Venezuelan conservation crippled by crisis

  • Many conservationists have fled Venezuela since an economic crisis began in 2014.
  • Those who have chosen to remain behind complain of a lack of funding and resources, and say they feel abandoned by the international community.
  • Despite incredible difficulties, some conservationists are still able to take action, including rediscovering a long-lost bird.

“To leave my dream was difficult, but I had to do it for my son,” says Ileana Herrera, a former ecologist from Venezuela, now living in Ecuador.

Herrera, like many conservationists, fled the political and economic chaos engulfing Venezuela, a country rich in oil, but which many analysts are increasingly calling a failed state. She was living off a dismal salary — some ecologists made the equivalent of $3 a month in 2016, according to a longtime researcher — and facing a future of growing insecurity.

“I did not have enough money for my son to eat enough protein,” she says, adding that if a child gets sick in Venezuela, “there is no medication.” The country is experiencing dangerous shortages of basic resources such as food and medicine.

Then Herrera’s mother got cancer.

“Now I live in Ecuador and my dream of forming a research team on invasive species is forgotten,” she says. “There is only time to survive and help your relatives.”

Herrera’s story is not unique. The mass exodus from Venezuela in recent years has also touched the conservation community. Universities and research units, such as the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), are experiencing heavy attrition.

“We have a saying now in Venezuela that more farewells are celebrated than birthdays,” Herrera says.

Small settlement in El Tamá National Park. Image by Jhonathan Miranda.

‘Without money, you can do nothing’

For those ecologists and conservationists who have stayed behind, getting any work done amid food shortages, lack of basic services, hyperinflation and eruptions of violence is almost impossible since the crisis began in 2014.

“Without money, you can do nothing,” says Jhonathan Miranda, an ecologist working at the Red Siskin Initiative (RSI), a partnership between scientific organizations in Venezuela and the Smithsonian Institution.

The SRI is named after Venezuela’s national bird, Spinus cucullatus, a scarlet-bodied finch with a jet-black head. It’s categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List as a result of the illegal pet trade; the species is often bred with yellow canaries to produce the highly coveted red canary.

Miranda, who says he has had to flee gunfire while in the field, laments a lack of resources to properly research the endangered bird.

“You need to do fieldwork to understand the social structure of the red siskin, but since the [economic] crisis began there is no money to do field expeditions,” he says. “Now it is impossible.”

It’s not just the red siskin that’s at stake. Venezuela is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, listed among the 17 nations considered “megadiverse.” A country of immense physical beauty, Venezuela is home to a dazzling array of wildlife, including almost 1,500 bird species, more than 350 mammal species and 341 reptile species. Its territory covers part of the Amazon basin and stretches into the Guiana Shield, one of the oldest geological formations on the planet, dating back almost two billion years. The landscape ranges from vast stretches of tropical rainforest to towering mountains.

Yet hundreds of Venezuela’s species are today classified as threatened under the IUCN Red List (either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered). The collapse of basic conservation infrastructure and the lack of resources may be magnifying the threat further in a country where a starving populace is sometimes driven to eat endangered species over trying to protect them.

Even office-based research is proving difficult.

“When the vehicles broke down we could no longer go to the field,” says Herrera. “We tried to work in modeling, but the crisis also arrived there: there were problems with the computers and no money to fix them.”

Attempts at ingenuity in the face of catastrophe are made even more difficult by the inability to get basic supplies, like motor oil or car tires. All across Venezuela, supermarket shelves are empty, with medical supplies and other consumer goods scarce.

“Almost half of my camera traps are damaged and I have no money and no way to send them for repair,” says Włodzimierz Jędrzejewski, a Polish-born ecologist who moved to Venezuela 10 years ago to research jaguars (Panthera onca).

“Several cameras were stolen — no way to replace them,” he adds.

Rudimentary resources are also lacking. Jędrzejewski works at the IVIC, one of the oldest scientific institutes in Venezuela and responsible for the production of 16 percent of the country’s scientific papers. But the situation there is dire, Jędrzejewski says, with the IVIC struggling with frequent electrical and water outages, a barely functioning internet connection, and a lack of basic office resources such as working printers or photocopy machines.

This deficiency in funding and resources has left ecologists in a state of effective paralysis, many say. Others feel abandoned by the international community.

“We feel left by a scientific world and isolated,” Jędrzejewski says. “Before, I was able to get some funding either from here or from abroad, but [in the past few years] that has been impossible, although I have tried several times. And no one is helping us.”

A jaguar photographed by Jędrzejewski during research in Venezuela’s Los Llanos region. Image by Włodzimierz Jędrzejewski

Weathering the storm

Researchers who do manage to get funding for fieldwork face an increasing set of challenges.

Miranda says one of the biggest obstacles is simply having physical cash to pay for services.

“You need cash to pay for things while in the field, but the banks have none. Sometimes there are people selling cash, and you have to transfer three times the amount into their bank account in order to buy it from them.”

