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Located in the northeastern part of the South American continent, Venezuela has a land area of 353,839 square miles (916,445 square kilometers) and an estimated population of 25.7 million people in 2006. The country can be divided into four main physiographical units: the old Guyana Massif in the southeast with maximum elevations of 9,843 feet (3,000 meters); the Andes to the west (maximum elevations around 16,404 feet [5,000 meters]); the coastal ranges in the north formed by two mountain chains separated by a tectonic plain, and the large flat plains of the Llanos drained by the Orinoco river and its tributaries in the south. The Orinoco is one of the largest rivers of South America, running 1,333 miles (2,150 kilometers) and forming a delta of more than 9,653 square miles (25,000 square kilometers). The variety of natural conditions produces a high biodiversity with ecosystems ranging from the coastal mangroves of the Atlantic to the rich savanna formations of the Llanos to the xerophitic communities of the arid north. Venezuela is one of the top 20 countries of the world in plant and animal diversity.
Venezuela remains an oil-dependent nation, and many of the environmental problems of the country derive from this condition. From 1929 to 1970, Venezuela was the largest world exporter of oil and still holds enormous reserves of oil and natural gas in the Orinoco Delta. Oil spills have contaminated large parts of the Maracaibo Lake, killing fish and forcing the closure of some coastal resorts, and Lake Valencia is seriously affected by the discharge of untreated wastes. Air pollution is common in cities such as Caracas, Maracaibo, and Valencia. In these and other urban areas, 30 percent of the population lacked wastewater facilities in 2000. In rural areas, population without water sanitation exceeds 50 percent, although only one-tenth of the total population of Venezuela is rural.
Venezuela has the highest percentage of protected land of any Latin American nation. In 2003 it was estimated that more than 70 percent of the country enjoyed some environmental protection. Eleven natural sites (including Ramsar Sites and a Reserve of the Biosphere) cover more than 2.5 million acres (one million hectares). A particularly emblematic protected area is the Imataca Forest Reserve (bordering Guyana) for its natural and cultural diversity (it is the home of at least five indigenous groups) Despite this, the country is losing its rain forests at a fast pace (more than 2.5 million hectares disappeared between 1990 and 1995, or twice the average rate for tropical South America). Moreover, there is increasing evidence of soil degradation in the pastures of the Llanos due to overgrazing by cattle.
In December 1999, Venezuela suffered the worst environmental catastrophe of its history and one of the worst episodes of this kind of Latin America. Heavy rains coupled with landslides on the hills in the state of Vargas (near the Caribbean) killed approximately 30,000 people and left more than 500,000 homeless. The city of La Guaira, where informal settlement on steep slopes was and remains widespread, took the hardest toll (25,000 dead or missing). Uncontrolled urbanization may also be behind the closing in February 2006 of the main highway (and economic backbone of Venezuela with a circulation of more than 50,000 vehicles a day) between Caracas and La Guaira. The highway was closed because of the high risk of failure of several bridges whose pillars have been undermined by wastewater coming from the numerous slums surrounding this communication network.
- Central Intelligence Agency, “Venezuela,” World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Steven Hilty, Birds of Venezuela, 2nd ed. (Princeton University Press, 2003);
- United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Report: Venezuela,” hdr.undp.org;
- World Bank, “Venezuela,” worldbank.org (cited April 2006).