazil's Petrobras to construct the Abreu de Lima refinery, located in dirt poor Pernambuco state.  The refinery will process crude oil resulting from joint exploration projects in Venezuela. 

 

The energy alliance has in turn bolstered political ties.  During the 2002-3 oil lock out, in which the opposition sought to topple the Chavez regime, Brazilian President Lula also shipped oil to Venezuela.

 

Now, Brazil is helping to spur alternative energy in Venezuela by shipping ethanol to its neighbor.  In South America, ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from sugar cane.  According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, ethanol produces 12 percent less greenhouse gasses linked to global warming than gasoline.

 

For three decades Brazil has used fuel alcohol on a large scale, but it's only more recently that the country has been able to reap the full reward from its ethanol production.  Because of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for the reduction of pollutant emissions, there are now great opportunities for sale of ethanol. 

 

With its eye on this great potential, Brazil has dived straight into the foreign alcohol market.  Authorities have announced that Brazil will invest heavily in transport infrastructure over the coming years.  Almost all Brazilian cars have flex-fuel engines running on both gasoline and ethanol, and the country has reduced its gasoline consumption by nearly half over the last four years. 


For Paulo Roberto Costa, Supply director at Petrobras (the Brazilian state oil company), ethanol shipments to Venezuela should "strengthen [Petrobras'] position as an energy company [and] generate great gains to the environment."  Costa added that Petrobras stood to benefit, as the company would "enter new markets and sectors, sponsor the growth of Brazil and collaborate to the integration of the countries of South America."

 

Venezuela Seeks Ethanol Self Sufficiency

 

Though Venezuela has imported ethanol from Brazil, the Chavez government has also taken action to produce the fuel on its own so the country can become self sufficient.  Venezuela has in fact taken the step of eliminating its consumption of lead-based gasoline.  The country seeks to produce ethanol for domestic consumption and to add 10% of the fuel to all gasoline.

According to Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, "The elimination of lead from gasoline ... will bring great health and environmental benefits."  PdVSA has set up an ethanol producing subsidiary, Alcoholes de Venezuela. 

 

Venezuela will commence construction of 15 sugar cane mills in 2007 and hopes to complete 21 distilleries by 2012.  Chavez has pledged to invest $900 million to plant sugarcane and construct processing plants over the next several years.  Such a plan is certainly ambitious: Venezuela will have to plant 740,000 acres of sugar cane if it wants to meet its target.

 

Venezuela and Cuba: Solidifying Ties through Ethanol

 

Chavez has sought strong ties to Cuba in recent years, and Venezuela is now solidifying an innovative energy alliance with the island nation.  For years, Venezuela has exported oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors who have serviced the poor and disadvantaged through Chavez's Barrio Adentro program.

 

Now, Chavez has gone further by seeking Cuban assistance for his nascent ethanol program.  For Cuba, it is a novel opportunity to take advantage of its dormant sugar industry.  Though the country was at one time the largest sugar exporter in the world, the island's sugar industry fell on hard times in recent years when falling prices obliged the country to close almost half its mills.  Now, however, Cuba says it will modernize its old distilleries as well as build new ones which would be geared principally towards the production of ethanol fuel. 

Venezuela stands to gain from Cuban expertise in the ethanol sector.  The island nation shall provide Venezuela with parts from its dismantled mills for use in ethanol production.  "Cuba is advising us in the process [of ethanol production] and training personnel," remarked Maria Antonieta Chacon, president of the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation.

 

Ethanol: Solving Chavez's Political Imperative

 

For Chavez, ethanol not only serves an environmental purpose but also relieves political pressure on the government.  In Venezuela, rural to urban migration is a thorny social problem.  Caracas, a polluted, crime-infested city, has seen explosive civil unrest in the past and needs to stem the flow of new rural migrants. 

 

Chavez's ethanol plans could help to ameliorate some of this migration by encouraging a nascent industry in the countryside.  According to PdVSA, ethanol and sugar cane fermentation "cuts dependence on oil and promotes other economic activities."  Under the program, sugar cane will be harvested in 12 states throughout the country and will lead to the creation of 500,000 jobs.

 

PdVSA has announced that it could build several ethanol plants in the central state of Yaracuy, which is one of the top sugarcane producing areas in the country.  Nelson Rojas, General Secretary of the state, remarked that the state's plans to create twenty plants in his state would be a boon to the local economy.  According to Rojas, each plant would create more than 12,000 jobs. 

 

Chavez at the United Nations

 

In his 2005 address to the United Nations, Hugo Chavez derided what he called "a socioeconomic model that has a galloping destructive capacity."  The Venezuelan president expressed concern about "an unstoppable increase of energy" and added that "more carbon dioxide will inevitably be increased, thus warming our planet even more."

