Robert: El estado y el medio ambiente

June 15, 2010

The dawn in Mérida breaks with the sharp crack of a four-cylinder engine. It’s the sound of traffic outside my window and it follows me through my day—on the bus, to VENUSA, into every store, and into the apartment. There are other sounds here, too, like birds singing and the breeze coming through the window, but a car racing up the street or a car horn frequently pierces the calm. Honking—that’s another inescapable sound. Drivers here honk, I gather, for three main reasons: because they’re tired of the traffic line, to warn other drivers that they’re racing through an intersection, or because either of those two haven’t happened recently. So, there’s so much random loud horn blowing and engine revving that there’s serious problem with noise pollution in Mérida. Yes, noise can be a kind of pollution. And it’s getting to the point where I need to hear some silence to stay sane.

Now, I’ve tried other things. For example, I bought a small wind chime (“mobile”) made of pieces of “white onyx” (glass?) carved in the shape of birds that plays softly when the window is open. I was inspired both because of the positive sounds the chime makes and because the wind chime is a symbol of home for me. My family had wind chimes when I was growing up but most recently I saw chimes used in the film “El Norte,” in which a Guatemalan refugee hears the sound of a wind chime whenever she is connected with or thinks about her home in the mountains. I honestly don’t have that kind of personal connection with wind chimes but I do think chimes carry the significance of home wherever they are.

Noise pollution is annoying but air pollution and water pollution I consider serious issues in Mérida. I’m not sure how bad they are and I don’t know if conditions are improving or deteriorating. But I do know that every morning when I walk up the hill from the TROLE stop to VENUSA I choke on the clouds of black smoke from the buses. I know that I can’t drink the tap water or I could get violently sick. There are holes in the sidewalk filled with trash. To me these are things that would be unthinkable in a sizeable US city. But here they are normal.

I read a 2008 report by CorpoAndes, the regional development agency, about Libertador Municipality, that explicitly explained that these are problems. Further on, under principal causes of doctors’ visits, the report lists an incredible number of respiratory infections, headache (cafalea), and diarrhea. To me, clearly missing from the report is data on incidence of specific diseases and mortality. The newspaper released a two-page front-cover story about the issue two weeks ago but I have since forgotten what alarming news it relates.

The lack of data alarms me because of the stories I have heard about incidences of birth defects from mercury pollution and agrochemicals. According to my botany teacher, agrochemicals are over applied in the páramo region north of Mérida and there are cases of birth defects. My communications teacher explained about birth defects in people living along Lake Maracaibo, which is a site of intense contamination from oil drilling on the lake and, allegedly, mercury from miners in the mountains of nearby Colombia. In Venezuela, many people ask me what I think of the country and the scenery. Well, yes, the vegetation is lush, but I suspect the Venezuelan environment yet unseen is more compelling.

A project I started but have not finished is trying to purchase measurement equipment to test the air and water to see for myself and compare with US data and Venezuelan data when I find it. Of course, even if I had the equipment I don’t know if there are labs that could process it. And what if the border patrol stopped me? Arrested for possession of national air resources?

An other side of the story is regulation of pollution. Having studied US environmental policy I think about the success of regulation to manage certain kinds of pollution. Why does the US have a relatively advanced system of anti-pollution enforcement and Venezuela not? (Or is that an inaccurate assumption?)

I hypothesized that maybe it’s the law. Maybe there are no environmental laws here. Well, there’s actually a 43-page mini-book on the subject: La Ley Orgánica del Ambiente. It’s sold on street corners and in bookstores everywhere. Only the constitution is more prolific. The companion, for the avid reader, is the 28-page Ley Penal del Ambiente. I have a 2007 and a 1992 version, respectively, which is surprising because when the constitution was changed by referendum in 1999, I figured all the books were at least updated with the name “Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela” and new editions printed but maybe not.

In any case, the Ley Orgánica specifically requires prevention of air and water pollution of the kind I mentioned. It also requires environmental impact statements, economic feasibility statements, and a national pollution database, among other exciting projects. I haven’t read the Ley Penal to see what the punishment is supposed to be for bus fumes so I’ll have to get back to you on that next week. The National Guard may have to be called in, as some constitutional rights might have been violated. So if regulations exist then the issue is likely lack of enforcement and implementation. As I hinted, the law provides that the army can be used for enforcement. And there is are environmental and health ministries that deal with these issues. But there is also another law mini-book you can buy that details the rights and structure of Consejos Comunales (Community Councils). Consejos Comunales are groups of citizens that have the legitimate right to submit proposals for community development projects and solicit funds from the federal government to complete them. It’s basically the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) on steroids. It’s a way for people to get things done (i.e. water treatment) if the local government isn’t responsive enough.

