With his sandals buried in the sand and his indefatigable optimism, the elderly fisherman looked towards the water and weighed his long and lost battle.
At his feet is the Amuay Bay and the fertile source of fish he sustained: that was what he fought for. Far away, on the opposite coast, beyond the waves that the wind raises, its adversary is situated: the imposing parastatal oil plant and its failed machinery.
“The company hates this man,” said the fisherman, Esteban Sánchez, while his calloused index finger pointed towards his chest. “But I don’t care. I will continue to denounce them. “
For generations, fishermen in Amuay have caught snapper (also known as red snapper), mackerel (mackerel), sardines, clams and crabs from these waters to feed their families and sell them to wholesalers who take their products to other markets and restaurants. places.
However, the plant, part of a large complex of refineries in Venezuela, has occasionally released pollutants into the bay and adjacent waters of the Caribbean Sea, threatening the livelihoods of families living in this small and poor community of several thousand. of inhabitants on the northwest coast of the country.
With each spill – a score over the past three decades, residents say – fishermen have been forced to put their work on hold while contaminant stains turned the surface of the water into a bright toxic kaleidoscope that poisoned fish and fish. running water, eliminated the mangroves and dirtied the beaches of the town.
There is very little that fishermen and their families can do; As if caught in the worst of forced marriages, the population is tied to the refinery by the bay they share.
The most recent event occurred when a storage tank was flooded by heavy rains last October and threw thousands of gallons of waste from the refinery into the bay. Lifeless fish reached the shores of Amuay; dozens of pelicans died. The fishermen who worked in the bay could not fish there for more than a month, which left them in a precarious economic situation amid rising inflation and a national economy in a tailspin.
The villagers said the company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), sent employees to check the damage, but did not start cleaning or compensate the fishermen for the loss of fishing days. PDVSA did not respond to our request for comments. Some now fear that such spills may become more common. The refinery complex, the cornerstone of the oil industry in Venezuela, has fallen into a severe abandonment that has led to cuts in operations, massive layoffs and increased accidents.
“It’s like a bomb on the door of your house,” said Francisco Sanchez, a fisherman and cousin of Esteban Sánchez.
The village – with its rudimentary one-story concrete houses, four churches, a school and a community center – stretches along partially paved roads on a small peninsula between the bay and the sea. Life has always been hard in this place, but now it is harder in the midst of the nation’s economic decline.
Like the rest of the country’s disadvantaged population, the community’s willingness to protest seems to have subsided due to the economic collapse of Venezuela, and most of them seem resigned these days to suffer in silence for the humiliations of PDVSA.
Except for Esteban Sánchez, 70, a native of Amuay who, like many generations before him, has fished all his life in the waters that surround the bay. As other protest voices dissipate, he has kept his at full volume.
It expresses a nuanced opinion about the refinery: it respects its economic importance for the nation, but criticizes its conduct.
“You know that this is a development that benefits the country and we are not selfish,” he said. “What we do not like is that they consider us inferior, as if we were a tick in a dog.”
Sanchez began his environmental crusade in 1996, when he raised his first formal complaint to the Venezuelan authorities after a series of spills in the bay.
At that time, he said, Amuay’s fishermen pressure group was more united, with two fishing associations representing several hundred fishermen from the town. He was president of one, the Association of Artisanal Fishermen of the Bay of Amuay; the other association represented fishermen who worked mainly in the Caribbean Sea.
However, more or less a decade ago, their association suffered a schism, as most members left to join two new groups of fishermen, which were part of a plan by then President Hugo Chávez to create a council system community that supervise the local development of projects. The government supplies boats, engines and nets to the two fishing councils.
Sanchez kept his association afloat, even when he was left out of the flow of government resources, because it offered him an independent platform from which he could rise up against PDVSA.
However, he increasingly saw himself as a lonely actor. The government, he argues, bought the submission of the two fishermen’s councils with equipment even though PDVSA continued without addressing the underlying problems at the plant that caused the contamination.
“The people were silent,” agreed Adrian Cosi, 47, a member of one of the two fishermen’s councils and a former member of Sanchez’s association. “The fisherman never says things the way he should say them.”
In spite of everything, other residents say that they respect Sanchez’s determined vision, but that they have chosen their battles with more care. Some even accuse him of exaggerating the environmental impact to make more noise and draw more attention to himself.
His cousin, Francisco, 57, who is the spokesman for one of the fishermen’s councils, said Esteban was “the spearhead” of the people’s efforts to protect the environment.
However, he also suggested that his cousin sometimes takes his actions too far.
“He’s a social fighter, but sometimes it’s time to leave everything behind,” he said, before expressing his support for the administration of President Nicolás Maduro and the help he has given to his council.
Elio Coromoto Reyes Cuauro, 67, a retired university professor and owner of a small hotel in Amuay, said the struggle for justice has suffered the consequences of political division among fishermen. If they were more united, he explained, they could accumulate more benefits for the people from PDVSA, including much-needed improvements in public services such as roads, schools and electricity.
“If people do not fight shoulder to shoulder, they are not strong enough and cannot achieve common goals,” he said.
The archives of Sánchez’s twenty-one-year-old struggle are carelessly stored in two portfolios in the small green and yellow cement house where he lives with his wife, 90 meters from the bay.
“This is why PDVSA does not want me,” he said one recent morning, with a mischievous smile, as he took one of the portfolios and began to swarm with piles of documents folded by the tip and crumpled: formal demands, legal papers, newspaper clippings, Photographs. He scattered them on the glass table, which filled quickly; then he took the other portfolio and emptied its contents-more of the same-on a sofa.
“There’s a lot of material from Esteban Sánchez,” he said, separating the piles. “With all this material, Esteban Sánchez will be heard abroad.” Among his documents was a certificate that the Embassy of Canada granted him in 2013 in recognition of his defense of the environment and human rights.
That morning I wore striped pants many sizes too large, tied with a belt, and a very worn shirt. He was planning to lobby with his latest complaint at the state attorney general’s office in Coro, the capital of Falcon state. These trips are not frequent, because they normally take a full day of travel by public transport and represent a huge percentage of your monthly income.
In Coro, an assistant district attorney invited Sánchez to take a seat and explain his case. Pop music played on the lawyer’s computer.
Sánchez spoke about the October spill and cited violations of the bylaws, as well as recounting the long history of PDVSA’s negligence regarding Amuay. “We feel humiliated, but I am a patient man,” he said.
While the fisherman was talking, the lawyer typed on his phone, which from time to time emitted different types of beeps, as if he were playing a video game. Almost did not take off the view of the screen.
Later, Sánchez seemed satisfied. The prosecutor had given him much more time than usual. “We did well,” he said cheerfully.