Francisco Dallmeier is the head of the Center for Conservation and Sustainability of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Cristina V. Burelli is executive director of V5 Initiative and

The political and economic ruin of Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, is by now a well-known story. Far less understood are the catastrophic impacts of the crisis on the country’s environment. International action is urgently needed — first to stabilize the downfall, and then to rebuild functional environmental institutions. The fifth session of the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi could provide a path to reverting Venezuela’s untenable environmental trajectory.

The dismantling of Venezuela’s environmental institutions and the collapse of its oil sector have generated a chain reaction of unsustainable natural resource extraction. Illegal land grabbing, deforestation and an out-of-control gold rush in protected rainforest areas have created a perfect storm combining environmental degradation with a humanitarian crisis. Massive sediment loads from mining are decimating reservoirs and hydropower generation capacity, while mercury from gold extraction pollutes rivers and sickens people.

The devastation has accelerated under Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor. Since becoming president, Maduro has overseen the total unraveling of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), Venezuela’s state oil company. PDVSA’s legal revenue from oil exports plummeted from $73 billion in 2011, to $22 billion in 2016, to $743 million in 2020.

Venezuela’s crumbling oil industry no longer reports emissions, but huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide are added daily to the global climate burden. The lack of infrastructure maintenance causes massive crude oil and pollutant spills with no remediation plans. Critical coastal marine and terrestrial environments are severely affected. The most important oil production regions, especially Lake Maracaibo, the northern Monagas state and the Orinoco oil belt, are degenerating into a mosaic of polluted wastelands.

According to Mongabay and Global Forest Watch, illegal mining, logging and collection of firewood for cooking accounted for over 3.2 million lost acres of rainforest between 2001 and 2018, one of the highest deforestation rates in tropical America. RAISG’s 2018 report and SOSOrinoco’s mining footprint map place Venezuela at the top of the list of Amazonian countries with the highest number of illegal mines. Hundreds of mining sectors have been detected, including 59 illegal gold mining clusters in Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and other protected areas, which are home to 27 Indigenous communities.

Violence and disease plague the mining areas. Roughly 50 percent of reported malaria cases in Latin America are in Venezuela. Of 398,000 reported new cases in 2019, 70 percent were in southern Venezuela. Mining sites are exploited by state and nonstate groups, including the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)promoting violence, slave and child labor, prostitution and disintegration of Indigenous social structures.