Maracaibo Lake: zone of environmental sacrifice

Lake Maracaibo is being depleted, both by the exploitation of various commodities, from oil and coal to crab and shrimp, and by the construction of fluvial-lacustrine infrastructure at the service of continental extractivist megaprojects; all this, of course, with the complicit permissiveness of public institutions, or what is the same to say, by the failure to comply with the constitutional obligations of the State in environmental matters.

If oil spills are daily events for the industry, the resulting tragic loss of environmental quality is the same for millions of inhabitants. A decade ago, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Pdvsa) registered more than 9,000 spills annually in the area; today, with crude oil production reduced by 80%, these accidents continue to be frequent news.

The origins of this story date back to the beginning of the 20th century, but the worsening of Zulia’s socio-environmental tragedy occurred after the exploitation of all the resources of the Maracaibo Lake basin was projected through the Study for the Rational Use of the Natural Resources of the Zulia region, sponsored by the Organization of American States in the mid-1970s. Since then, the majestic natural formations of the lake basin suffer wounds that today do not heal, and the population suffers from the ecocides they have witnessed, as well as from health problems or loss of livelihoods in rivers and in the lake.

The infamous industry of extraction, transport and shipment of 8 million metric tons of coal per year in the lake ports of Mara, La Ensenada and El Bajo, leaves a footprint of coal dust on the roads that not only causes fatal accidents on the roads, but also penetrates into the lungs, causing respiratory diseases for mine workers and inhabitants on both sides of the roads and ports. The mining company has repeatedly expanded the Norte and Paso Diablo mines in the northwest of Zulia state, without paying attention to the environmental impact of its actions, affecting the basins of the Socuy, Cachirí and Guasare rivers, which supply the two reservoirs that store drinking water for 3.2 million people in Zulia.

Another actor in this story is the multinational Shell, which had the coal exploitation rights for about 20 years. Nowadays, although the characters have changed, the story has not changed much: the mines are exploited by a state-owned company (Carbozulia), but the environmental damage continue, with a balance of affected population, and some mourners, grouped in environmental organizations.

The diagnosis of the lake indicates aging, contamination by residential and industrial waters, agrochemicals, and, in the last 10 years, shrimp and crab fishing and capture. Some researchers put the annual potential of these two exploitations at 6,100 and 11,500 metric tons, respectively. The modality is the same as always: extractivism, i.e., precarious working conditions for fishermen and breeders, low pay for the workforce, production destined for export, and juicy profits for private producers.

In this way, the Maracaibo Lake basin was configured as a zone of environmental sacrifice and, by extension, a social and economic sacrifice zone, without taking into account the worsening of social inequalities or taking measures to prevent and reverse the resulting environmental crisis.

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