Argument

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Venezuela’s Maduro Should Be Tried for Ecocide

His government’s blatant disregard for the environment is defining a new international crime.

By , a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and , a nonresident fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and founder of Americas Outlook, a global affairs consultancy.
Children sail on a raft in the polluted waters of Lake Maracaibo in Zulia state, Venezuela, on June 13, 2019.
Children sail on a raft in the polluted waters of Lake Maracaibo in Zulia state, Venezuela, on June 13, 2019. Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

It isn’t uncommon to hear charges of “genocide” leveled at the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro due to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in his country in the last few years. But now, a growing chorus has begun to blame Venezuela’s leadership with the crime of “ecocide”—or the deliberate and negligent destruction of nature.

Examining those charges can inform the broader discussion of how to define ecocide and, more immediately, hold its perpetrators to account.

It is somewhat ironic that category of crimes has been a hobby horse of the Venezuelan government itself. In 2012, a government-backed publishing arm released a collection of speeches by former Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and former Bolivian President Evo Morales titled “Ecocide, a Capitalist Crime.” The greatest hits-style collection recounts how, at the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference, Chávez highlighted the source of the world’s environmental woes: “the destructive metabolic system of capital and its embodied model: capitalism.” He offered socialism as a Marxian “counter-ghost” and “the path to the salvation of the planet” while “capitalism is the way to hell, the way to the destruction of the world.” Meanwhile, statements by Chávez complaining of environmental destruction can be found in U.N. General Assembly records dating as far back as 2005.

It isn’t uncommon to hear charges of “genocide” leveled at the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro due to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in his country in the last few years. But now, a growing chorus has begun to blame Venezuela’s leadership with the crime of “ecocide”—or the deliberate and negligent destruction of nature.

Examining those charges can inform the broader discussion of how to define ecocide and, more immediately, hold its perpetrators to account.

It is somewhat ironic that category of crimes has been a hobby horse of the Venezuelan government itself. In 2012, a government-backed publishing arm released a collection of speeches by former Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and former Bolivian President Evo Morales titled “Ecocide, a Capitalist Crime.” The greatest hits-style collection recounts how, at the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference, Chávez highlighted the source of the world’s environmental woes: “the destructive metabolic system of capital and its embodied model: capitalism.” He offered socialism as a Marxian “counter-ghost” and “the path to the salvation of the planet” while “capitalism is the way to hell, the way to the destruction of the world.” Meanwhile, statements by Chávez complaining of environmental destruction can be found in U.N. General Assembly records dating as far back as 2005.

And Maduro, his chosen successor, touts socialism as “the only way for the preservation of the environment and the salvation of the human species.”

Yet after more than a decade of political instability and a cratering economy, which has led to the largest migration crisis in modern Latin American history, Venezuela has lost all credibility. However, the term ecocide has lived on and, especially in the last couple of years, moved from the lexicon of activists to domestic law in countries like France, where offenders can face a fine of $5.5 million or 10 years in prison for environmental crimes. An expert drafting panel has even convened to define what ecocide might mean as an international crime. As lawyers deliberate over whether “mass damage or destruction to ecosystems, committed with knowledge of the risks” rises to the level of ecocide, they would be wise to take a close look at Venezuela.


Caracas’ environmental record is a nightmare, both in the Amazon and the broader rainforest. The effects of its environmental problems—illegal mining, deforestation, and heavily polluting oil and gas industries—are not contained within its borders but impact all of South America and the Caribbean.

Although previous governments in Venezuela effectively preserved 70 percent of the southern portion of the country through concerted environmental efforts, in 2016, the cash-strapped Maduro regime inaugurated the opening of the “Orinoco Mining Arc” by executive decree. Like a Portugal-sized magnet, the Orinoco Mining Arc has sustained myriad illicit economies and played host to unsavory nonstate actors from Colombian guerrilla groups to Lebanese Hezbollah. These groups present a formidable threat to regional security and engage in appalling human rights abuses as they run illegal mines in conditions akin to modern slavery. They’ve even contributed to a resurgence in tropical diseases like malaria—in 1961, Venezuela was the first nation certified by the World Health Organization to have eradicated malaria—and have accelerated lawlessness and state breakdown in Venezuela.

With the Maduro regime’s acquiescence (and, in some cases, direct involvement), illegal mining has also contributed to the country’s deforestation. The runoff from gold extraction has spewed toxic mercury into Venezuela’s river networks, presenting a regional challenge to clean water as well as to many nearby communities that rely on healthy fish stocks for survival. Illegal logging has expanded as Venezuelans have turned to firewood for cooking in the face of gas shortages. The growth of Venezuela’s illicit economy in Venezuela has also witnessed the erosion of Indigenous rights and excess deaths as the Maduro regime’s activities encroach on ancestral lands.

