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Venezuela: Cargill and Local Companies Destroy Wetlands

Arthur Feinstein and Ralph Nobles
December 28th, 1999

In addition to the natural disaster of floods and mudslides the people of Venezuela are also being subjected to a cruel calamity of human origin.

With the help of permits from a corrupt or inept National Environmental Ministry and through allegedly fraudulent land deeds, a unique, internationally important wildlife refuge called "Los Olivitos" is threatened with destruction, and the indigenous fishing communities which depend upon its fish now face the loss of their livelihood and way of life.

Los Olivitos, located near Lake Maracaibo's el Tablazo Bay, is so biologically rich that it has been designated as a United Nations RAMSAR Treaty site, a Wetland of International Importance. Yet this has not stopped its ongoing destruction by PRODUSAL, a consortium of a Venezuelan petrochemical firm, Pequiven, and our own Cargill Salt Company.

About three years ago PRODUSAL expropriated about one-third of Los Olivitos wetlands and converted them to salt ponds. We in the San Francisco Bay Area are all too familiar with the impacts of salt production on our Bay. Here the creation of salt ponds has resulted in the massive loss of tidal wetlands and the resulting collapse of the Bay's ecology. We now have over 50 species listed as threatened or endangered, many due to this loss of tidal wetlands. So grave has been our loss that over 65 scientists recently recommended that most of the Bay's salt ponds be restored to tidal wetlands.

The disastrous results of salt production in San Francisco Bay have evidently not gone unnoticed. Venezuelans concerned about Los Olivitos sought help from the Bay Area and asked us to come to their country and relate our experiences with salt production and the corresponding decline of environmental health.

Upon our arrival in Venezuela in September we found that Cargill/PRODUSAL had not only built salt ponds in Los Olivitos but that the ponds were located so as to block the natural freshwater flow into the Refuge. Additionally, PRODUSAL intake pumps lower the water level enough to ground the fishing boats while robbing the Refuge of its nutrient-rich egg, fry and larvae-laden water. This blockage of fresh water and pumping of salt water seriously degrades the biological production of the Refuge.

Bittern, an unavoidable toxic by-product of sea salt production, is generated in quantities equal to that of the salt. Because of bittern's toxicity Cargill is not allowed to dump it into San Francisco Bay. Yet Cargill/PRODUSAL in Venezuela, with cynical disregard and contempt for the environment and native people, plan to dump its bittern from Los Olivitos directly into el Tablazo Bay, literally on the doorstep of the aggrieved villagers. At the current production rate this will amount to about 400,000 tons of toxic discharge per year.

Early in 1999, PRODUSAL claimed to have a permit for installation of a pipeline to dump the bittern, assembled equipment and materials on Refuge lands, and started to work. But men, women and children from the nearby village of Ancn de Iturre, at great personal risk, placed themselves in front of the construction machinery to stop the work. At this point PRODUSAL retreated and the Environmental Ministry canceled the permit and assured the villagers that a public hearing would be held before a new permit was issued. Shortly after this we visited Venezuela and one result of our visit was a promised meeting between the Environmental Ministry and the people of Ancn de Iturre.

Apparently that meeting never took place, but all remained quiet until just before Christmas when PRODUSAL crews reappeared with a new pipeline permit and again laid out tubing for the pipeline on public lands of the Refuge. The amazed villagers of Ancn de Iturre, now joined by residents of the neighboring villages of Belle Vista, Jobitos and Punta de Palmas, became a protesting multitude over a thousand strong.

The angry villagers felt betrayed by a duplicitous Environmental Ministry that broke its word and issued a new permit without a public hearing. The protestors requested a meeting with PRODUSAL representatives and demanded that the pipes be taken back to salt company property.

By December 22 it had become clear the pipeline would not be removed, so the village people began removing the PVC pipes themselves, when a truck with a policeman and armed PRODUSAL security guards appeared. The historically peaceful fishermen became enraged when shots were fired toward the crowd, and they proceeded to upset and burn the truck and then reduced almost a half kilometer (1600 ft.) of the hated pipe to puddles of molten PVC.

The villagers stand firm and united and willingly accept the consequences of their actions while expressing regret at having been forced to enter "a street without exit." The apparent cozy relationship between Cargill/PRODUSAL and the Environmental Ministry is commonly accepted as manifestation of the pervasive corruption responsible for the recent popular governmental reform movement, and many look to the new National Constitution for long overdue relief.

We have seen the beauty of Los Olivitos and of the people who use and protect it, and hope that they can avoid the ecological disaster that we have witnessed here in San Francisco Bay. We urge that the United Nations RAMSAR Treaty Organization help in their effort to save Los Olivitos. All people of good will should wish them well because in a very real sense their battle is our battle, too.

Arthur Feinstein is excutive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Ralph Nobles is a San Mateo County Planning Commissioner and chairman of Restore San Francisco Bay Associates.