Lake Maracaibo fishermen say they will block critical navigation channel for a second time

-- report by VHeadline/VENews correspondent Jorge Hinestroza

Maracaibo (Zulia): Saturday, May 31, 1997 -- Hundreds of fishing vessels, protesting the oil industry's constant pollution of Lake Maracaibo, stopped the flow of oil tankers May 15 through the navigation channel at the entrance to the lake ... described as the largest fresh water reservoir in South America. Now the fishermen are planning another protest which they say they hope will draw even more international attention to their sensitive environment's plight.

They staged their May 15 protest with special attention on the gigantic spill caused after the Greek-registered "Nissos Amorgos" ran aground February 28.

Approaching 80% of Venezuela's oil exports (about 2 million barrels a day) pass through the badly-maintained channel each month on some 130 tankers.

The fishermen are describing their protest as the "3rd Battle of Lake Maracaibo", recalling a naval battle at the beginning of the last century and a heated conflict in 1972. This time around, the Maracaibo fishermen had full support of national and regional public opinion as well as OilWatch, Greenpeace, trade unions, political parties and local authorities.

The national government in Caracas, however, chose to set in missile-carrying Venezuelan Navy frigates and other naval ships in an attempt to sabotage the protest. They'd put out a general ban on fishing vessels from the Mara and Paez districts -- zones worst affected by the spill -- and a tow barge tried to blackleg the protest but was boarded and forced to desist.

Dead fish floating throughout the protest area were a stark reminder of the "Nissos Amorgos" tragedy. The fishermen are asking for $300 million compensation and their lawyers say they'll be going the whole hog through the courts in an attempt to find some justice. Meanwhile, the shipowners, who have already admitted they caused the spill are already facing three civil suits as well as criminal charges arising from the incident, February 28.

The environment organization, Oil Alert Network Orinoco Oilwatch took part in the blockade ofshipping alongside the Lake Maracaibo fishermen, contributing logisticalsupport where needed. However, the group says a lawsuit isn't enough, but is demanding "a through and transparent investigation to establish responsibilities of both the national and international oil industries in the pollution of Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela coast." They're also demanding a halt to further extension plans in the area until the full extent of security risks for shipping in the choc-a-bloc channel is known, and until such time as damage to the ecosystem as a result of continuous dredging can be ascertained.

Local farmers have also been hit by frequent ruptures and leaks along Maraven's oil pipelines. At least 15 to 20 such leaks have been reported near the villages of Mayales and Marcelino -- a 20 kilometer stretch of coast in the Mora district where beaches were recently polluted by the spill from the Nissos Amorgos.

Last January 29, 10 hectares of mangroves were hit by at least 80 barrels of crude oil escaping from the supposedly inactive and sealed-off Mosquito II oil well. In spite of declarations by Maraven employees that the oil wells are permanently monitored and repaired, a second pipe leak took place near the first at the Mosquito III as well, hitting another mangrove area, where the clean-up operation could be described was nothing short of simple deforestation.

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