Why is the Tortuga Island such a special place?

Conversation with a environmentalist in Venezuela

Venezuela is one of the richest countries in the world, resources joy an important variety of species and landscapes. But all the efforts seem to be concentrated to exploit petroleum and the oil industry is the country’s main concern. On the same time other resources available are neglected and they can be damaged by the reckless exploitation. Tourism has never been fully developed in the country, though many national parks are in danger for the misuse and abuse of these natural reservoirs. A couple of weeks ago a very well known Venezuelan personality, famous for her travel guides and “secrets” for discovering the country, Valentina Quintero, couldn’t stop herself from crying on a TV interview regarding the abuse of national resources, particularly the Morrocoy National Park. She blamed directly the Chavez administration for not protecting the Venezuelan’s but also a world’s heritage that are the precious natural resources from this Caribbean country.

Natural resources’ conservation was a main concern of the State in the 1970’s. The government created institutions and delimitated the territory of protected areas and national parks. The country had a pioneer role concerning environmental protection in the continent and created an effective legislation on this matter. But the dynamics of political and economic fields seemed to have changed the priorities and the state today appears as one of the less concerned on environmental issues. Territories that had remained virgin until today are the blank of a political campaign to be exploited for touristic purposes. This is the case of the Tortuga Island, which was protected until 2008, when Chavez’s government started a project to build a touristic complex even with an airport, which was a contribution to damage precious natural patrimony.  The Tortuga’s Foundation was the first to denounce publicly the impact of the reckless works and they won the battle because the construction stopped at its initial phase. We have talked with one member of this foundation the marine biologist Andres Osorio[1] and we’ve asked him his point of view about the environmental impact and the importance of protecting Venezuela’s natural resources. He’s been engaged with environmental protection since the beginning of the 80’s.

These are the questions he answered:

 Why is Isla La Tortuga such a special place?

“Isla La Tortuga is located at the northeastern border of the Cariaco Trench (Fosa de Cariaco) this is the deepest point in the Caribbean Sea (up to 5.000 meters). The water column in the trench has a sudden temperature drop (thermo cline) this phenomenon allows the column to renew the water in certain times of the year, when air temperatures drop during the northern winter months and cold fronts come down to the northern Caribbean.

Colder water sinks and pushes bottom, nutrient rich waters upward to the surface, fertilizing the waters and promoting plankton and fish life blooms. The phenomenon is known as upwelling. These particular conditions make The Cariaco’s Trench a very productive fishing area and where some 70% of the fishery industry of the Venezuelan coast is concentrated.

The island is of great geological value since its geological formations are the best representative of the Pleistocene[2] in Venezuela. The island is a petrified fossil coral reef, containing thousands of fossilized species of coral and other organism related to coral reef life since the Pleistocene.

New species were reported for the island and the Caribbean during the Tortuga’s Foundation expeditions. Plant adaptations and evolution amazed botanists from Venezuela as well from all over the world. New marine and land animals were also reported with especial adaptations and evolution features. The government’s intervention damaged several species such as Tubular cactuses by instance.

Do you think it is possible to exploit tourism in the Island and if it’s the case how?

Personally, I think that, only the northeasterly area of the island should be considered to be open for recreation. Private boats from different areas of Venezuela constantly spend weekends and longer stays in other areas of the island, without any control. This is negatively impacting the Island.

Isla La Tortuga is probably the most pristine marine environment in Venezuela and one that should be kept as such. It is delicate and sensitive to human activities and in my personal opinion should be protected under a highly restrictive, protective figure, which keeps human activities out of the island.

Is human presence always negative for the environment or can the ecosystem bare a minimal charge (of visitors)?

History has proven that humans are a negative presence in any environment. It is the only animal capable of making life-threatening changes in its surroundings. Nevertheless, certain changes and modifications are desirable in order to improve human life’s quality, but these changes have to be made within sustainability criteria to lesser environmental impact and assure conservancy of its original characteristics.

Environment’s usage is necessary for food production, shelter and leisure but it requires rational use and humans have the tendency of abusing and exploiting the environment, rather than conserving it. Only recently, has humanity taken concern over environmental considerations; after ecological damages are so immense, that global impacts in climate patterns have created death, misery, starvation, disease and threats to human life and to their economic systems. Today with all technological advances and human intelligence evolution we have devised methods, plans, technologies and so on, to evaluate environmental impact; but disasters have occurred anyway. The April 2011 explosion of a BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico, posting itself as the largest oil spill in human history, is a case in point.