Venezuela’s oil and gas industry—decimated from years of falling foreign direct investment, expropriation, and unfathomable kleptocracy—also take starring roles in this environmental horror show. Dilapidated infrastructure, tankers unfit for seafaring operations, and the increasing practice of ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned cargo on the high seas have all contributed to oil spills impacting the entire region. For instance, crude oil that washed up onto 1,500 miles of Brazil’s northern shores in 2019 shared similar characteristics to that of Venezuelan crude. It was the worst spill in the country’s history and the largest environmental disaster ever recorded on Brazil’s coast. Cleanup efforts are ongoing in all nine of Brazil’s ecologically sensitive northeastern states.

Venezuela’s oil and gas industry take starring roles in this environmental horror show.

Meanwhile, pipeline ruptures have allowed hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to leach into Venezuela’s environment, as witnessed in the state of Anzoátegui. Rusted pipes near Lake Maracaibo in the north—once the symbol of Venezuela’s oil powerhouse—ooze oil and coat the lake’s once pristine shores, contributing to mounting slicks in the Caribbean. According to the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights, between 2010 and 2016 alone, Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company, was responsible for nearly 50,000 spills of crude and other dilutants. Several researchers have said it could take more than half a century of concerted efforts for Venezuela to recover.

Despite falling outputs, Venezuela continues to engage in the environmentally destructive practice of “flaring,” where unwanted gases and byproducts of the oil sector are burned off. Indeed, Venezuela may be home to the largest flaring site on the globe and is the country with the highest flaring intensity per barrel of oil produced, according to data from the World Bank.

Yet somehow, Maduro’s horrendous environmental record has managed to evade the level of scrutiny it warrants. Historically, Venezuela’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution, initially focused (at least rhetorically) on the poor and socially excluded, insulated it from strident international criticism, much less the charge of ecocide. The former Chávez and now Maduro regimes have also been adept at building alliances with leftist leaders in other Latin American countries and with academics, activists, and even corporations (mostly in the mining sector) to blunt criticism and censure unfavorable information on the environment.

At long last though, Venezuela’s cover must be blown.


A quarter century ago, The Hague’s International Court of Justice acknowledged in its advisory opinion on nuclear weapons that environmental protections fall under customary international law. Current attempts by concerned activists and especially island nations like Vanuatu and the Maldives to put questions of ecocide under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may well turn out to be a “quixotic quest,” to borrow a phrase from Anastacia Greene writing for the Fordham Environmental Law Review. However, the word “ecocide” is wending its way through current discourse, and Venezuela is an obvious place to look to start defining the term.

The Biden administration, for its part, has already missed one significant opportunity to do so—and to highlight the environmental catastrophe of Venezuela more broadly. Late April’s U.S. Leaders Summit on Climate (virtually) convened leaders from around the world and featured an ambitious agenda of topics. The omission of any discussion of Venezuela was a glaring oversight as any ambitious climate agenda must tackle the clear and obvious case of ecocide.

If ecocide was to become a crime under the ICC, the achievement could bring modest gains. In the case of Venezuela, the Maduro regime’s human rights abuses have continued unabated despite attracting the interest of prosecutors at the same court for potential crimes against humanity. Yet in the case of genocide, for instance, the practice doesn’t end with naming and shaming; similarly, governments and other actors must continue to build their arsenal of policies to deter environmental atrocities, possibly broadening the ICC’s attractiveness to key membership holdouts. “Ecocide” can be a rallying cry for exactly that.

Tackling the environmental aspects of Venezuela’s meltdown would have other effects too. It would be hard to address those without focusing attention on the broader humanitarian disaster there and its underlying causes: namely, kleptocracy and wanton disregard for life in all forms. Here, the European Union could especially play a role. If Europeans care about ecocide, as their leaders say they do, they must care about Maduro’s broader governance of Venezuela. And once the bloc elevates that crisis on its agenda, it will begin to see that saving the natural environment also saves the lives of fellow human beings.

But before even arriving at that battlefield, the world must acknowledge the clear and obvious case of ecocide that is staring it in the face. The Maduro regime is committing environmental crimes whose breadth and depth may well be unprecedented; that can’t go unremarked.

Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and the Director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at CSIS. Twitter: @RyanBergPhD

Lauri Tahtinen is a nonresident fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and founder of Americas Outlook, a global affairs consultancy. Twitter: @lauritahtinen

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