In Caracas there are not as many streets or neighborhoods named after heroes as there are trees. Los Caobos. The Mangoes. La Floresta. Las Palmas. Araguaney. The Venezuelan capital owes its enviable cool climate, which thousands of migrants miss in other latitudes, to its extensive and generous trees. Planned or spontaneous, even declared heritage. Caracas trees have energetic defenders. Major Venezuelan poets like Eugenio Montejo have written about the language of trees that “spend their lives meditating, moving their branches.” For months now, a voracious epidemic of indiscriminate logging has filled the alcorques of the streets with corpses.
In a Venezuela tired of protesting, which had not yet overcome the torpor of abstention in the recent regional elections, a group of Caracas residents held a march through three municipalities in the capital at the end of November in condemnation of the new landscape of mutilated logs. The felling of more than a hundred trees on the city’s main highway, a road that runs through the Caracas valley on its longest side, has led environmental groups to plant themselves.
The Government of Nicolás Maduro commissioned Carmen Meléndez – one of its closest collaborators, now elected mayor of Caracas – to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo. The celebration included renaming the road as the Cacique Guacaipuro highway, painting all the adjacent walls with Venezuelan symbols and petroglyphs and placing a huge golden metal sculpture on one of the deforested islands to displace the mestizo conqueror Francisco Fajardo, who until now gave it its name, and which Maduro refers to as genocidal. In recent months, hundreds of date palms – alien to Caracas’ climate – have been planted along 28 kilometers to replace the felled trees, presumably to reinforce the new indigenous image of the highway.
“This phenomenon of replacing trees with palms, this aversion to trees that is also seen in areas of the city that have been filled with financial towers, is due to a business,” points out the journalist Cheo Carvajal, director of Ciudad Laboratorio, a urban observatory that promotes more walkable and livable cities. “A tree is not a removable. A tree is a value ”, he insists.
The date palms, agonizingly supported with sticks after their transplantation, traveled in gandolas from the Isla de Margarita —in the eastern part of the country— to provide government works in the capital and other cities. Following the incessant extraction of specimens of a species that is protected, complaints arose on the island claiming that each palm was being sold for between $ 60 and $ 80. The government has not provided information on the project or the investment.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
Carvajal is the author of a manifesto read in the march through the trees. The document, titled planted, It will be delivered to the Prosecutor’s Office and the municipal councils of the five municipalities of the capital. It is the first response to the aggressive logging on the highway, but also a warning about its implications. “A palm does not capture the same amount of CO₂ as a tree, it does not provide shade. It is not known if they will hit after transplantation or what will happen to the fauna associated with those felled trees. There are too many problems in relation to a non-transparent decision, “says the activist.
Caracas is a city with a biodiversity of birds like no other. The blue and red macaws that have colonized many balconies steal prominence, but there are more than 300 species of birds that coexist with the people of Caracas. The metamorphosis that the capital’s main highway is experiencing with logging and the appearance of date palms has generated so much noise that even Maduro has heard it. “You have to keep an eye on the felling of trees in Caracas,” said the president in one of his television speeches a few weeks ago.
Ringed and poisoned
For Yrama Capote, a long-term environmentalist, what is happening is “a major scandal” that has ended with samanes and mahogany trees that arrived long before the highways. For more than a decade, the woman has defended the trees in her neighborhood – the San Pedro parish – to the point of obtaining a judicial protection measure that declared it heritage. “My San Pedro parish is the most wooded in Caracas,” he says with pride. Capote has stood in front of tractors to avoid what he considers a crime. He is 70 years old and comes from a family that supported itself for decades with the San Casimiro nursery, in the central state of Aragua, which produced an incalculable number of forest and fruit trees for agricultural gain and reforestation.
In 2014 he returned to his origins with a non-profit community nursery that produces about 300 trees a year, with which he has managed to populate a desert park in his community, the bank of a nearby river turned into a sewer that was devastated by a road extension and a piece of forest devoured by fires in a university. This seedbed is one of the few in Caracas that can attend to a reforestation such as that needed by some areas of the city. Today it has 500 growing plants, prepared with recycled materials and its own compost.
But not only on the highway have there been radical or poorly done logging and pruning. The local mayors authorize them in avenues and streets and they have also recently been registered in places such as the University City, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, currently undergoing renovations by the Government. “The trees are collapsing. They leave them unbalanced, they cut a lot on one side and they collapse, ”says the activist. Capote points out that improperly pruning a tree can cause diseases that lead to death. “The indifference of the authorities and impunity allows this.”
Over the years he has identified different types of aggressions. He says that at night the chainsaws are usually heard, because at that time those who have not obtained permits to, for example, prune a tree in front of their property act. When the defenders go out to avoid logging, then they slowly kill them with the “ring”, a deep cut around the entire circumference of the trunk that prevents the sap that feeds it from circulating, or with diesel poisoning in the roots to dry them. Both Capote and Carvajal acknowledge that for years urban planning errors have been made with the use of species to plant trees that break sidewalks and service pipes, which should not be repeated. But they warn that many trees are felled on a whim and the maxim that for every tree cut down eight must be planted is not fulfilled.
Deforestation has been occurring in cities in the interior of Venezuela for a couple of years that fuels the firewood business that supplies the serious shortage of gas for cooking that the oil country is experiencing due to the drop in crude production. Capote does not believe that what is happening in Caracas is directly related to that, but recently a local police arrested nine men who illegally cut several trees on a main road and aimed to sell them as firewood on the outskirts of the city, according to the authorities. Bales of firewood are for sale in some street markets in the city.
In 2020 a group of scientists and environmentalists from various universities and organizations published research on this widespread threat. They found that firewood is the main substitute for gas in various localities of the country, after analyzing a sample of 16% of municipalities in almost all the states of the country. In 90% of them it was of current use and among the sources of collection were urban natural areas and protected areas.
In times of global warming and climatic peaks, we should not insist on all the benefits that trees bring, such as cleaning the air, cooling the heat islands that are cities, providing shelter and food, deadening noise, among many others. In the manifesto signed by several organizations in rejection of the devastation that Caracas is living, they emphasize that trees, more than “a promise of fire or a landscape”, are a symbol of the cycle of life. That is why the people of Caracas stood before the loggers, because – Carvajal points out – “saving the planet is saving the tree you have in the corner.”
Subscribe here to the newsletter of EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the present time of the region.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.