 

It's rather ironic that Chavez, as the leader of one of the world's leading oil producing nations, would emphasize global warming at the United Nations.  Nevertheless, recent moves by the government suggest that Chavez is willing to undertake some modest changes in energy policy. 

 

While it's certainly environmentally vital for Venezuela to move off lead based gasoline and adopt alternative technologies, Chavez also has public relations considerations.  The Venezuelan President wants to paint himself as an underdog on the world stage, struggling against U.S. imperialism and the voracious consumerist appetites of North Americans.  By moving towards ethanol, Chavez may deflect criticism that he is hypocritical.  In adopting alternative fuels, he also gains politically by shoring up ties to Cuba and Brazil, two key allies in the region.

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Hugo Chávez’s Achilles Heel: The Environment

In Maracaibo, Kozloff interviewed Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists. During the insightful hour long interview, Hinestroza illuminated many of the contradictions within the Chavez government's environmental policy.

 

An interview with Jorge Hinestroza, environmentalist and professor of sociology at the University of Zulia

 

Recently Nikolas Kozloff, author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin's Press), attended a conference dealing with environmental problems in Lake Maracaibo. 

 

Located within the western provincial state of Zulia, Lake Maracaibo has long been a center of the petroleum industry.  Historically, the lake has been plagued by oil spills and pollution. 

Most recently, the lake has witnessed a profound catastrophe with the arrival of duckweed, a freshwater weed which has spread out across the surface of the water. Experts say that duckweed contributes to Lake Maracaibo's pollution.  Significantly, the weed could seriously change the habitat of various species of fish as it exhausts their oxygen supply and cuts off light from the depths of the lake. 

 

In Maracaibo, Kozloff interviewed Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.  During the insightful hour long interview, Hinestroza illuminated many of the contradictions within the Chavez government's environmental policy. 

 

ICLAM and Lake Maracaibo

 

Nicolas Kozloff: Jorge, I have just been attending an environmental conference here in Maracaibo sponsored by the ICLAM (Institute For The Conservation of Lake Maracaibo, a government agency).  However, I see that some environmentalists in Zulia have been critical of the conference.  Why?

 

Jorge Hinestroza:  We could cite the case of Elio Rios, a doctor and veteran environmentalist.  Recently he sent out an e mail which accused ICLAM of excluding poor communities from the conference.  Rios is the Vice President of Azul (Environmentalists of Zulia).  Their group has been around for a long time, and probably has a couple of dozen active members.  Azul has made a name for itself by resisting coal exploitation in the Sierra of Perija [a mountainous area near the Colombian border]. 

 

Azul has undergone a very interesting evolution from the point of view of environmental politics.  Rios is himself a fervent follower and supporter of Hugo Chavez.  As a matter of fact, he participates in meetings of the Bolivarian Circles [pro-Chavez groups organized at the local level which carry out community projects with government assistance].  However, he has been one of the most vocal critics of the regime when it comes to the environment. 

 

When Elio says in the e mail that the ICLAM conference is elitist he's telling the truth.  The ICLAM conference was comprised solely of experts.  It is all rather ironic because supposedly in Venezuela we are living in an era which has opened the doors of science to the community.  But as this event makes clear, there is no link between the people and science. 

 

Environmentalism in The Chavez Era

 

NK: How have local environmentalists fared during the Chavez era?

 

JH:  As a result of the "Bolivarian Revolution," popular struggles have been frozen.  The expectation for change amongst the people has risen, and there is a great hope that the regime will resolve social problems.  Environmental concerns have practically been abandoned by popular struggles here.

 

NK: Could you comment specifically about communities within Lake Maracaibo and local environmental struggles? 

 

JH: The Chavez regime has sought to provide the immediate necessities of life for the people.  That is to say, the government offers large quantities of food and services, which in one way or another satisfies the most critical necessities of the people.  Government programs have dampened social tensions.  In various communities that I have visited, local struggles which confronted the great forces of transnational capital have been derailed. 

 

We might cite for example the case of the Olivitos Marsh, where a transnational company [Produsal, S.A., a company whose capital has been provided through Cargill and the state-run Pequiven or Petrochemical of Venezuela], produced salt [necessary for producing petrochemical products].  Produsal's arrival in Olivitos resulted in habitat fragmentation in the area.  The company also displaced fishing communities that were linked to the natural ecosystem. 

 

In response, local communities mobilized against the petrochemical transnational.  Local residents also struggled against the Ministry of Environment which for many years supported the company.  The Ministry handed out all the permits and supported big business, notwithstanding that it's a ministry pledged to protecting the environment. 

