The low-lying plains of the Orinoco basin, occupying almost one-third of Venezuela's national territory, run from the Andes to the Atlantic. Approximately 600 miles long and 200 miles wide, they are bounded on the north by coastal mountains and on the south by the Guiana Highlands. Treeless, they are covered largely by a mixture of savanna and scrub woodland. The climate of the llanos is divided into a rainy season from roughly April to November and a dry season from November to April. The rainy season causes extensive flooding during which the lowlands along the streams are inundated and livestock are driven to safer ground to the north. The dry season is characterized by severe drought. As the waters recede and the grasses are scorched by the sun, livestock must retreat toward the Orinoco River to seek food and water.
The human population of the llanos is sparse, owing to drought and flooding, extreme heat, abundance of insects, and disease. Most of the population is clustered in river towns, the largest and more important of which is Ciudad Bolívar, which lies 200 miles up the Orinoco. Traditionally cattle raising has been the principal economic activity despite weather extremes, transportation problems, poor-quality forage, and disease. The local cowboys, or llaneros, are legendary for their independence and for their fighting skills, which they demonstrated in the independence wars and the civil wars of the nineteenth century. Their regionalism helped to thwart Simón Bolívar's dream of a Gran Columbia of which Venezuela was a part.
In the later twentieth century there has been significant agricultural development in the northern llanos, facilitated by land settlement, irrigation projects, and the construction of a major dam on the Guárico River. Large oil and gas deposits lie beneath the eastern portion of the llanos, including the Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt in Venezuela (Faja Petrolífera del Orinoco). In 2006, President Hugo Chávez claimed that Venezuela had the largest oil reserves in the world, taking into consideration the extra-heavy deposits in the Orinoco Oil Belt. Previously thought to be too costly to produce, Orinoco oil is now more attractive as world oil costs rise.
See alsoPetroleum Industry .
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Baudilio Mendoza Sánchez, El moderno desarrollo agrícola en Venezuela (2000).
Winfield J. Burggraaff