As dawn breaks over Lake Maracaibo, a group of 20 fishermen, equipped with tools, converge on its shores. Their goal isn’t to catch fish but to salvage the lake that has been their lifeline for generations. Using metal rakes, they laboriously scrape off the thick oil layer that mars the surface of this ancient lake.
From a bird’s-eye view, Lake Maracaibo, located in north-western Venezuela, showcases a unique green tint, contrasting the deep blue of most expansive water bodies. Italo Boscán, a 64-year-old local, is among those working tirelessly to cleanse the lake. Taking a brief respite, he remarks, “Our hands are our primary tools, but our determination to restore the lake is unwavering.”
The cleanup process is systematic. While some skim the oil, others collect it in buckets. Another group is responsible for transporting the collected oil for later disposal. Boscán acknowledges the enormity of the task, emphasizing that recovery is a gradual process.
The Venezuelan government, under President Nicolás Maduro, has initiated a comprehensive plan to rescue and decontaminate the lake. This initiative is a response to years of environmental neglect and mismanagement of oil infrastructure, which has severely polluted the lake.
Lake Maracaibo, spanning 13,000 sq km, is not only one of South America’s largest lakes but also among the world’s oldest. Prof Suher Yabroudi, an expert from the University of Zulia, highlights the lake’s unique attributes, including its connection to the Caribbean Sea and its location spanning four Venezuelan states. She remains optimistic about the lake’s future, asserting, “The lake may not be pristine, but it’s far from lifeless.”
The lake’s deterioration is attributed to years of poor waste management and neglect of the oil industry. This is concerning, given that the lake holds a significant portion of Venezuela’s oil reserves. The recent lifting of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil has further intensified concerns about increased production and its potential environmental impact.
Local fishermen, like Ender Bermúdez, bear the brunt of this pollution. They often find their nets drenched in oil, making fishing nearly impossible. Bermúdez laments, “Without the lake, we have no livelihood.”
In a bid to address the issue, the government has undertaken various measures, from cleaning up oil and plastic to revamping water treatment facilities. Josué Lorca, overseeing environmental initiatives, highlights the significant reduction in green microalgae, a result of their efforts.
An innovative approach to the cleanup is the Proyecto Sirena initiative, which uses human and animal hair to absorb hydrocarbons. Selene Estrach, the project’s founder, emphasizes community involvement, stating, “It’s crucial to mobilize citizens and raise awareness about the oil spills.”
Every weekend, fishermen embark on a different kind of expedition – collecting plastic waste from the lake. Reinaldo Herrera, director of the fishing ministry in Zulia state, sees this as an opportunity to empower fishermen, transforming them into agents of change.
After labor-intensive days, the community returns with bags filled with oil-covered plastic waste, a testament to their commitment. As they celebrate their small victories, they chant in unison, “The lake belongs to Zulia! Fishing is our triumph!”