Into Venezuela

Santa Elena de Uairén: A night-bus from Manaus takes us (with a few tedious incidents, including multiple police checks, the bus breaking down and a pot-hole disaster) to the town of Boa Vista, a dusty, stifling settlement in a northern corner of the Amazon near the borders of Venezuela and Guyana.

Simon Bolivar, Venezuela´s liberator stands tall in Santa Elena´s square

The drive takes us through indigenous territory, in which daytime vehicles are met by spear and arrow-wielding tribespeople anxious for no repeat of the encounters made a few decades ago by oil and mineral explorers, whose presence halved the indigenous population through disease transmission.

We cross the equator for the 9th, and probably last, time during this trip.

The Amazon rainforest is vast and 70% of it is in Brazil (60% of Brazil, 10% of its population, is Amazon). But our route, through the heart of the forest, is lined with cattle ranches and soy production, houses and towns, power stations and industry. The Amazon is not a romantic piece of pristine wilderness (at least, it’s not only that). More than 25 million people live in Amazonia. Industries from oil and gas to gold and hydropower depend on its resources.

The world’s people also depend on the Amazon, to clean our shared atmosphere by soaking up carbon dioxide and sweating out oxygen, and by delivering rain. In the rich world, we have almost entirely eliminated our old-growth forests, in part to support the industrial development that made us rich. At the time, there were many who spoke up in sadness at how we were destroying our natural resources and uglifying our lands, but such ‘anti-development’ philosophies were no more popular then as now in developing countries.

Our dependence on the Amazon’s atmospheric cleaning properties is now more urgent than ever. And those countries charged with its stewardship are, to some extent, sympathetic to this. Brazil has made huge strides in monitoring and addressing deforestation, including a cool satellite monitoring system that can be followed live. But the needs of those 25 million people, not to mention the important economies here, have not been addressed.

It is neither feasible nor desirable to move people from the forest in order to protect it. Alternative social and income-generating schemes need to be found, and there are some (very few) examples where this has worked – communities have been switched from logging to brazil nuts, for example. Perhaps one answer is to look at the 17% of degraded forest and ensure that this land is used far more efficiently for soy or cattle, reducing the need to destroy other parts.

But what about big projects, like hydrodams and oil? Should they be vehemently opposed as inherently bad for the forest, or should be try to find a way to acknowledge their construction but ensure that they cause the least amount of impact? For example, instead of building roads to a mine or dam, how about improving river transport or installing train tracks – roads are accompanied by a 50-kilometre-wide halo of deforestation in the Amazon.

Guyana has signed an MOU with Norway ensuring that it will be paid to preserve its forest. But avoided deforestation is still not included in international climate agreements, so how feasible a plan this will prove is unknown.

We decide in Boa Vista to change our always loose plans: we will not go to Guyana, instead we’ll head straight for Venezuela. Unfortunately, Chavez’s decision to peg the Bolivar to the US dollar at an artificially high rate means that we must spend 2 days in Boa Vista trying to procure US dollars for illegal exchange on the Venezuelan black market – any other way and we would be financially crippled, paying 2-3 times as much for goods and services.

The strange mock Medieval cathedral of Santa Elena, built of concrete painted to look like stone and marble

Still, we eventually get our money and hop on a bus to the nation of beauty queens and baseball stars, and more than 14000 murders a year. Our entrance to the birthplace of Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez is accompanied Billy Bragg (on my iPod) – we arrive the day of the legislative election.

It´s the first election in 5 years that the opposition hasn´t boycotted (over its complaints about the fairness of the voting system). In Santa Elena, everyone has a purple left finger, the dye of the voter, but it´s not clear for whom they are voting. Many roll their eyes at Chavez´s name, but no one will articulate further.

Chavez has ´ruled´for 12 years now and his United Socialist Party currently has almost every one of the seats in the legiaslature – something the opposition hopes to change. For Chavez, any seat lost is a personal affront to The Revolution.But the next presidential election is not for another couple of years.

We should have a result by morning.

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