Venezuelan environmentalist: 'Tomorrow is too late'

August 23, 2009

This article is from the Australian-Venezuela Solidarity Network broadsheet, published as a supplement in Green Left Weekly 808.

Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network national co-convenor Frederico Fuentes spoke to Heryck Rangel, an environmental activist and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela Youth (JPSUV), about the challenges that the global environment crisis poses for Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, and the planet.

"More than just an economic crisis, what humanity faces today is a systemic crisis", Rangel said. "We can see this if we look at the energy crisis, and the social crisis that is generating a lot of poverty and misery. But above all, we can see this in the ecological crisis.

"There is a grand ecological crisis in the world today and I believe we are at a pivotal point, a moment when we need to make tough decisions. The current mode of development is incompatible with life."

Rangel explained that this is why, "in Venezuela, we believe in a model for life and sustainable development where we can generate the greatest possible sum of happiness, not only for this generation, but for future generations".

As well as being part of the national leadership of the JPSUV, Rangel is one of the founders of the Movement of Venezuelan Eco-citizens, Ecoven, which was set up in 2005 by students at the Central University of Venezuela. Since then, Ecoven has been "giving talks in high schools, where we have begun to involve more young people", he said. Ecoven now organised in various states in Venezuela, he added.

Before President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, successive Venezuelan governments allowed the multinational companies operating there to massively contaminate Venezuela's lakes and rivers, and carry out rampant deforestation that resulted in its ranking by the United nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation as one of the most deforested countries in the world.

Today, Venezuela, one of the world's largest oil producers, is leading the way in providing an ecosocialist alternative for the world.

But one of the most common questions about the Venezuelan revolution is how a process that proclaims itself to be progressive be based on an oil-dependent economy. Rangel explained: "For many years we have lived from oil, and oil is one of the biggest contaminants in the world today. But at the same time, Venezuela is one of the few countries where the government has a policy of reforestation: Mision Arbol (Mission Tree)."

Chavez launched Mission Tree in June 2006 with the aim of planting 1,000,000 trees in five years to combat deforestation and of creating community-based model of sustainable development.

Essential to the project is the development of an ecological consciousness through the self-organisation of local communities to carry out the environmental program and extend ecological education. This includes local conservation committees running "productive conservation" projects, meaning agriculture that does not require deforestation.

"We have chosen the path of life and we are wagering on that, despite our great oil wealth", Rangel said. "We understood that we needed to reforest in order to provide oxygen for this planet, in order to save the world. So, at the same time as we extract oil and sell it, we are reforesting and developing new technologies at the same pace.

Chavez summed up this approach when he told the Venezuelan people in February 2007: "We are an oil producing country and that obligates us to take even more care of the environment—on an extreme level—and to avoid contamination, and to reduce contamination in all areas: earth, water and air."

"In our country, over the next few years, the public transport system will be shifted to function on gas", Rangel said. "Natural gas is less polluting than diesel and petrol. As well, the metro [underground railways] of Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo run on electricity generated by hydro-electricity, which provides 70% of Venezuela's electricity."

As well, major efforts are underway through the Ministry of the Environment to decontaminate Venezuela's rivers and lakes, in both urban and rural areas, and the state-owned oil company PDVSA has, since 2006, been implementing a plan to recuperate green areas, decontaminate rivers, lakes and land, and reduce emissions. Mision Energia (Mission Energy), a social program aimed at energy conservation, has funded young activists to carry out a nationwide campaign to replace common heat-burning light bulbs with the more environmentally friendly cold-energy bulbs.

Asked whether it was possible to think of a post-oil Venezuela, Rangel answered: "I dream of, and know that we are advancing towards, a Venezuela that is self-sufficient and not dependent on oil.

"We are only just beginning to raise consciousness regarding the environment, because in the big cities people are seeing how their own actions can affect their living conditions. We are not dealing here with the concept that capitalism created, the idea of 'quality of life'. What we are dealing with, as [Bolivian president] Evo Morales says and our Indigenous people know, is the knowledge that the Earth is our mother and what we have to generate is 'good living' because everything we do affects the Earth.

"The planet has been sending us signals at a global level, for example the number of hurricanes, droughts and floods. The Earth is telling us that the only planet we have can no longer support the capitalist model of production."

Rangel argued, "Our actions cannot be limited to simply chaining ourselves to trees because it is not the trees that are generating the problem, it is people who generate the problem. We must understand that we need a new, different society, with new values.

"That is where we brought together our socialist ideas with our ecologist ideas and said that Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution has to be profoundly ecological, and that the new man and new woman have to be eco-citizens. They have rights and responsibilities, they cannot think only about the present, but have to think about future generations."

Rangel concluded, "The crisis we are facing should propel us all into action, but it is not enough to just protest against what is happening; we have to change it, and do that now. Tomorrow is too late."

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