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SOSOrinoco: the advantage of diaspora activism in Venezuela

By Ángeles Zúñiga and Abigail Edwards | Issue #22

Illegal mine by the Caroni, Venezuela's second most important river. Courtesy of Rodolfo Gerstl and SOSOrinoco.
Illegal mine by the Caroni, Venezuela's second most important river. Courtesy of Rodolfo Gerstl and SOSOrinoco.

Instability, a protracted displacement crisis, and hyperinflation have become omnipresent in discussions about the Venezuelan political landscape. Yet, a hidden crisis threatens the country – from its cultural heritage to its fragile biosphere. In 2016, the Nicolas Maduro regime created the Orinoco Mining Arc, an open-cut mine stretching across southern Venezuela, equivalent to 12% of the country’s territory. An extractivist "strategic development zone,” created without impact studies nor the National Assembly approval required by law, the Orinoco Mining Arc has had consequences stretching across the environmental, public health and human rights spheres.

As far-reaching as this environmental tragedy is, for years the situation was severely understudied. When SOSOrinoco, the diaspora-founded advocacy group, was founded in 2018, few Venezuelans outside of its southern region were aware of the mining arc’s existence; fewer were willing to speak out about its extractive policies. In an interview with the authors, SOSOrinoco founder Cristina Burelli shared that after enquiring with several academics and activists, they expressed awareness of a serious situation in the area. Yet, people were afraid to denounce it due to the repressive nature of the Maduro regime. This has caused many atrocities to go unreported.

Today, SOSOrinoco is responsible for the most detailed reports on the threats the mining arc represents, including environmental degradation, human rights violations such as forced sex work and labor trafficking, proliferation of gang activity and threats to the region’s cultural landscape. For example, reports have shown that mining activities threaten Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Combining a team of local researchers with efforts from diaspora leaders, SOSOrinoco is able to operate anonymously on the ground, denouncing the ecocide that many were afraid to report. The project’s model provides a framework for how meaningful advocacy work can be achieved under authoritarian and repressive regimes, thanks to combined efforts between local expertise and members of the diaspora.

The Venezuelan diaspora: An ever-growing phenomenon

Critical to the success of SOSOrinoco is its integration of diaspora into an issue that was previously largely localised. Currently, there are 7.2 million Venezuelans living abroad, many of whom are displaced by a severe humanitarian crisis. Most of the diaspora is concentrated in Latin America, with Colombia and Peru hosting the highest numbers—2.5 million and 1.5 million respectively. Outside of Latin America, the largest Venezuelan diaspora populations are found in the United States and Spain. The diaspora now represents nearly 24% of the global population of Venezuelans, and a significant human capital drain on Venezuela itself.

Despite having fled a repressive regime themselves, Venezuelans abroad have largely engaged with events back home through remittances rather than activism and fundraising for local Venezuelan organisations. An estimated 29 percent of families in Venezuela depend on remittances for survival. In 2022, total remittances in Venezuela were estimated to reach US $4.2 billion. The Venezuelan diaspora also provides essential food and medical supplies, so much so that several businesses have emerged dedicated to shipping goods from diaspora hubs.

While these supplies as well as remittances have been critical to the resilience of a small number of beneficiaries, there remains a significant disconnect between the needs of local grassroots organisations in Venezuela and diaspora response and actions. With a small group of Venezuelan diaspora leaders amplifying the work of a large grassroots network, SOSOrinoco serves as an example of innovative ways diaspora can engage with those at home beyond remittances. Still, while Venezuelans within and outside of the country have been quick to share the work of SOSOrinoco over social media, the organisation still struggles to engage the diaspora in fundraising for its efforts.

Representation equals protection

Efforts such as aid delivery are one-way and relatively straightforward. But more complex processes—such as publishing, advocating, and raising awareness on sensitive topics—require a different modality of engagement, given that the safety of those involved inside the country can be compromised. With documented attacks from both state officials and armed groups against environmental defenders in Venezuela, SOSOrinoco’s model of having a diaspora leader such as Cristina Burelli serve as a public representative—who can safely share the core team’s findings—guarantees the safety of the organisation’s local network and on-the-ground team, while facilitating engagement with diaspora groups.

Combining diaspora efforts with on-the-ground networks

While SOSOrinoco’s three team members outside of Venezuela use their safe positions abroad to publicly represent the organisation, lead fundraising, and coordinate research efforts, SOSOrinoco still remains rooted in on-the-ground engagement and networks. SOSOrinoco has worked to formalise a network of local journalists, indigenous defenders, and activists who provide the organisation’s diaspora activists with live updates and contribute to publications, while working to promote SOSOrinoco’s work in local news outlets. This work of the diaspora is increasingly relevant as it amplifies the dangers the Orinoco Mining Arc poses to the region as a whole, which threatens the Amazonian ecosystem and is also a haven for international gang activity. While Burelli remains the face of the organisation, providing SOSOrinoco credibility abroad, the approach of publishing reports collectively and anonymously ensures that local actors can safely contribute. The combined efforts of the diaspora with locals on the ground helps to ensure that the focus of SOSOrinoco’s work remains centred on the populations in the Venezuelan Amazon who are directly affected by the impacts of the Orinoco Mining Arc.

Ángeles Zúñiga is a research intern with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. She holds a BA in Global Studies from St. Lawrence University in New York, where she was a Davis-UWC Scholar.

Abigail Edwards is a research assistant with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at CSIS. She holds a MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS, a BA in Human Rights from Columbia University, and a BA in Politics and Government from Sciences Po Paris.


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