Climate change is set to worsen the world’s worst displacement crises. Venezuela already registers more than 5.9 million refugees and migrants and millions more internally displaced people in 2021. This represents around 20% of the country’s population of just over 28 million. There has been an 8,000% increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status since 2014, with most requests in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina. Most Venezuela analysts attribute cross-border and internal flows of displacement to worsening governance, a failing economy and spiralling violence. Although climate change and extreme weather events are rarely treated as factors in decisions to move, that may be changing.
Mounting evidence suggests that Venezuela is experiencing accelerating, chronic climate shocks and stresses, some of which are factored into people’s calculations whether to stay or leave. One of the most significant is severe and prolonged drought. The country’s average temperatures have increased significantly in recent years. Rainfall declined sharply – on the order of 50–65% – between 2013 and 2016. In addition to disrupting agricultural production, this has severely depleted water levels at key hydroelectric installations, including the Guri Dam in Bolivar. The combined blow of dependence on hydro-power and declining oil prices resulted in knock-on effects including rolling blackouts and rationing of water and electricity in Caracas. President Nicolas Maduro’s government responded with compulsory three-day weekends to save energy. A rogue climate has become yet another of the cascading miseries driving Venezuelans to pack up and go by the tens of thousands.
Venezuela is also experiencing rapidly rising sea levels. Rising sea waters risk triggering severe flooding in coastal areas, not least Maracaibo Lake, La Vela de Coro, Chichiriviche, the Barlovento coast, the Amacuro delta and the Orinoco delta. Tens of thousands of indigenous people in Venezuela risk losing their homes due to surging seas. Scientists have warned for decades (the first quantitative assessment was in 1995, followed by another study in 1997) that oil infrastructure, urban areas and tourist infrastructure would all be affected, with a particular threat posed to the regions of Costa Oriental del Lago de Maracaibo and Costa Oriental del Estado Falcón.
A big part of the challenge is that the Venezuelan authorities are not forthcoming either about the extent of displacement or the climate risks facing the country. While Venezuela is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, the government has systematically concealed or failed to gather statistics and studies on its many biomes, making it exceedingly difficult to measure, much less protect, the country’s vulnerable ecosystems. Over the past decade, basic long-term environmental data and research have been retracted from public websites, including assessments of deforestation, wildlife, water and air quality and pollution. Some 50 of the country’s 335 weather stations are currently inoperable, making it hard to monitor and forecast temperatures or rainfall.
In the absence of government action, international organisations and local activists are piecing together data on the extent of climate risks. The World Bank’s Climate Research Unit divides the country into five ‘climate groups’ to better understand seasonal precipitation and temperature patterns. The World Bank, and others, have observed how Venezuela has already lost four of its five glaciers since the early 1990s: the remaining Humboldt glacier is expected to disappear in under two decades. This will make Venezuela potentially the first country on earth to lose all its glaciers. The rapid retreat of the ice sheet is affecting water cycles and availability, though the government hopes somehow (don’t ask) that ‘global cooling’ could reverse these trends. Some universities and research institutes are also keeping tabs on other metrics of climate change, but with piecemeal data.
Meanwhile, extensive mining and oil extraction and spills are fouling the environment. Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc covers some 12% of national territory; over 780,000 hectares of forest have been cleared there since 2000, threatening the Amazon. Illegal mining has spread into national parks, including Yapacana and Canaima, contaminating the environment and contributing to increased criminal and paramilitary violence targeting locals. Lake Maracaibo, on the Caribbean coast, is an ecological disaster area. There are signs of significant depletion of fish species and growing toxicity in both the water and local inhabitants. Although the state oil company PDVSA stopped reporting spills in 2016, the number of reported accidents that year alone was four times that of 1999.
Environmental crimes perpetrated in Venezuela involve a farrago of armed groups. Among them are the so-called ‘sindicatos’ and ‘pranes’, ultra-violent criminal groups that hold vast influence in resource-rich areas. Many of the sindicatos are financed and supported by powerful elites – politicians, civil servants and soldiers – that thrive on criminal economies. Alongside these home-grown groups are Colombian guerrillas who alternately support the armed forces or mining sindicatos. Owing to the surging value of gold, violent clashes are common in wildcat prospecting areas across the country’s southern flank. Throw in criminal violence associated with land-grabbing and predatory resource exploitation, plus the devastating impact of the pandemic on lives and livelihoods, and you have a trifecta of miseries hastening Venezuelan out-migration.
The international community is scrambling to respond to the twin crises of displacement and climate change. UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Union are working with governments across the region to provide food and shelter to displaced Venezuelans. This includes improving conditions in receiving countries, providing information on services, supporting newcomers with documentation and fighting mounting discrimination and xenophobia from host communities. These same aid agencies are also mounting border operations to disrupt the trafficking and exploitation of people, including minors and unaccompanied children.
Backed by governments, UNHCR is supporting registration measures in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, as well as Aruba, Costa Rica, Curacao, Guyana, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Many of these countries have experienced spectacular growth in refugee claimants, putting tremendous pressure on local services and straining local hospitality. The burden has fallen disproportionately on Colombia, a refuge for one in three displaced Venezuelans in Latin America, where the torrent of refugees has been received with a modicum of official aid and promises of Covid vaccines, but also rising xenophobia. Responding to the displacement crisis is growing more challenging by the day, whether because of competing geopolitical and domestic emergencies in the wake of Covid-19 or deteriorating food security due to climate change.
It does not help that the Venezuelan government has demonstrated limited ability or willingness to respond to the climate crisis. With some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, Venezuela’s ruling elite have little incentive to abide by rules that would restrict production. Add to that the comparatively limited awareness of – or interest in – the core threats of climate change, such as increasing temperatures, rising coastal waters and melting glaciers. Despite their existential portent, such vital topics rate scant mention by public authorities or in the education system. The government has also shut down or scaled back agencies tasked with carrying out environmental policy. The authorities have issued only two communications on emissions since the 1990s: one in 2005, based on data from 1999, and another in 2017, with data from 2010.
In the face of a growing outcry over domestic environmental crime, the Maduro administration launched a crackdown in 2018 called, suggestively, ‘Manos de Metal’ (‘Metal Fist’). Yet just a handful of people have been arrested in connection with illegal mining. That may be because many of the major players are government officials, who are deeply implicated in extracting rents from illegal deforestation and mining. Instead, they have gradually closed down reporting, including indicators of environmental health. After all, why bother about a problem that no one sees?
Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarape Institute and principal at SecDev Group. Lycia Brasil is a researcher at the Igarape Institute. Mac Margolis is a writer-in-residence at the Igarape Institute.