Amid ravaging wildfires in Venezuela, experts cite institutional collapse

  • Since the start of the year, Venezuela has been experiencing record-breaking fires. Apart from the highest number of fires in any January and February for the last two decades, wildfires continued all the way to early May, devastating national parks and affecting the capital of Caracas.
  • Some experts say that in 2024 so far, up to 2 million hectares (4.94 million acres) of land appear to have already burned.
  • Higher temperatures, drought and the fact that Venezuela lacks fire-tolerating plants have been contributing to more intense fires, which have been made worse by the country’s institutional failures.
  • Experts say that a lack of adequate institutions, a collapse of public services and an absence of planning and monitoring strategies have resulted in Venezuela being unable to handle the wildfires.

CARACAS, Venezuela — In early March, a series of wildfires ravaged the savannas of Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southeastern state of Bolivar, bordering the Venezuelan Amazon, and reached the Auyantepui, one of the park’s iconic, billion-year-old tabletop mountains, or tepuis, known for their unique mountain ecosystems.

For days, the fires, which local environmentalists later reported began as a forest clearance attempt by a local Indigenous community, ravaged around 1,100 hectares (about 2,720 acres) on the Auyantepui. According to local reports, only 12 badly equipped firefighters were deployed in the area, fighting the flames unsuccessfully until rainfall came.

But the fires in the Auyantepui were not isolated. Between January and February, data from NASA show, more than 9,000 fires were recorded across the country — a number higher than in any similar months since the agency started monitoring in the early 2000s. In March, NASA reported 11,000 fires. Venezuela’s National Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology declared most of the country to be at “very high” risk of fires during mid-April.

Other national parks were also affected. Between 100 and 120 hectares (250-300 acres) of the Henri Pittier National Park in northern Venezuela, which protects coastal cloud forests and is home to more than 500 bird species and 22 endemic species, were burned in March, according to the local governor. In early April, fires also appeared in the hills surrounding Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, covering parts of the city in ashes and smoke. That same month, fires also affected Ávila National Park, which includes a group of mountains around the capital and hosts 36% of all Venezuelan bird species and more than a 100 butterfly species. A few days ago, the capital woke up again covered by a dense haze of wildfire smoke.

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Fires ravage the slopes of Auyantepui, seen from Canaima National Park in the border of the Venezuelan Amazon. Image courtesy of Henry González.

And while these extreme events have been linked to higher global temperatures and El Niño, some experts stress that the state’s institutional failures have made wildfires worse.

Underlying causes

While Venezuela’s annual dry season starts in December, the transition between the rainy and dry seasons has become more extreme because of rising temperatures, says Emilio Vilanova, tropical forest engineer at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Similarly, severe drought and changes in rainfall patterns associated with El Niño have exacerbated the country’s dry season. So far, almost 2 million hectares (4.94 million acres) of land, mainly in the Llanos plains region and north of Bolivar, are estimated to have burned in 2024, Vilanova tells Mongabay.

Most wildfires in Venezuela are human-made, explains Rafael Lozada, emeritus ecology professor at the University of the Andes. “Throughout the tropics, people use fires for agricultural purposes” such as removing undergrowth for cattle and creating fertile grounds for crops. With higher temperatures and a more severe drought, there is a higher amount of dried vegetation that serves as a natural fuel, exacerbating the intensity of the fires.

“Venezuela has no pyrophyte plants, whose ecological dynamics depend on fire,” says Carlos Peláez, a Caracas-based biologist specialized in plants ecophysiology. Therefore, the fires are ravaging forests that have not adapted to tolerate fire. When these fires become frequent or annual, Peláez says, the fires end up impacting habitats and soils while diminishing biodiversity. Sometimes, as seen in southeastern Caracas, burned tropical forests are replaced by invasive pyrophytes, such as the Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea), which end up dramatically reducing the biodiversity of the area, Peláez says.

Nevertheless, the fires may have also worsened because of “institutional destruction,” Lozada says. Venezuela recently endured a decade-long economic contraction rarely seen in countries outside of war and the collapse of state functions and public services as Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime consolidated its grip on institutions.

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Smoke from wildfires in the Auyantepuy, seen from the plains of Canaima National Park. Image courtesy of Henry González.

Firefighters, for example, have been affected by these political and economic processes. The organization that used to manage forest fires, Fundaincendios, was eventually centralized into the National Unified Fires Command in 2021. This unit merged forest firefighters with urban firefighters. “This weakens the branch that fights forest fires,” Lozada says. “Firefighters trained for structural fires are not necessarily trained for forest fires.” Similarly, the creation of brigades against fires and preventing training in communities has vanished. Firefighters, Lozada says, lack uniforms, boots and equipment while waterbombing aircraft seem to be no longer working. “Venezuela has not been modernized,” Lozada says. “In fact, it has gone backward.”

For Vilanova, “high temperatures and drought are combining with a lack of serious policies to manage and control fires.”

The government has responded by using the fires as a political tool. Maduro, whose government is increasingly repressive and is facing a revitalized opposition before the July presidential elections, is blaming the forest fires on “ ” by “fascists,” a moniker he’s used against the democratic opposition before.

Meanwhile, the government has said “climate change” is affecting water repositories feeding Venezuela’s already underfunded hydroelectric dams, which power around 70% of the country to explain the deepening of Venezuela’s ongoing electric crisis. By January, blackouts had gone from weekly to daily for 54% of Venezuelans, a local watchdog. In some western states, blackouts can last up to 13 hours per day.

Image courtesy of Henry González.

Nevertheless, the drought “has little to do with the reservoirs’ levels,” says José María de Viana, a civil engineer specialized in public services who was director of hydraulic resources of the Ministry of the Environment in the early 1980s. “The problem is in our weakened systems” after years of underinvestment, mismanagement and corruption. For example, in Maracaibo, the country’s second-largest city, reservoirs are full but water scarcity is common, he tells Mongabay.

Venezuela also lacks a reliable monitoring system that will allow preventive actions, according to Vilanova. A lack of environmental planning can also lead to fires destroying tree cover that work as natural protectors of soils, Lozada says, generating erosion and even landslides during the rainy season. In October 2022, for example, heavy rains caused two landslides in the state of Aragua that land destroyed more than 750 houses. The erosion of soil can also pollute water access, Lozada says.

The Venezuelan fires are also destroying local livelihoods. For 10 days in March, fires ravaged the Caribbean pine plantations in Uverito, in eastern Venezuela, which were planted in the late 1960s for commercial use and to prevent desertification of the plateau. According to Lozada, around 36,400 hectares (almost 90,000 acres) out of the around 110,000 hectares (about 272,000 acres) that remained after years of governmental mismanagement — which resulted in fires or non-sustainable felling — were affected. “It’s the worst fire in the history of the plantation,” he says. While the fires were likely human-made, Lozada says, the authorities in charge didn’t prepare firebreaks and 315 families had to be evacuated.

“The solution for fires is to manage them, not to control them,” says Bibiana Bilbao, a researcher of tropical savannas and fire ecology in Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. “There has to be prevention and [natural] fuel has to be managed.” Vilanova says he also believes that, in the face of more extreme weather, Venezuela must develop “a serious strategy for mitigation and adaptation to climate change where fires are undoubtedly a central element.”

Banner image: Wildfire haze, locally known as calima, covers the otherwise blue-skied Caracas. Image courtesy of Andrés Rodríguez.

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