The lack of physical cash is just one of the symptoms of the ongoing crisis. Oil accounted for 90 percent of Venezuela’s exports, and when crude prices dropped in 2014, the country’s economy took a nosedive. Government mismanagement and corruption exacerbated the problem.

In the last four years, the inflation rate has soared. Hovering at approximately 50 percent in 2014, the threshold for hyperinflation, it surpassed 2,400 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The projected inflation rate is expected to hit a stunning 1 million percent this year, the IMF says.

That’s put a stop to many social services, limited the amount of money in banks, and caused drastic food shortages. In addition, due in part to mass financial insecurity, Venezuela is experiencing rising levels of violence. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent group, reported that 27,479 people were killed in 2016, more than in any year prior. Violence isn’t only committed by roving criminal gangs, but also by armed police, national guard and army units. The commanders of these units effectively run armed fiefdoms where roadblocks are set up to extort bribes, and where illegal mining operations, gold export, gun running and other forms of trafficking and violent intimidation are common.

“There is a lot of danger in both cities and in rural areas, and there are sites or regions where it’s not possible to go at all,” Miranda says.

The Society of Venezuelan Ecology had to cancel its annual congress in both 2017 and 2018. In an email to its members, the group cited “transport problems” and “difficulty with basic services” as among the reasons for the cancellation.

The red siskin is Venezuela’s national bird. It is historically endangered due in large part to the illegal pet trade, which has been made worse by the national economic disaster. Image by Jhonathan Miranda.

Biodiversity in the balance

Given the crisis and the human lives that are at stake, it is understandable that environmental issues are not a top priority for the Venezuelan government. Since 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has been non-operational. In 2015, Maduro created the Ministry for Ecosocialism and Water — since changed to the Ministry for Ecosocialism — but there is uncertainty surrounding its effectiveness, especially with regard to biodiversity conservation, as the majority of its activities appear to be related to waste and recycling. The Venezuelan government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

There has also been a collapse of the national park system, with few working national park guards, despite 53 percent of Venezuelan land being officially designated as public — the largest proportion of land allotted for conservation in any country.

Jędrzejewski says this lack of guards, coupled with the food shortage, has led to an increase in subsistence hunting. To survive, people are hunting wild flamingos, dolphins, sea turtles and birds, Mongabay reported earlier this year. Some desperate people are even poaching zoo animals.

Meanwhile, the government has been selling large amounts of land to private investors in an attempt to revitalize the economy. The partial bankruptcy of the oil sector has fostered a desperate search for more resources, often through intensive exploration for gold and other minerals — bringing catastrophic environmental impacts.

A prominent case is that of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a Honduras-sized swath of the Amazon spanning 112,000 square kilometers (43,200 square miles) that President Nicolás Maduro’s government has transformed into a mining district. The government has allowed more than 150 companies to explore for minerals such as gold and coltan.

The district, intersecting with many national parks and national monuments, is seen as posing a real threat to the region’s biodiversity.

“Rapidly spreading mining for gold and other minerals has entered into, and endangers, the jaguar core habitats in the south of Venezuela,” Jędrzejewski says.

In addition to jaguars, the area is home to almost 850 bird species, as well as giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), listed as vulnerable, and Orinoco crocodiles (Crocodylus intermedius), a critically endangered species.

El Tamá National Park contains one of the world’s highest waterfalls and is home to thousands of species, including mountain lions, spectacled bears and flame-winged parakeets. Image by Jhonathan Miranda.

‘The country that has given me everything’

Given the mounting threats facing Venezuela’s biodiversity, and the seemingly impossible conditions for working ecologists and conservationists, it is a wonder that any glimmer of hope remains.

But, as in most crises, people find a way.

“Yes, scientific work is hampered in all aspects, to the point where it can reach a total paralysis of activity,” says Laurie Fajardo, a researcher working at the IVIC. “However, alternatives are always found to produce results, even in the worst conditions.”

An organization Fajardo works with, Provita, is an example of this resilience. In the last few years, it has been highly productive in creating databases to catalogue Venezuelan biodiversity. In 2017, a team associated with Provita and led by Miranda rediscovered the Táchira antpitta (Grallaria chthonia), a critically endangered bird species, high in the mountainous forest of El Tamá National Park in western Venezuela. The tiny and elusive brown-freckled species had not been observed since the 1950s and was believed extinct.

Yet uncertainty still abounds among Venezuela’s conservationists, and the decision of whether to stay or go is never an easy one.

“I still do not know what to do. I love Venezuela and I see many things to be done here,” Jędrzejewski says. “However, I also have a family with two little children here and I worry about them.”

Miranda is similarly torn.

“There are times I wake up thinking that I want to leave,” he says. “But I am really in love with my country. Venezuela is an incredible place; it is a beautiful country, with amazing landscapes, people are really kind, and there are many things to investigate and conserve.”

Above all, it seems that for those who can stay, love of country reigns supreme.

“I’m still here, working and doing the best I can,” Fajardo says, “because that’s what Venezuela needs now, the country that has given me everything.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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