ROSARIO, Argentina – As Venezuela’s economic crisis continues to spiral out of control, the Catholic Church is once again speaking up, this time protesting the country’s environmental devastation caused by the unbridled exploitation of mineral resources in the southeastern Guayana region.
“The Venezuelan Church, together with that of our continent and the whole world, is concerned over the depredation of nature and the carelessness and exclusion of the inhabitants of the devastated regions,” said Bishop José Ángel Divasson, president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and apostolic vicar of Puerto Ayacucho.
Speaking at a press conference organized by the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, REPAM and Caritas Venezuela on Thursday, the bishop also said that the survival of the country’s indigenous communities is at risk.
The Venezuelan Guayana region hosts the so-called Mining Arc of the Orinoco River National Development Strategic Zone — a concession area representing over 12 percent of the country’s landmass. Gold, diamonds, iron ore, copper, bauxite, coltan, and other resources are extracted in the area.
The creation of the Arc has been controversial since it was announced in 2016.
Also present on Thursday was Héctor Escandel, a REPAM representative from Puerto Ayacucho, who said that “we have to go against the imposition of this predatory model, which in this case has an ‘extractivist’ surname, but everything is extractivist.”
“All we do is extract from nature,” the activist said. “What is questionable is how it is extracted and for what.”
According to Escandel, Venezuela is on a path of “predatory development” that prioritizes an economy that doesn’t have the human person at the center, it doesn’t “generate welfare,” instead being an economy “for accumulation,” that generates wealth for those who are already wealthy, while excluding others and increasing poverty.
“This is the economic model that has to be dismantled,” he said.
Maria Elena Febres, president of Venezuela’s National Council of the Laity, was also present at Thursday’s event. She drew attention to the granting of new mining concessions and the growing presence of both individuals and groups that operate illegally which she says have “expanded the areas where mining is taking place.”
“In many cases, this is done by destroying the natural environment,” she said.
Formerly dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Latin America,” due to its oil reserves, Venezuela today is facing a major economic crisis, with the GDP falling by 40 percent in the past three years and an annual inflation that has reached 6,147 percent.
According to some statistics, eight in 10 people live in chronic or severe poverty, which has driven many to work illegally in the mines.
At the press conference, the members of REPAM released a joint statement in which they acknowledge that seeing the “unbearable situations of hunger, poverty and misery, citizen insecurity, health emergency, political persecution, [and] risky migrations,” it’s understandable that problems that seem less urgent are overlooked.
However, these long-term problems, such as the exploitation of the environment, are already having “disastrous consequences in all the levels of our reality and are seriously mortgaging the future.”
REPAM denounced the official explanation of a need for an increase of economic resources, saying it cannot justify unbridled mineral extraction. The organization also called for transparency in the exploitation of mineral resources to guarantee that they’re being done “according to just limitations” and avoiding the “obvious negative consequences” that impact both the environment and the region’s inhabitants.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has often tried to create division between Pope Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, saying that the prelates ignore the head of the Catholic Church, something the bishops have always denied, responding instead by saying that the pope supports the local hierarchy.
When it comes to the protection of the environment, however, there’s absolutely no room for doubt on the alignment between Francis — often dubbed the “green pope” — and the bishops.
In their statement, the Pan-Amazonian network also highlights the upcoming extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon region, that will be held in Rome next year, under the heading of “Amazonia: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.”
In 2015, Francis released the first-ever papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, and last January, during a visit to Peru, he went to Puerto Maldonado, in the heart of the Amazon region. There, he stressed ecology and issued a strong appeal for protection of the Amazon region, which he said is not an “inexhaustible source of resources,” while also insisting that human life has equal, if not greater, value.
On that occasion, the pontiff said he wanted to affirm “a whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”