 

But with Chavez's political triumph, local communities practically halted their struggle.  The majority of the local fishermen were Chavistas.  They hoped that they would reclaim the waters that they had had traditionally used for fishing.  There was a lot of commotion when Chavez proclaimed the new Constitution which had important provisions favoring fishermen's rights.  However, local leadership later abandoned the struggle.

 

PDVSA and the Case of Lagunillas

 

NK: During the environmental conference, I participated in ICLAM visits to various companies around Lake Maracaibo.  During our visits, the managers presented a very clean corporate environmental image.  To what extent have they have really changed their environmental policies for the better? 

 

JH: As a result of industrial sabotage during the oil lockout of 2002-3, the government has spoken of the need for local communities to find out more about security and environmental risks within the oil industry.  Unfortunately, the government's promise to make the oil industry more transparent has not been met.  When we environmentalists complain about oil slicks for example, we get the same executives and environmental employees from PDVSA [Petroleos de Venezuela, the state run Venezuelan oil company] with the same rhetoric and discourse from the previous era before Chavez.

 

Another example of PDVSA indifference has to do with the actual sinking of coastal lands as a result of oil drilling around the town of Lagunillas [located along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo].  While I am sure there are new PDVSA executives with good intentions, basically environmental management is the same and the ideological orientation continues to be opaque. 

 

NK: That's interesting, I recently went on a tour of PDVSA installations in Lagunillas, but I didn't know anything about a relocation program.  What's it all about?

 

JH:  There are more than 60,000 people living along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo who are at risk from a serious disaster.  In the event of a large tremor, the Lagunillas protection wall could break and expose the people to dangerous flooding.  A relocation plan was developed more than 15 years ago.  The plan involved preparation of the community for an eventual disaster and evacuation contingencies.  As a matter of fact the authorities developed an alarm system and they had organized predetermined evacuation routes and secure relocation sites. 

Up to now, however, the authorities have only relocated between 10,000 and 15,000 people.  It seems to me that the relocation could have been carried out better in both quantitative and qualitative terms.  The point is that a technocratic vision still predominates when it comes to dealing with communities.  There should be more attention paid to social and environmental concerns, so that the relocation is carried out with a human face and not just in accordance with economic criteria. 

 

Moreover, through my discussions with local inhabitants I understand that the disaster contingency plans and alarm system was abandoned three years ago.  I have spoken with some PDVSA staff and they seem surprisingly uninformed about this serious matter.  A little while ago I spoke to a woman engineer from PDVSA.  When I brought up the issue of the Lagunillas protection wall and security risks she said no, that wall is not a risk, this wall is completely safe. This attitude indicates to me that something is gravely wrong. 

 

I believe that greater popular participation could minimize the risk of an eventual disaster.  If the Chavez government really takes its rhetoric seriously and promotes popular participation, this is the moment for greater dialogue on safety issues.

 

NK:  Through ICLAM, I was able to tour the PDVSA installations at Lagunillas and the control room which monitors seismic activity.  Outside of actually relocating people, is there anything else that PDVSA could do to protect the population? 

 

JH:  From a technical standpoint there's not much you can do.  We as environmentalists however pose the question of whether all this oil exploration along the east coast of Lake Maracaibo, which has affected 60,000 people and put communities at risk, has been worthwhile in a human sense.  We ask if the costs have been lesser or greater than the benefits.

 

Mining and The Sierra of Perija

 

NK:  What has been the situation within the Sierra of Perija and coal mining?

 

JH:  President Chavez once offered to halt coal production in light of the environmental disaster that would result.  Venezuelan coal production certainly pales beside domestic oil production in economic terms.  What is the advantage that coal mining brings for the Venezuelan economy and the Venezuelan people? 

 

Coal mining, from the outset, has caused considerable environmental destruction.  Not just that, but it's also affected the miners.  Workers have fallen sick with lung disease as a result of their work in the mines.  These workers have spent practically their entire lives in the mines and they are going to die young. 

 

I have also observed that around the mines, the rivers and forests have been destroyed.  Mining doesn't benefit the people nor the indigenous communities in the vicinity which have lost their agricultural way of life as a result of harmful ecological destruction. 

 

While it is true that the money from coal extraction has been used by Chavez for positive social works, the problem has to do with cost and benefit.  I wonder whether it is legitimate to destroy nature to favor a majority which is socially marginalized.  One must consider the plight of the next generation, the sons and daughters of the people who may benefit today.  What will they do when they find that the natural resource base has been destroyed?

 

NK: During my time at the ICLAM conference, I heard someone from the local development agency CORPOZULIA give a talk about ambitious new port facilities in the state of Zulia.  Could you comment about it and explain how it ties into the question of mining?

