Capitalist "development" and human catastrophe in Venezuela

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 24 09:01:21 MST 1999

Financial Times (London)

December 22, 1999, Wednesday London Edition

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Cold comfort for the flood's survivors: Raymond Colitt
and Dan Bilefsky examine whether the torrential rains in Venezuela were the
result of human foll:


On either side of the steep mountain range that separates Caracas from the
coast, sprawling shanty towns used to house hundreds of thousands of
impoverished people. No longer. Last week, the normally inconspicuous
creeks on Mount Avila turned into tumultuous rivers that swept away trees,
cars and houses. Up to 10,000 people may have died.

The destruction and fatality caused by last week's landslides and flash
floods in Venezuela raise a number of issues about human responsibility in
limiting tragic natural disasters.

In some areas, little could have been done to foresee or prevent the
magnitude of the disaster. The intensity of the rains - a year's average
precipitation fell in two days - were unexpected, particularly when the dry
season had already begun. The flash floods happened at night, and many
victims were swept away in their beds. A mass evacuation would have been
impossible to organise at short notice.

Yet - as even President Hugo Chavez now admits - the death toll could have
been significantly lower had previous governments pursued basic urban
planning, applied legal construction norms and practised periodic
inspections of buildings and other infrastructure.

Despite differences in climate and topography, there is a parallel to the
avalanche tragedies of the Alps last winter, and to the devastation caused
by Hurricane Mitch in Central America in October 1998. In all three cases,
the havoc caused by freaks of nature were compounded by indiscriminate
logging and human settlement in the mountains. There was inadequate
government supervision in the three disasters.

"Where did they get these building permits?" President Chavez asked in a
nationally-televised speech this week. The implication was that
construction companies had bribed public officials to build on dangerous

Throughout Venezuela, rivers have been diverted, mountains deforested, and
dams constructed, often without thorough environmental impact studies. Last
week's human tragedy, however, may lead the government to take the
environment more seriously. Jose Vicente Rangel, foreign minister, said:
"It will force us to adopt environmental issues as a state policy."

As natural disasters become more frequent around the globe, the list of
culprits is becoming depressingly familiar. In Venezuela, a prolonged
economic crisis, the mis-management of public funds and widespread
corruption were exacerbated by population pressure on urban areas.

No government can solve such problems overnight. Yet even before last
week's torrential rains, the current administration had launched a
controversial project to resettle large parts of the population from the
congested cities along the country's northern coastal area to the interior.

As part of a multi-billion dollar project to stimulate economic development
between the Apure and Orinoco rivers (in the south-west of Venezuela),
President Chavez's administration had begun to build basic infrastructure
and provide economic incentives for agriculture, commerce, and small
industry. The idea was to promote the use of the region's vast natural
resources, including abundant minerals and timber.

The government is now taking advantage of the tragedy to relocate many of
the estimated 200,000 homeless survivors.

"We are launching an educational programme in an effort to convince the
people that they have to change their lives, find new places to live. They
cannot return to the ravines where they were," Mr Chavez said.

Given the government's limited resources, its rescue and evacuation efforts
in recent days are acknowledged to have been successful. Mr Chavez, a
former lieutenant-colonel in the army, donned his former combat gear to
take personal command of the rescue operation. Within a few days, more than
100,000 homeless had been transported to shelters and given food and
medical treatment. Mr Chavez pledged to ensure all the homeless would have
comfortable living conditions and a festive meal and presents for the
children by Christmas.

While only diehard critics suggest the government is seeking to gain
political capital out of so much suffering, the tragedy is likely to
improve the president's prospects in general elections early next year.

An accurate death toll is clearly hard to gauge when entire villages are
covered under as much as seven metres of mud, and corpses have been washed
out to sea. But the amount of humanitarian aid Venezuela will receive, both
domestic and foreign, in large part depends on an estimate of the magnitude
of the tragedy. First estimates by the employers' federation, Fedecamaras,
suggest that the cost of reconstructing the basic infrastructure along
approximately 150km of coast could reach Dollars 10bn. The country's
perceived oil wealth could deter generous donations for the country's
long-term reconstruction. Yet the international community has responded
quickly and generously with financial and technical aid.

Are deforestation and unregulated settlement alone responsible for the
growing scale of natural disasters? Some environmentalists and scientists
believe global warming may also have a part to play.

Dr Patrick Green, energy and climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth,
says: "Scientific evidence shows that natural catastrophes - including
flooding - are affected by climate change." Bill McGuire, director of the
Benfield Greig hazard research centre at University College, London, adds
that the frequency of recent disasters suggest that "global warming has
played a role and cannot be ignored".

Other experts, however, argue that there is not enough scientific evidence
to correlate the frequency of natural disasters to global warming. Michael
Davey, of Britain's Meteorological Office, says the most obvious
explanation for the Venezuela disaster is El Nino, the periodic temperature
fluctuations in the Pacific.

That will be cold comfort for the survivors of Venezuela's mudslides. "I
lost everything I have, my family, my home, everything and I am never
moving back to where I was," said a woman huddled in one of Caracas's
shelters. Nothing will bring back what she has lost.

Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Louis Proyect
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