For over 200 years, the economy of Zulia State has relied on the lake. Petroleum, gas and traditional fishing are its main resources while its islands are its greatest attraction
With an area spanning 13,280 square kilometers, Lake Maracaibo is found all the way to the west of the country and is the biggest lake in South America and the 23rd largest in the world. To the people of Zulia, it has inspired traditional music, soap operas and even plays. They see it as a "large mirror" reflecting the harsh times they have been subject to as well as their cheerful spirits and their hospitality.
Discovered by Alonso de Ojeda, who reached the bank of the lake on August 24, 1499, accompanied by Juan de la Cosa and Américo Vespucci, Lake Maracaibo still houses native towns with dwellings known as "palafitos," built over the lake and supported by stalks. The most widely known towns are found on the lakes east coast: San Timoteo, Ceuta and Bachaquero.
The lake is part of an area geographically referred to as the Maracaibo Lake System, which also includes the Maracaibo Strait, the Tablazo Bay and the Gulf of Venezuela.
One of the many legends attributed to the lake is that on November 18, 1709, the Virgin of Our Lady of Chiquinquirá, patron of Zulia State and subject to one of the most significant religious celebrations in Venezuela, rose from its waters.
Over fifty rivers feed into it, including the Chama, Zulia, Catacumbo, Escalante and Santa Ana Rivers. In addition, it borders the city of Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia State, as well as all of the towns on the east, north and south coasts of the region.
THE CRADLE OF BLACK GOLD
The first people to find any use for petroleum were the natives who inhabited the banks of Lake Maracaibo. The called it "mene" and used it for its industrial and medicinal properties. For over 200 years, the region's business has been bound to the lake and its tributaries. The Maracaibo Port controlled the dredged channel connecting the lake to the sea. Coffee from Táchira State and cacao from the southern area of the lake were exported abroad through Lake Maracaibo.
In 1920, petroleum extraction surged and, from then on, extraction towers and large vessels abounded in its waters. Roughly 80% of Venezuela's oil reserves and 20% of its gas are found in Zulia.
Even though biologists admit that petroleum extraction has been its major polluting factors, they also acknowledge that, all along those two hundred years, efforts have been made to decontaminate and rescue the lake, regardless of the political affiliation of those in power.
Jorge Pedroza, president of the Institute for Control and Conservation of Lake Maracaibo, an organization ascribed to the Ministry of Environment, says that all sorts of things have been said about the lake's pollution, even that the "lake's duckweed infestation (which began in 2005) is a monster let loose by President Hugo Chávez, but this government has carried out several actions that have helped clean the lake. Control has been gained over the duckweed, the Tablazo Petrochemical Treatment Plant (Miranda Municipality, Zulia State) has the capacity to treat 1,300 liters per second of waste water and has aided in the recovery of nine beaches."
Another feature of Lake Maracaibo is the natural phenomenon known as the Catacumbo Lightning, also referred to as Mother Nature's ozone factory. This phenomenon is capable of producing 1,176,000 lightning bolts per year and produce up to 10% of the planet's ozone layer.
During this prolonged dry season, many have claimed that it has perished. Nevertheless, experts at the Modeling Center of Universidad del Zulia refute that theory and ensure that "though it cannot be seen at present, it is not in danger of disappearing anytime soon."
Traditional fishing is another asset of Lake Maracaibo. Carlos Sangroni, coordinator of the Center for Lake Maracaibo Studies of Universidad Rafael María Baralt, affirms that in spite of contrasting opinions, the lake "holds great potential for fishing." "Approximately 20 thousand tons of blue crabs are harvested each year, as well as 12 to 15 tons of shrimp."
According to Sangroni, the blue crab is one of the most sought-after marine species not only in Zulia State, but also abroad. In fact, 95% of its production is exported to the United States of America.
He also explained that a research project is being performed focusing on five courses of action: vegetable ecology, mangroves, crustaceans, toxicology, as well as plankton and aviculture. The main purpose of the project is to study the lake's crabs as resources, determine the social impact of the blue crab (there are about 3,000 to 4,000 blue-crab fishermen exist) and disclose its findings through community workshops aimed at raising awareness and making the results of the study public through distribution of one thousand catalogs.
Musicians believe that the traditional "gaita" music was born in the lake region and has inspired not only musicians but also at least one of Maracaibo's theater actors, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid raising any eyebrows. He said that "all artists living in this part of the world must maintain a firm commitment to Coquivacoa (Lake Maracaibo). At many stages of my career, I have taken part in plays involving pirates, privateers and freebooters, as well as priests and conquistadors." To this actor, "honest and committed efforts must be devoted to the lake. This affection toward the lake was lost long ago. It is necessary to return to that feeling and embrace our commitment to the lake once again. Beyond demagogy, a true campaign for recovery of the lake must be implemented."
Translated by Félix Rojas