Ecological Contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution

by Maria Pilar Garcia Guadilla, El Libertario

Venezuela is a country with a mining and extractive industry economy, whose model development has been based on the exploitation of oil and other non-renewable resources that cause strong impacts on the environment. Over the past decade, the government has blamed the “savage capitalism and neoliberal policies” for the environmental problems—despite the fact that current exploitation of these resources supports the so-called Bolivarian Development Model. This model reproduces these practices labelled as “neoliberal or savage,” causing negative environmental impacts as strong or even stronger than in the past.

Citizen organizations, indigenous communities and human rights organizations have continued to press environmental demands, basing their struggle on the 1999 Constitution, approved by a constituent process, that did incorporate participatory democracy and environmental rights. Many of these rights have been violated, and participatory democracy has not resulted in an
environmental democracy. Conflicts related to resource extraction in fact have
been multiplied since Hugo Chávez became president of the republic.

Persistence of Grievances
Some of the most significant socio-environmental conflicts of this decade in Venezuela have to do with the negative impacts of oil exploitation, mining, and other energy mega-projects. These are proposed both nationally and internationally, to supposedly reduce US dependence and achieve the integration of Latin America and the Caribbean through the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas People (ALBA).

The Bolivarian Development Model has been defined by government spokesmen, including President Chávez, as “sustainable, endogenous, equitable and participatory.” The electoral promise made in 1998 by the then-presidential candidate Hugo Chávez to support the struggles that environmentalists and indigenous were waging at the time, along with his environmental discourse and criticism of the “neo-liberalism and savage capitalism,” created an expectation among the social movements that if he became president he would pursue a vision more consonant with environmentally sustainable development.

However, these expectations were frustrated. According to the announcement made in 2005 by President Chávez, oil production was to double by 2012 through the exploitation of 500,000 square kilometers of marine platforms and over 500,000 square kilometers on the mainland. Construction of new refineries and a gas complex in the Gulf of Paria was announced. New mining projects in the Imataca Forest Reserve, a substantial increase in coal mining in the Sierra de Perijá, and increased hydro-power production for export to Brazil were all proclaimed. The economic crisis, along with government inefficiency, have delayed or halted those plans—but if they ever go ahead, it will affect almost the entire national territory, including areas that are now environmentally protected by law. These include Canaima National Park in the Gran Sabana, Imataca Forest Reserve, and the basins of the country main rivers. These plans reflect continuity with the policies of previous governments, branded by President Chávez as “neoliberals, capitalists and predators of the environment.”

Venezuela is also one of the 12 member states of the Initiative for the Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure (IIRSA), which covers 507 projects with high environmental and socio-cultural impacts, involving construction of major new roads, dams, gas pipelines and waterways. The Great Southern Gas Pipeline, a mega-plan to achieve energy integration between Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, must cross 8000 kilometers, so it would effect extremely fragile and biodiverse areas. These mega-plans are also paralyzed or delayed due to the economic crisis, but if they’re activated, the impacts on the environment could be compared with the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which ALBA was conceived as an alternative to.

Resistance Beyond Rhetorical Discourse
The development model based in the exploitation of hydrocarbons that the Venezuelan government has proposed has been strongly questioned by the environmental, indigenous and human rights movements. In various discussions on the subject made at the World Social Forum at Caracas in January 2006, indigenous movements and environmentalists from Venezuela and the world expressed strong criticism of the negative effects of oil exploitation. The largest mobilization at the Forum was a march against expansion of coal development in the Sierra de Perijá.

Currently, there are frequent protests against the negative effects of oil and gas in both Ecuador and Venezuela, frequently via national and international digital networks such as,, soberanĂ­ and; but these spaces are privileged and globalized electronic hubs of resistance against the negative impacts of oil and gas exploitation in tropical countries.