There are probably hundreds of methods to evaluate environmental carrying capacity and to estimate the number of visitors and loads that can be placed on the environment; but the question is: Is men responsible enough to respect its own limits? Is men considered enough of his fellows citizens, so as to impose environmental respect against human selfishness, greed and economic growth? History has proven that human egoism has prevailed over almost any other consideration.  

Could you define the environmental status of Venezuela today?

I consider that Venezuela is in an environmental crisis and in a state of and environmental emergency. Although some people could consider the previous statement alarmist and exaggerated, there is a considerable amount of evidence that points the opposite. There are three main points that demonstrate it:

The water problem

Almost all drinking water sources for heavily populated metropolitan areas of the country are polluted. The drama of the Valencia Lake issue is a tragedy. One of the largest bodies of water in Venezuela has been rendered useless. What could be the source for drinking water for the entire central region of the country, where 25% of the population of the country is concentrated, has been so polluted that it is completely destroyed. As a matter of fact, the waters of the Valencia Lake are so polluted that they are technically considered poisonous and fatally dangerous to human and any other form of life.

Industry discharges from the Valencia and Aragua’s industrial areas have contaminating the lake for the last 50 years. No stop has ever been put to this situation. Although water is treated before consumption, treatment plants are obsolete and without maintenance and incoming waters pollution loads are so great, that treatment is partial and loaded with excess chemicals that, what is called potable water, is a colored, bad smelling liquid, capable of causing skin affections and other health problems. The evidence is overwhelming.

Inexistent Sewage Treatment Plants

Besides industrial discharges, another major water contaminant is untreated domestic sewage, which is discharged, not only in the Valencia Lake, but also in almost all bodies of public water in Venezuela. Sewage treatment plants are practically inexistent in this country. All major coastal areas of the country are contaminated with sewage discharges; no beach or recreational waters are practically available on the entire coast, where populated areas are settled.

The biggest environmental problem: the oil industry

The petroleum industry is main source of income for Venezuela. Its economy is oil based. This industry is also responsible for the discharge of highly polluted effluents in receptors bodies of water in their vicinities.

In the case of Moron El Palito area, the petroleum industry has been discharging chemicals to the Golfo Triste area since 1957. Significant concentrations of mercury, lead, cadmium, vanadium, oils and carcinogenic hydrocarbons have been detected in water, fish, plants and sediments of the Golfo Triste Area. A case in point is the tragedy of Caño Alpargaton where some 70 tons of organic mercury where discharge in that creek for more than 15 years. The discharge was related to a chlorine gas production plant in PEQUIVEN. The catalytic agent, methyl mercury, was spilled in the plant and workers were exposed for years to high concentrations of the heavy metal, creating serious damages to their kidneys, livers and neurological system. Since mercury is permeable to the placenta barrier, women working on the plant or married to workers of the plant gave birth to babies with gross birth defects.

The tragedy was compared to that of the Minamata Bay in Japan where a similar mercury spill was reported during 1950. The case of Lake Maracaibo is very much the same.

 What are your major concerns regarding the country’s environment?

My major concern is the future generations. I feel we have irresponsibly compromised the future of younger generations by destroying the natural patrimony of this country. If we cannot reverse this trend, and some of the damages may already be irreversible, the environmental assets of this country may be gone forever.

For instance the loss of Morrocoy’s National Park coral reef is permanent. Coral reef are delicate, primitive, ancestral forms of life that have taken millions of years to become alive and to exist the way we see them today and in a few 50 years we have killed then in Morrocoy. That is irreversible. The oil industry in Moron-El Palito area is responsible for that.

Are Venezuelan’s oil industry decision makers going to put environmental concerns, values, ethics and other considerations above cheap oil production? The past does not show that scenario as probable so the coral reef of Morrocoy is most likely to remain doomed.

Picturing viable solutions is not an easy task, but education is our only hope. We have to educate young people out of the rich mentality. We need to learn that Venezuela is not a rich country with unlimited resources. We also need the government and other leaders to realize that reckless exploitation of our natural resources, in order to exploit oil cheaply, will cost us our whole natural patrimony.


[1] Andres Osorio is my father and his courage and engagement to fight no matter which government; authority or just reckless individual who attempt to damage natural resources has set an example not only for me but also for local communities in Venezuela. His work has always been concentrated on creating conscience of the rights but also the duties that we have with nature.

[2]  Is the geological epoch which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world’s recent period of repeated glaciations.

Image Credits: costadevenezuela.org

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