 

JH:  Currently we confront another environmental threat in the form of a newly proposed project, Bolivar Port.  Corpozulia and Bolivar Port are both linked to coal exploitation.  As a matter of fact, Corpozulia actually owns mining concessions.  This port which has been proposed for the mouth of Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela would prove catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area.  Suspiciously, we environmentalists have observed that many figures from the pre-Chavez era are pushing this project.  Investors and officials who are in favor of the port project sit on the government commission.  That is to say the same people who are interested in exploiting coal, which contributed to the displacement of Indians in the Sierra of Perija and the pollution of the soil and rivers, now proclaim that they are brothers of the Bolivarian Revolution. 

 

Lake Maracaibo and Duckweed

 

NK: What is the cause of the proliferating duckweed vegetation which has become a major environmental hazard in Lake Maracaibo? 

 

JH:  I believe that duckweed is not a chronic problem, because it abruptly emerged in 2003 and this points to sudden causes.  Sudden in the sense of an enormous deposit of nutrients in the lake, and a new economic component.  I believe that the new source of nutrients is the shrimp companies which proliferated in Lake Maracaibo starting in 2000.  Half the shrimp companies that exist in Venezuela operate in Lake Maracaibo.  Shrimp farming is sufficiently prolific to give rise to excess nutrients and the duckweed phenomenon.  I believe that ICLAM has sufficient data to prove this to be the case but doesn't pursue the matter for economic and political reasons.

 

NK: How has the Chavez government handled the duckweed problem?

 

JH: I think the official policy in relation to duckweed has been far from desirable.  We are dealing with a government that has revolutionary pretensions, but the Ministry of Environment adopts classic political posturing from the Fourth Republic [prior to Chavez's election] period.  In other words, only the experts know about this problem, while the communities are passive observers, assigned to pick up duckweed which provides employment for the community. 

 

The Chavez government says that environmental damage is inevitable and results from progress.  The government has even claimed that duckweed is beneficial, that it is good news for us.  Chavez, in 2003, said that the duckweed was benign.  The government said that duckweed would be very good for the population because it was going to serve as food for animals, and that it was almost a gift.

 

Fishermen, who number about 10,000-12,000 in Zulia, have been most affected by the duckweed phenomena.  Every year, every time that we go into the rainy season, duckweed invades the beaches.  Duckweed affects people living on the banks of the lake.  It is always the poorest fishermen who are most adversely affected, not the investors in the fish industry. 

 

Paradox of the Petro State

 

NK: Chavez constantly denounces the U.S. for wasteful consumerism and has warned of the green house effect.  But the irony is that Venezuela continues to be a major world oil producer.  Do you think Venezuela should be moving away from oil, in sync with the growing rhetoric?

 

JH:  I don't believe the peak oil theory is a fantasy; I think that by 2050 we will have exhausted oil as a viable energy resource and we will have to rely on new sources of energy.  What will happen to Venezuela, if we are not prepared to live from anything else besides oil?  In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy.  I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives.  But the U.S. and its European partners are heading towards the substitution of oil.  And I believe the new energy paradigm will be hydrogen. 

 

In Venezuela we have developed a technological innovation.  It's a new way to take advantage of oil, in the sense of producing energy with less resulting pollution.  Venezuela could be a great producer of orimulsion, a product resulting from the mixture of water and heavy oil.  Orimulsion is less polluting than coal.  I don't understand why we produce coal, which is destroying the Sierra of Perija and the indigenous communities there, when we could develop orimulsion production plants.  We could develop orimulsion, which could compete with coal on the world market.  I am saddened that within the Chavez government officials have not chosen to sufficiently take advantage of orimulsion.

 

Jorge Hinestroza is professor of sociology at the University of Zulia.

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Politics of Corporations and Environment in Latin America

Discussion of corporations and the environment in Latin America: "Industry and Environment in Latin America," Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Vol 30 No 59 (2005), 213-216.  Click here to go to the link.

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Composite book review on indigenous peoples and environmentalism in Latin America

Composite Review, "The Contentious Battle Over Natural Resources: Water and Power in Highland Peru, The Cultural Politics of Irrigation and Development; Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil, State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and The Xavante Indians, 1937-1988; Exporting Environmentalism, U.S. Multinational Chemical Corporations in Brazil and Mexico," Latin American Perspectives, November 2004, 112-117. Click here for the article.

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Dissertation

 D Phil., (Ph.D.), Modern History (Latin America), Oxford University, July 2002 (Dissertation: "Maracaibo Black Gold: Venezuelan Oil and Environment in the Era of Juan Vicente Gómez, 1908-1935").  No online link.

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