In Venezuela, as in the rest of the globalized world, the logic behind social movements is to confront “neoliberal policy”—regardless of whether the government has an “anti-neoliberal discourse.” Therefore, the Bolivarian Development Model, like those of other governments that are called left, can generate resistance and mobilization.

In the case of Venezuela, such resistance can come both from within and outside Chávez circles, because of the broad ideological heterogeneity of the groups supporting the president. Venezuelans environmental and indigenous movements are by definition anti-neoliberal, and many of their members support the President Chávez. Some transcend the dichotomy between “neo-liberal” and “anti-neoliberal” discourse by questioning the model of “civilization,” and demanding transformation on the political, cultural, gender, social and environmental levels.

So far, the great ideological heterogeneity and class differences among environmentalists has hampered the formulation of collective proposals and contributed to the estrangement of social movements that in the past had strategic alliances with environmentalists. The lack of an objective reading on the socio-environmental crisis and of a joint strategy around alternative collective proposals have contributed to this weakening of protests against the predator model.

For a Consistent Eco-Socialism
The anti-neoliberal discourse of the Bolivarian Development Model can be a first step towards the implementation of a more fair model; nonetheless the rplans and policies of “21st century eco-socialism” in Venezuela militate against it, since the productivist, instrumental and developmental logic has not changed. Can we speak of justice, social equity and solidarity when the development model does not take into account the environmental dimension or intergenerational equity? When it sacrifices the welfare and the right to cultural identity of its indigenous communities? When the model do not recognize the negative impacts of mega-projects such as gas pipelines, oil pipelines, or large infrastructure development? Can we speak of a revolutionary model that does not stimulate more equitable practices and relationships with the environment?

The construction of 21st century eco-socialism in Venezuela must, first, overcome the deep gap between the rhetoric discourse and the reality of the development model; secondly, it requires that the desirable model of civilization is built collectively and not imposed from above as in the present; and, finally, that its source of inspiration is the transition to a post-petroleum society—such as the one envisioned by Salvador de La Plaza, an eminent Venezuelan historian and politician, who warned about the harmful effects of oil and the need to control them to achieve national sovereignty. He noted that for the oil industry to be sustainable requires that the environment costs arising from the exploitation of hydrocarbons needs to be listed in the “accounting”—not only economically but also in the cultural and
socio-environmental spheres.

This view is not very different from Kovel & Lowry (2002), who in their Eco-socialist Manifesto indicate that a society with a high degree of harmony with nature should lead to “the extinction of dependence on fossil fuels,” which they considered attached to industrial capitalism. Getting rid of this dependence “can provide a material base for the liberation of countries oppressed by oil imperialism” as well as reducing global warming
and other problems arising from the ecological crisis.


This text first appeared in the March-April issue of El Libertario, the Caracas-based anarchist journal. It was adopted from a longer article that appeared last year in Spanish in the Journal of Economics and Social Sciences (Universidad Central de Venezuela) entitled “XXI Century Eco-socialism and Bolivarian Development Model: the myths of environmental sustainability and participatory democracy in Venezuela.” Translated by El Liberatio’s Julio Pacheco, it was further edited and condensed by World War 4 Report.


Oil Watch

Movimiento de Afectados por la Industria Petrolera en PaĂ­ses AmazĂłnicos (MAIPPA)

Sociedad de Amigos en Defensa de la Gran Sabana


Venezuela: Government plan endangers the Imataca forest
World Rainforest Movement, October 2003

Salvador de la Plaza, un pensador revolucionario venezolano en el olvido
World Rainforest Movement, Dec. 25, 2009

An Ecosocialist Manifesto
Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, International Endowment for Democracy, September 2001

See also:

by Hans Bennett, Upside Down World
World War 4 Report, February 2010

Criminalization and Death for Indigenous Struggle
by José Quintero Weir, El Libertario
World War 4 Report, November 2009

South American “Infrastructure Integration” for Free Trade
by Raul Zibechi, IRC Americas Program
World War 4 Report, July 2006


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution