Dan Stothart, Regional Humanitarian Affairs Officer for UN Environment in Latin America and the Caribbean, gives a first-hand account from Brazil’s Roraima State.
“I feel like an animal!” she told me. I could see a tear in her eye. She told me that she previously lived comfortably in Venezuela. I wasn’t sure whether she had been wealthy, or was emphasising her previous level of comfort to try to salvage some dignity. It didn’t really matter. She was sleeping in a tent, on a public roundabout, with 900 other people.
There are no services. The nearest petrol station now charges two reales (about 60 US cents) to use the toilet, money that most cannot spare. There’s a small strip of land to one side, so they go in pairs at night.
Several shelters (or camps) have now sprung up in Boa Vista, the state capital of Roraima State, on Brazil’s extreme northern border with Venezuela. They are not places I would like to stay. Over-crowded, sometimes up to four times more than their safe carrying capacity, they lack sufficient space or toilets, as well as drainage and related services.
Valiant attempts are being made by the authorities, and the few humanitarian actors that have started operations here, to make things better.
There is a shelter specifically for indigenous people, with emergency response and services adapted to the indigenous Venezuelans. The cultural issues are a significant challenge given the differences between indigenous groups on either side of the border.
You would have to be desperate to come this way on foot. It took us three hours by car from Boa Vista to the Venezuela border. The terrain is a mix of hills and plains, there is no shade and the sun is intense. We are closer to Panama, two countries away, than we are to Brasilia, the federal capital.
But desperation is precisely the point. There is no definitive number on how many Venezuelans have crossed into Brazil. Boa Vista Municipality estimates it is managing a caseload of 40,000. But the truth is, this is a best guess in one municipality alone, in one of the country’s poorest and most distant states.
Already struggling to provide services to their own population, the municipalities are now battling with the environmental issues associated with one of the biggest influxes of people in recent Brazilian history.
Estimates on the total number that have crossed into Brazil vary from 80,000 upwards. There is 2,200km of border and only one official crossing. The environmental footprint of the emergency is clear and the risks to public health are significant.
People are so desperate that I found 79 people sleeping under a stage in a park. Tellingly, you could see Venezuela from the stage. The 14 families at the venue had been there for between nine and 18 months. They did not know what to do or where to go. It seemed that they were waiting, and hoping, for a change in Venezuela to be able to return. It is clearly a long and uncomfortable wait.
The struggling medical system has to deal with an influx of people who have not been vaccinated, and whose health status is as low as their desperation is high. It also has to manage health operations for the population. The increase in medical waste that has to be managed has its own environmental footprint, which in turn presents public health risks of the population at large if it is not properly managed.
Shelter managers wage a daily battle to empty septic tanks, with three trucks each doing a six-hour round trip two or three times to empty the tank of a shelter designed for 200 people and currently holding more than 500.
Energy needs must be met for cooking, and until this emergency receives a much-needed injection of resources, people will continue to cut down and take away trees. This, along with various waste management issues, are a cause of conflict with the local population.
Furthermore, depletion of the water table on the border continues, while the additional water needs of the new arrivals is adding to the shortage. The area has also long been a hotbed of informal and illegal mining. There are increasing reports of Venezuelan migrants and refugees being forced into this dangerous industry to survive. However, the extent of its impact on public health and the environment remains unknown.
Brazil has been clear that Venezuelans are brothers, that the border will not be closed, and that the federal government will provide them with support. That is commendable moral leadership.
Yet Brazil has its own political turmoil and has been in a recession since 2014. Many might say that it is a rich country and can afford to support the influx of people on its own. But Brazil’s border states are amongst its poorest and the country has a highly unequal distribution of wealth.
One of the main arguments that host communities often use against refugees and migrants is their impact on the environment and public services. In practice, these are false arguments in the face of such desperation.
There is need for action to avoid local conflicts caused by these environmental impacts and the activities of humanitarian actors, which could result in pressure to close the border to people with urgent needs. It is time for the international community and donors to step up and meet these environmental issues. This will allow Brazil and other countries to provide the support that Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and the communities that host them so urgently need.
Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.