Of course, a major question concerning the constitution of the republic and its auxiliary documents is whether the law should reflect the conditions of the people and their sentiment or whether it should lead society. Reading through the constitution I got the feeling that parts, like universal health care or financial incentives for pollution prevention, are aspirations because of the difference between the law and what I perceive as reality. For example, in Mérida the community councils are reportedly very small and ineffective, but I have heard the ones near the coast are large and complete many projects. But that is the idea of the República Revolucionaria Bolivariana de Venezuela, which it is in process and depends on the will of the grassroots.

Sources say it doesn’t matter what people want or what the law says if the entrenched bureaucracy does not change. Reportedly it can take months to get responses to requests for information, which is a major barrier to the Consejos Comunales. It is also an issue for landless people (campesinos), who want to own the land they work on. According to an analysis article on venezuelaanalysis.com, “A main task for the Chavez government is to sort this out and to develop a coherent and accurate register of land titles.” Many Spanish-speaking countries still have the legacy of the metes-and-bounds system of land survey (based on reference objects like trees), versus the PLSS system used in the US (that is based on grid lines). So at a basic level, there are barriers for people to access the basic documents to conduct business and improve their lives.

On the other hand and on an only slightly related topic, the government is putting in big visible efforts for the environment. According to the newspaper, last Saturday a collaboration of governmental organizations planted 5000 tree seedlings along roads and in parks in the north-west part of Mérida (Los Proceres). But given the urgency of other environmental problems, was that the best use of resources? So, politics are also part of the mix.

There is a hypothesis that was proposed in one of my classes and that I’ve heard elsewhere that the cultures of Catholicism and Protestantism contribute to the respective rates of development of Venezuela and the US. According to this myth, Protestants value monetary success as a symbol of God’s favor (think: Calvinists?) whereas Catholics have already resolved themselves and are waiting for reward in the afterlife (think: nuns?). Can that explain the nonplussed attitude toward economic analysis and development around the environment? In Mérida, a number of people I’ve talked to blame Chavistas, “Socialism,” and welfare programs for the country’s problems. They claim ensuring access to basic services like food, housing, health care, clean water, and education takes away any incentive to improve oneself. I argued on Wednesday in a class debate that we exist in an unequal world, with some being far worse off than others. How can the poor improve themselves if they are forced to battle danger, disease, and discrimination? As it says in the Ley del Ambiente “Los daños ocasionados al ambiente se consideran daños al patrimonio público.” (Art. 4, Sec 10). I think that if you solve environmental problems you do a lot to solve human problems.

As a country with a socialist Constitution, Venezuela is in many ways my ideal. Some of the things that connect with my passions in life are community organizing (Consejos Comunales), farmer’s markets (basically all the markets), a grassroots video channel (ViVe), and farmland for dedicated citizens (Ley de la Tierra: “Any Venezuelan citizen who is either the head of a family household or who is single and 18-25 years old may apply for a parcel of land and productively cultivate for 3 years before receiving title”). Basically, like the CorpoAndes development model, you write the proposal, the government does the feasibility study, and you do the work. It recognizes that one person doesn’t know everything and can ask for help but has to be responsible for his or her destiny.

As part of studying about contamination and thinking about my destiny, I’ve been thinking about what’s going into my body more. The truism that “what you put in is what you get out” has been true time and time again. What I’m reflecting on is everything that goes into your body, what you eat and the air you breath, plus how you spend your time, either does you good or not so good. Here, my diet is ham, eggs, flour, coffee for breakfast; soup, meat, vegetable, juice for lunch; and meat, soup, starch for dinner. I eat a lot of meat. I spend my time hunched or slouched in the mis-sized chairs at VENUSA for 7 hours a day and I spend the rest of the time with my mind in outer space. Life is stress and that’s the way it is. Being overwhelmed plus all the things that have happened in my personal life recently, I want really badly to focus and calm myself down.

For calming my mind I propose that I cut out some of the things in my life in the US that are bad for me. For one, I’m doing too many activities. I’ve signed up for undergraduate research and extra farming classes at the end of the semester and that may even be too much. As I’m getting to the end of college, my vision of my life after college is solidifying and I need to focus to be successful in everything that I do. Finally, to be more thoughtful as to what’s going into my body, I propose that I’m going to keep track of all the food I eat in a week here. To be truthful, I’m also imitating a photo exhibit that was at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis of about a dozen families around the world in which they each pose with a mound of food that represents everything they ate in a week. I don’t know if I’ll go out at the end of the week and buy a mound of food. I’m taking it one step at a time.

That’s been my two weeks, three field trips and in-class debate. It’s a privilege to be here and learn from Venezuela.


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