At a meeting in Brazil on April 26, 2006, plans moved ahead between Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil for a major transcontinental oil pipeline. The pipeline would be 10,000 kilometres long and would link the four countries plus Paraguay and Uruguay.
Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez said the pipeline would be integral to economically integrating South America and strengthening it against US imperialism, and was essential in "the fight against poverty and exclusion".
However, in the August 15 New Scientist an article titled "Is Venezuela's pipeline the highway to eco-hell?" reported that "environmentalists are furious" about the project. Director of the World Wildlife Fund's Program for Protected Areas in the Amazon Claudio Maretti said "the proposed pipeline is absolutely insane". He claimed it would damage the Amazon's ecology.
The article highlighted a continuing sore spot for the Venezuelan government, which is leading the Bolivarian socialist revolution. On the one hand, the Chavez government needs to keep revenue flowing into its coffers to fund its massive array of social programs in Venezuela. On the other hand, the government's major source of revenue is from the export of oil - Venezuela's principal natural resource - by the state oil company PDVSA.
This export income often comes at the expense of the environment. In a stark example of the environmental degradation caused by the oil industry, the December 18, 2000, US Business Week described the impact of the industry on Lake Maracaibo, located in the northern state of Zulia (where the bulk of Venezuela's oil has come from). Once a pristine habitat for mangroves and flamingoes, the lake is now crowded with tankers, polluted with toxic industrial waste and is the repository for raw sewage from the surrounding area's 5 million inhabitants.
A more recent problem is the growing infestation of the freshwater duckweed, which is devastating fish stocks and endangering the livelihoods of more than 10,000 fishers. One of the long-term affects of oil drilling is land destabilisation, which threatens 60,000 people who live near the lake.
Venezuela's daily output of 3 million barrels of oil also contributes to global warming - though only 530,000 barrels a day are used in Venezuela itself.
Legacy of foreign domination
In light of these facts it would be tempting for environmentalists to simply condemn Venezuela as an environmental vandal - part of the problem, not the solution. But where does the blame for this state of affairs really lie?
Venezuela's economy has not been created by the current government, but has been shaped by centuries of Spanish colonial and then US imperialist domination. By the time Chavez was elected president in 1998, Lake Maracaibo had already been exploited by big, mainly First World-based, oil companies for more than eight decades. A tiny minority of Venezuelans grew rich by appropriating the wealth generated from the export of oil (principally to the US).
Meanwhile, the rest of the economy stagnated as the rich had no need to invest in other industries or in agriculture. The result was a highly distorted economy, with 80% of Venezuelans living in poverty and millions forced to eke out a living in the "informal sector" - selling trinkets from street stalls, shining shoes etc.
The regaining of government control of the country's nominally state-run oil industry from its corrupt management intent on privatising it in early 2003, after the defeat of a bosses' lockout, opened the possibility of the oil wealth being used for the benefit of the majority for the first time.
But do the concerns about global warming and the other environmentally destructive effects of the oil industry mean that perhaps Venezuela should leave its oil in the ground?
Obviously not, as this would condemn the majority of Venezuelans to a life of poverty and starvation. The Kyoto Protocol, hardly a document advocating radical social change, gives a nod to the climate justice principle that First World nations need to lead on countering global warming, reducing their emissions and developing clean energy technology. It is these countries (the US, Canada, the EU, Japan and Australasia), inhabited by 15% of the world's population, that produce 50% of CO2 emissions.
The main burden for reducing the world's CO2 emissions should not fall on the poorest, who have gained least from the profits flowing from the use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. This is the reason why underdeveloped nations do not have to abide by binding emission reduction targets.
On the other hand, if the rulers of the rich nations were genuinely concerned about helping the poor countries, they would be selflessly providing major transfers of financial aid and non-CO2 emitting technology. This, however, is not the case and Venezuela is therefore forced to continue exporting large amounts of oil to earn export income.
The poverty-eradicating social missions that the Chavez government is spending oil revenue on are an essential precondition for breaking out of dependence on the oil-export economy. The missions aim to increase the skills, organisation and confidence of the poor majority so that they can participate in creating a new, sustainable economy.
Programs such as Mision Vuelvan Caras ("Turn Your Faces" - towards the enemy, in this case underdevelopment) are aimed at developing and diversifying Venezuela's economy, thus laying the foundations for decreasing its dependence on oil and other non-renewable natural resources.
Launched in 2004, Mision Vuelvan Caras was created with the goal of "converting - through work - the creative potential of the people into popular power". Poor Venezuelans are encouraged to organise themselves into cooperatives and to develop skills and knowledge to enable them to engage in stable and socially productive employment. Tens of thousands of cooperatives have been formed covering many sectors of the economy.
Venezuela, a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has also started to take some bold initiatives on the environmental front. In June 2006, Chavez launched Mision Arbol ("Tree"), which has as its goal the reforestation of 150,000 hectares of land with 100 million trees over five years. By September, 831 conservation committees, involving more than 10,000 people, had been formed with the task of implementing this plan.
Mision Arbol is also tied in with economic development, promoting the planting of cacao and coffee plants in the shade of the new trees, thus giving poor farmers an economic incentive to move away from environmentally destructive subsistence farming methods.
In November, Chavez launched another environmentally motivated mission, "Energy Revolution". This is aimed at reducing energy usage in Venezuela over the next five years. The program, inspired by a similar scheme in socialist Cuba, includes projects for increasing the use of natural gas (the burning of which emits 50% less CO2 than the burning of oil or coal) and installing wind- and solar-powered electricity systems.
The first stage involves the distribution of 52 million energy-efficient light globes that use half the electricity of traditional light globes and should reduce consumption by 2000 megawatts per year, also saving US$2 billion in fuel costs. Venezuelan youth are being mobilised to implement this project with the help of young Cuban social workers, many of whom would have participated in a similar project in Cuba.
One of the most significant missions that will transform the way the Venezuelan environment is treated is Mision Guaicaipuro. Launched in 2003, its aim is to make the 1999 constitution's goal of restoring indigenous peoples' rights a reality. Along with increasing the recognition and respect for indigenous history and culture, it also sets out new guidelines for the return of land to its traditional indigenous custodians.
Once land is demarcated back under the control of an indigenous group, any resource extraction from that land has to be taken through the community first. This will ensure that any development that is deemed to be destructive to the environment or the cultural, social or economic integrity of the community itself is unlikely to be approved.
The key to understanding the paradox of oil money being used to fund environmental programs is the trajectory that Venezuela is moving along. Chavez has repeatedly stated that Venezuela is developing a "new socialism of the 21st century", in order to create a society that breaks from the rapacious corporate-profits-first logic of the capitalist system to a society run by and oriented to meeting the needs of working people.
The potential of a socialist economic system to solve environmental problems is indicated by Cuba's example. According to the Living Planet Report 2006 issued last October by the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Footprint Network, Cuba is the only country in the world that has a high level of social development, including good health and education systems, and does not use up more resources than is sustainable. It was thus rated as the planet's only ecologically sustainable nation.
Cuba's achievements are all the more extraordinary because they have been made in a poor country subjected to a five-decade-long US economic blockade. They were made possible by a planned economy based on fulfilling the needs of the people rather than corporate profits.
Of course Venezuela's trajectory and its ultimate goal of a sustainable and just society will not happen overnight and will not be free of problems and contradictions. While the Chavez government may not always be able to balance the needs of all and will make errors, the voices of Venezuela's long-marginalised majority are being heard for the first time and they are being encouraged to fight for their interests.
Chavez has said that "the only way to defeat poverty is to give power to the people". It's also the only way that the environmental crisis will be solved.