Venezuela’s historic meltdown is often explained as a consequence of bad governance, corruption and the collapse of the oil sector or of international sanctions. Solutions are sought in the political sphere—dialogue, free elections, regime change—but there is little room to maneuver on either end of the political spectrum. The Maduro government has few political allies left, and as it digs in its heels in a bid to hold onto power it seems to have few resources and little time to undertake serious efforts to mitigate the impact of the deep economic crisis. The opposition, meanwhile, conducts a campaign focused on emphasizing what is wrong, but lacks an integral vision for a future Venezuela.
The environment is usually left out of the debate, but issues including conservation, natural resource management and access to ecosystems are vital to the stability of the country. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (or UN Environment), achieving peace by taking natural resources and the environment into consideration “is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.” In recently suspended talks between the government and opposition—brokered by the Norwegian government—the environment was not even on the agenda. However, resource conflicts and the management and protection of Venezuela’s natural heritage are not only important from a conservation angle—they are the key to achieving a sustainable political solution and unlocking Venezuela’s future.
A Political, and Environmental, Crisis
The Maduro government claims Venezuela has the second-largest gold reserves in the world and decreed a massive mining development area baptized the ‘Orinoco Mining Arc’ in 2016. So far, this piece of legislation seems nothing more than a legal jacket around an uncontrolled sector. Foreign investors stayed away while illegal mining became rampant.
The environmental degradation caused by unregulated mineral extraction and conflicts over access to these valuable lands has already forcibly displaced populations, while the nationwide economic collapse and the consequent decline in employment and income has driven others to venture into the lawless mining region south of the Orinoco river.
Many of the lands that being aggressively exploited are home to indigenous groups, who are often deprived of their livelihoods and means of survival. Alternative survival strategies often mean participating in illegal mining economies as the national currency rendered nearly worthless by hyperinflation has led to an acceptance of gold as an alternative to cash, or joining the non-state armed groups that run the regions rich in minerals.
The presence of foreign and Venezuelan armed groups has been tolerated by the government resulting in a loss of sovereignty over vast swaths of territory, while resource revenues grow the influence of violent actors. These latter include local crime syndicates, called sindicatos, as well as corrupt elements of the state. While these parallel economies based on gold were created, it enabled criminal elements in control over resources to turn these informal economies into social and political capital.
Even though Venezuela is not formally at war, warlordism and frequent violent clashes are now a feature of the south. Heavily armed state security forces with their faces covered drive around in armored vehicles with mounted guns, controlling jungle airports and access to illegal mines the states of Amazonas and Bolívar. Colombian guerrilla groups that sometimes operate side by side with the army clash with mining sindicatos, and massacres, torture and slave labor are commonplace in the mining zones. For this reason, one can plainly refer to extracted minerals from these areas as “conflict resources,” and their commercialization should be treated as the facilitation of serious human rights violations.
Revenues from mining currently provide political elites with a financial lifeline and are of paramount importance to maintaining power. If countries can rely on revenues from resource extraction, taxpayers’ contributions become less important, generating a disconnect between the government and its citizens. This has been the case ever since the development of the oil industry in Venezuela. Lack of transparency in government accounts, including the issue of extra-legal revenues derived from resource extraction, disenfranchises the population, and facilitates authoritarianism.
Call them guerrillas, sindicatos, pranes, or corrupted factions of the army – they are there to stay. In that regard, Venezuela is beginning to resemble neighboring Colombia, where land-grabbing, rural warfare and predatory and illicit natural resource exploitation (whether of coca, illegal gold mining, agroindustries) have been a major feature for over half a century.
The 2016 peace deal between Colombia’s government and the FARC is considered the “greenest” peace deal ever made, featuring green growth and sustainable development plans, but its faltering implementation, specifically with regard to rural economic development, access to lands and illegal crops, has exposed its fragility. These gaps are also a major explanation for the huge increase in deforestation in former guerrilla-controlled areas and resuming regional tensions.
In Venezuela, “peace” and the environment should be on the agenda, and armed groups operating without restriction must be dismantled by the competent authorities and law enforcement. Nevertheless, this scenario is difficult to envision with the current rates of impunity, corruption within the ranks of the armed forces, and state violence in Venezuela.
International stakeholders must recognize that Venezuela is not just a political battleground for Chavistas and the opposition, but a country in which resource conflicts and armed groups are the norm over large swathes of the national territory.
It is essential that post-transition Venezuela not be marked by the mistake to not include environmental security. In a report, UN Environment analyzed intra-state conflicts over the last sixty years, and one of its preliminary conclusions is that if there is a link between conflict and natural resources, the likelihood of a relapse into conflict within the first five years after a peace deal is twice as high.
