“The effort to preserve Lake Maracaibo, captured in a photo essay, acknowledges its imperfections but refuses to let it die.”
With picks and shovels in hand, a group of 20 fishermen make their way to the edge of Lake Maracaibo at daybreak. Instead of fishing like their ancestors, their goal is to save the lake that supports their way of life. Using metal rakes, they venture into the water to clear away the thick layer of dark sludge covering one of the oldest and largest lakes in the world.
When viewed from above, the body of water in the north-western region of Venezuela has a teardrop shape and a greenish color that differs from the dark blue commonly found in large bodies of water. On the western edge, Italo Boscán, a 64-year-old man, is using his hands to remove a slimy layer of oil from the lake. He explains that while they have no machinery, they are making a strong effort to preserve the lake, taking a brief pause from his demanding labor.
The responsibilities are evenly divided among the group members. Some fishermen are collecting the oil using skimmers, while others are using shovels to gather it and pouring it into metal buckets. A third team is in charge of moving the oil to a designated area, where it will be retrieved by machinery at a later time. Despite the intense heat, there is a sense of hope and positivity, but as Boscán states, this process will not be completed quickly.
Nicolás Maduro, the president, has directed the execution of a plan to rescue, care for, and clean up the lake. This plan will be supervised by Néstor Reverol, the vice-president of public works and services.
The lake, spanning 13,000 sq km, is among the largest in South America and one of the most ancient in existence. According to Prof Suher Yabroudi, the director of the center for water research at the University of Zulia’s school of engineering, the lake’s conditions are distinct due to various factors. As the lake’s basin is connected to the Caribbean Sea, it receives saline water and is situated in four states: Zulia, Mérida, Táchira, and Trujillo. The Catatumbo River from Colombia is one of its main sources of water.
According to Yabroudi, the lake is not beyond repair, despite what some may think. While it is not in pristine condition, she assures that the ecosystem is still alive. Her main concern at the moment is the excessive growth of green algae, also called verdín locally, which highlights the pressing need to restore the lake’s natural color.
The lake, which holds the majority of the country’s oil reserves, has been contaminated due to years of insufficient waste management and disregard for oil industry infrastructure. Production is anticipated to rise. Following recent discussions between Maduro’s administration and certain Venezuelan opposition members, the US government lifted sanctions on oil, gas, and gold production in Venezuela on October 17th.
Fishermen report that when they venture further into the ocean to catch “quality fish” – referring to fish that are less polluted and suitable for sale and consumption – they observe crude oil leaking from old pipelines. This has serious implications for their means of making a living.
“Oil contamination is pervasive in the lake. According to Ender Bermúdez, a 56-year-old fisherman, even when they go deep into the lake and retrieve their nets, they are coated in oil from the lake’s bottom. This has caused significant hardship for fishers, who are unable to fish due to the pollution. As Bermúdez puts it, if the lake is lost, so is their livelihood.”
The minister in charge of environmental efforts under Maduro, Josué Lorca, has established a conservation plan for Venezuela. As part of this plan, the Lake Maracaibo rescue commission operates from Thursdays to Sundays in the surrounding municipalities. Their tasks include cleaning up oil and plastic, repairing water treatment facilities, replacing old oil pipelines, and educating the public about the importance of preserving the lake.
Lorca reports a significant decline in the presence of green microalgae due to their ongoing efforts. Yabroudi explains that microalgae is caused by an excessive amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, which can come from various sources including household wastewater, aquaculture, and farming.
The government department has inspected over 75 enterprises, including shrimp farms and other businesses located in industrial areas, to ensure they are following environmental regulations. Any that were found to be non-compliant were shut down. Out of the 23 facilities for treating water, only one was operational, although it was operating at a lower capacity. The minister of water has announced plans to revive four main treatment plants and hopes that the main plant will soon be able to handle 62% of the water supply for Maracaibo, the largest municipality in Zulia.
The Guardian has requested PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, for information regarding the status of pipeline replacements, however, they have not yet received a response.
A notable effort to bring awareness to the condition of the lake is Proyecto Sirena. This project utilizes both human and animal hair to gather hydrocarbons, a successful cleanup method used internationally and now implemented in Venezuela. Selene Estrach, the creator, emphasizes that Proyecto Sirena recognizes the severity of the issue and intends to engage the community in their efforts.
She states from the University of Zulia laboratory that they aim to encourage citizens to take action and open up discussion about the problem of oil spills. At this laboratory, they are currently testing absorption devices.
Estrach notes that the community has come to recognize that doing nothing is not an option. She has been involved in environmental activism for ten years and states that this is the first instance where she has witnessed such a large number of individuals actively engaged in conservation efforts. She adds, “Everyone is contributing in their own way. It is crucial to establish a grassroots movement in the nation.”
On Saturdays, as the sun comes up, a different set of fishermen head out, but not to catch fish. With hats and long-sleeved shirts to shield themselves from the sun, their goal is to collect plastic from the lake.
Reinaldo Herrera, the director of the fishing ministry in Zulia state, expresses a desire to engage anglers not just as economic participants, but also as political agents with the power to shape their own circumstances.
Herrera reports that they have enlisted over 2,000 fishermen and over 400 boats in Maracaibo to assist with cleaning up efforts. In just eight days of work, they have successfully gathered over 156.5 tonnes of plastic from both the shore and the lake in four different municipalities within the state.
Following several hours, fishermen and members of the community come back to shore, proudly carrying large sacks filled primarily with oil-coated plastic bottles. Herrera documents this moment on camera as the anglers enthusiastically chant: “Zulia state owns the lake! Fishing is victorious!”