MARACAY, Venezuela – Endy Perez for years started her day by turning on the stove of her small house in the Venezuelan city of Maracay. These days, her breakfast routine begins with a search for firewood in a national park just behind her home.
Chronic shortages of natural gas in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves now mean that cooking fuel is increasingly coming from trees.
“I have no other option, I have two children … I have to cook,” said Perez, 39, a homemaker, standing next to an improvised wood stove on her porch at the edge of the 108,000 hectare (267,000 acre) Henri Pittier National Park.
The growing use of firewood has triggered alarm among activists who say discussions of environmental problems are often eclipsed by diatribes about runaway inflation, economic collapse and a protracted political stalemate.
Fires and home construction in the last 40 years have deforested about 10% of Henri Pittier Park, said Enrique Garcia, director of the ecological group Let’s Plant.
In addition, he said, the collection of firewood in urban areas can cause respiratory problems from smoke, rising temperatures in cities and increased risk of landslides in poor communities where houses are often built on unsteady terrain.
Wood stoves are now a common sight across Venezuela because of the shortage of gas. Tanks used to store and transport propane are in disrepair for lack of maintenance.
In some cases, people burn trash next to a tree to dry it out so the tree can be cut down and used for cooking fuel. Authorities are broadly ignoring legislation that prohibits cutting down trees without permits.
There is no official or private-collected data on the environmental impact of increased use of firewood. The Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.
Some cities have so little tree cover that those in search of firewood have to walk for miles.
Maria Aldana, 61, a retiree, says she walks 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) from her house in the second city of Maracaibo to a wooded area where she can collect firewood to replace cooking gas, which has not been delivered in three months.
“I’m outraged by what I’m going through,” said Aldana, who every other day collects small sticks or uses a machete to cut up branches and carries them home in an old cart.