Venezuela: Mission Tree reverses environmental destruction

Issue 

Coral Wynter & Jim McIlroy, Caracas

On the June 4 edition of his weekly television program Alo Presidente, President Hugo Chavez announced the formation of a new social mission — Mission Tree — commencing a major campaign to save Venezuela's environment. "We hope to plant 100 million trees in 150,000 hectares over the whole country during the next five years. More than [US$5 million] has been allocated for the execution of 460 projects", Chavez said. He announced the formation of 800 conservation committees — grassroots committees based in the local communities — that will play a central role in running the project.

Chavez symbolically launched the mission by planting a walnut tree. The environment ministry has identified only 100 walnut trees in the whole of the Avila national park, and the recovery of this species — considered nearly extinct — is one goal of the mission. According to Chavez, "If we are going to save the planet, we have to start with our own forests, our rivers and trees, our own natural environment".

The environment ministry has outlined a plan in four stages. With the collaboration of local communities and students, the first stage is the collection of seeds, the second is the construction of nurseries, the third is the planting of the germinated small trees and the fourth is the maintenance of plantations. Already, 10,500 volunteers have registered for Mission Tree and they have the job of planting 20 million trees over 16,000 hectares by the end of 2006.

Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA, is assisting the mission and PDVSA workers have already participated in tree planting. According to the June 16 Diaro Vea, the president of the technical arm of PDVSA, Hercilio Rivas, said "We are obliged to preserve the country's resources for ourselves and future generations".

All these events are the beginning of a massive campaign to make the public conscious of caring for the environment. The Bolivarian revolution — as the process of social change led by the Chavez government is known — has embarked on a strategy of endogenous (national) development. Some critics argue that this strategy has been interpreted by a number of cooperatives, which are at the heart of the campaign to develop Venezuela's economy to overcome underdevelopment and dependency on oil revenue, to mean "production at all costs". Many argue that endogenous development must not mean copying the model of capitalist development, which has destroyed most of the forests of Europe and United States.

Reinaldo Bolivar, writing in the June 11 Diario Vea, pointed out that some cooperatives have deforested huge sections of land. A sad example is the continued destruction of the banks of the Tiznados river in Ortiz, where a cooperative has destroyed eight hectares alongside the river. This area was a sanctuary of the domesticated araguato monkey species, and a favourite bathing place for locals. Lamentably, Bolivar pointed out, neither the neighbouring people, the National Guard nor the environment district attorney moved to stop the action, and the local people actually approved the destruction of the monkeys' environment. This example is being repeated around other rivers of the country, and shows that it is necessary to have a comprehensive campaign of education, prevention and penalties.

Mission Tree and related environmental programs will campaign on the importance of saving the jungles, the need for maintaining an ecological equilibrium, and the recovery of spaces that have been despoiled over decades. Advertisements in Diario Vea announced that a long-term aim is to clean up the River Guaire that flows through Caracas and is currently little more than a sewage drain. Other aims include setting free the Arrau turtle, eliminating toxic rubbish, cleaning up Lake Maracaibo (home of Venezuela's largest oil reserves), saving the Orinoco alligator and bringing drinkable water to all of Venezuela.

Mission Tree will be integrated into delivering collective land titles to indigenous communities and other projects for social development with the aim of promoting evironmentally friendly practices by social organisations.

A June 23 Venezuelanalysis.com report on Mission Tree indicated the extent of the work to be done, pointing out that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Venezuela has ranked in the worst 10 countries for the last five years for its rate of deforestation. This statistic is questioned by Americo Catalan, director of forest investigation and projects for the environment ministry, yet he acknowledges that the problem is severe, pointing out to Venezuelanalysis.com that even in a number of national parks, deforestation is nearly complete.

Venezuelanlaysis.com points out the centrality of empowering the poor to the goal of reversing environmental destruction, writing that "In alignment with the goals of the 'Bolivarian Process', which is attempting to pass power and responsibility in to the hands of the local community", Mission Tree bases itself on the conservation committees as its key organising tool.

Miguel Rodriguez, vice-minister of environmental conservation, told Venezuelanalysis.com that organising and educating the rural poor, who are often responsible for deforestation in their attempt to find land to work in order to survive, is key. "You can't tell a campesino to conserve the valley, because he's going to respond that he has to eat, but you can find a product which can be cultivated along with the trees."

Venezuela faces a massive task in reversing deforestation and environmental destruction, but the launch of Mission Tree signifies that the job has now started.

From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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