Maracaibo's Pipeline of Wealth and Woes: Once a Pristine Colonial Trade Center, Venezuela's Second Largest City Is Facing Environmental and Social Issues Intricately Linked to Its Vast Petroleum Resources

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You may never have heard of this sweltering city beside an immense lake, listened to its vibrant music, or walked its sidewalks teeming with transplants from other Caribbean lands; and although you may never have read about its lively history of pirates and sea battles, it's almost a sure bet that Maracaibo has touched your life.

That's because this city sits beside a huge pool of hydrocarbons, which flows out through Lake Maracaibo to the world's petroleum markets. Those hydrocarbons are why Venezuela is one of the world's top oil exporters, why Venezuela's troubles make headlines in New York and London, and why, if an asteroid were to crash into Lake Maracaibo, the world's economy would stumble.

Those hydrocarbons are also why Maracaibo is the busy and pulsing city it is today, attracting immigrants from all over the Caribbean. Few would have imagined it a century ago, when the lake was bounded by tiny towns of fishermen and farmers who labored over their plots of fruits and vegetables and at the lake's neck sat a small, sleepy port city named Maracaibo, which did a steady business exporting those harvests, but whose importance was mostly a memory--of a grand colonial time when its great wealth in hides, cacao, and grains drew regular visits from plundering pirates.

A century ago, the importance of Maracaibo, a town of some twenty thousand people, had long since passed, and the whole region seemed fated to be forgotten. But perhaps being forgotten was not so bad. Maracaibans worked their farms, swam, and fished in their lake, and reserved Saturday nights for the shows at the Baralt Theater in downtown, completed in 1883.

South of town, the large pools of mene, a sticky asphalt that flowed out of the earth in the foothills, were an interesting anomaly, used by indigenous peoples and criollos for fueling lamps and concocting medicines, but nothing more.

Still, those asphalt pools were probably the most extraordinary characteristic of the area. As early as 1579 the explorers Rodrigo de Arguelles and Gaspar de Parraga had wondered at the phenomenon:

"On the outskirts of the city there is a fountain of asphalt that flows like water, bubbling and boiling, and all around these springs a lake is made that thickens like tar. There are four such fountains in this province."

In 1875, the government of the state of Zulia decided to market the ooze. It hired an engineer who surveyed the area and reported back: "very few regions of the world are so rich in carbons as is the basin of this lake." Already, ambitious men were interested in the sticky asphalt. Around that time, Manuel Antonio Pulido Pulido leased 250 acres of land and managed to refine fifteen barrels of kerosene per day, which he carried out in buckets. Others followed, including big foreign companies.

But the Maracaibo region would continue to sleep until 1914, when the first productive well, Zumaque 1, was drilled in the hills of Mene Grande, south of the lake. But the region's real wake-up call came in 1922, when the Barroso 2 gusher in the town of Cabimas, on the lake's eastern shore, shot a black column of oil one hundred feet high for ten days, pouring out a million barrels of oil before North American experts arrived and capped it. Perhaps in a sort of warning about things to come, the black petroleum river flowed into the lake.

With the gushers, people flowed inward, from all parts of Venezuela, from Colombia, and from the Caribbean islands of Curacao, Aruba, and, most of all, from Trinidad.

Today, nobody can ignore Maracaibo. With nearly two million inhabitants, it is the capital of the engine of Venezuela's economy, which depends on petroleum for more than two-thirds of its export earnings. Thanks to Maracaibo, pistons pulse in Detroit, jets power down runways in San Francisco, ships anchor in French ports, and lights are illuminated in Italy.

Grown up all disordered and hurried along the lake's shore, Maracaibo is a quintessentially Caribbean city, vital with a mixture of African, European, Native American, and Asian peoples, proud of its music, athletes, and extraordinary natural bounty. …