There is a risk of serious conflict in southern Venezuela. A change of government or a shift in power at the executive level might throw current alliances into turmoil, causing further tensions. Mineral reserves and armed groups know no international boundaries, and mining violence and conflicts over access to mines have already caused frictions on the borders with Colombia, Guyana and Brazil. Not to address the problem of the environment and armed groups in Venezuela´s south is to guarantee major headaches for the whole region in the future.
Involving Natural Resources in Any Future Negotiations
In most peace agreements the role of natural resources and the environment is overlooked or underestimated. Possible future initiatives to negotiate a transition in Venezuela should not make the mistake of ignoring these vital issues. The country could quickly relapse into conflict over resources that not only contribute to the financial empowerment of a number of non-state groups but also generate and sustain corruption in the armed forces.
The economic incentive can hinder de-escalation efforts and initiatives to negotiate in good faith with both non-state armed actors and the government elites sustained by their illegal activities, as a transition might hinder access to the revenue gained either directly from resource exploitation or from taxing these activities. Properly handled, the management of natural resources and the environment could provide tools to help achieve an agreement.
Instead of a race to the bottom, patience, expertise and transparency should be applied in debates about how to manage natural resources, both now and in a future Venezuela. Countries more than often use resource extraction as a tool to quickly gain revenues after a situation of conflict or crisis, but there are many factors to be taken into account if new conflicts are to be prevented from arising. At present the scale of Venezuela´s mineral reserves remains unclear; serious socio-environmental impact studies have not been undertaken and indigenous populations have not been appropriately consulted. This can only contribute to protracted conflicts over land use and access to resources and thereby increase instability and proneness to strife.
Examining options for resource sharing to maximize mutual benefits for stakeholders could be a confidence-building exercise not only for opposing parties but for other stakeholders who have hitherto been ignored, in particular local populations. Exploring these scenarios together, and assessing socio-environmental impacts, best future practices, and environmental protection and restoration; would provide an opportunity to bring different actors closer together.
To begin with, a thorough assessment should be carried out by involved diplomats and relevant UN agencies, specifically UN Environment, to identify the best mediation strategies and which stakeholders should have a voice in this process. UN crisis prevention policy and methodologies for environmental peacebuilding have been developed but have not yet been applied to Venezuela. Transparency is paramount, and resource ownership should be “de-linked” from management and distribution of revenues. It is important to seek mutual benefits — for example, with regard to employment, infrastructure development and sustainable and diversified economies – and thereby increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Scenario building can help participants to visualize ideas and thus foster interest. Take the oil sector, for example: Venezuela has been plagued by the resource curse—low indices of democracy, development and economic growth despite an abundance of resources—but the promotion of sustainable and green economies deserves serious consideration. Doing so would take into account future sustainability, both economically and environmentally, and prevent “conflict resources” from financing violence and generating massive environmental impacts and hence forced displacement and loss of livelihood.
To ignore these issues until years into a post-dialogue scenario would be to undermine the sustainability of any transition. Negotiators should not assume they are too sensitive or complicated and must be addressed at a later stage: capitalizing on them could generate a platform for dialogue on environmental protection, biodiversity and land use, and could function as a confidence-building exercise in talks.
The humanitarian situation in the country is very much related to current and future developments south of the Orinoco and donors should be open to needs there which go beyond the purely humanitarian and developmental aspects of the crisis. There is a role here not only for UN Environment but for other UN bodies. The Sustainable Development Goals and Sustaining Peace (one of the UN’s main objectives) mutually reinforce one other. “Peace and Security” is one of the three central UN pillars, and violence, forced labor, prostitution and human trafficking in Venezuela’s south are directly linked to the crisis and the mining bonanza which has empowered violent actors. The malaria epidemic in Venezuela is also directly related to the rapid expansion of mining and associated deforestation. These issues should be addressed now and even as the UN focuses on more traditional humanitarian needs, a wider involvement of agencies such as UNEP, UNHCR and the WHO with regard to environmental security will be required, either in-country or via remote means.
Addressing these issues in ways that facilitate a peaceful democratic transition and ensure truly sustainable development is essential. But if no alternatives are found the push factors to dig further into the Orinoco Mining Arc abound. In January 2016, the year in which Nicolás Maduro decreed the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a gram of gold was worth just over 35 USD on international markets, but by September 2019 it had risen above 48 USD a gram and has become ever more attractive to warlords hungry for more, and desperate Venezuelans looking to make ends meet. The gold rush in Venezuela seems far from over and will cause severe problems of instability for the region as a whole if international agendas continue to ignore the dynamics in Venezuela’s south.
Bram Ebus is a research journalist mainly reporting from Colombia and Venezuela. He is a social scientist with degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Global Criminology. Since 2012 he has carried out in-depth fieldwork involving qualitative and quantitative research in several countries in Latin America and Europe. His main research interest is on socio-environmental conflicts.