- Urao is the only brackish continental lagoon in Latin America, significant for its minerals and the livelihoods it supports, but threatened by encroaching development in the Venezuelan state of Mérida.
- Fundalaguna, an Indigenous- and community-led NGO, has since 2016 worked to restore the shrinking lagoon by getting it designated as a Ramsar wetland, which would bring some measure of international protection.
- As part of its advocacy, the NGO holds eco talks at local schools to educate young people about the importance of saving the lagoon.
- At the same time, reforestation efforts and two very rainy years have saved the lagoon for the moment and brought back fish and migratory birds, but advocates say further hydrological works are needed to bring Urao back to its original state.
When Nelly Flores looks out over the Urao Lagoon, she smiles and asks me: “Do you know what those dots moving in the water are?” Mosquitoes, I guess. Nelly shakes her head and her smile widens. “No. They’re not mosquitoes. They’re, they’re … baby fish. What are they called?” She picks up her cellphone to search. “Alevines, they are alevins!” she says proudly, not so much for finding the right name as for the life she sees flourishing in a spot where for years there was only dryness and death.
Nelly Flores is an Indigenous Mucumbú, one of the six ethnic groups that inhabit the town of Lagunillas in Venezuela’s Mérida state. Her grandfather, Nolberto Flores Rangel, was the cacique, or chief, who served as the protector of the lagoon. Today Nelly leads the NGO Fundalaguna, which she created in 2016 to focus public attention on saving the lagoon.
Accompanying Nelly on this visit to the lagoon are Elismar and Cleidymar, 11 and 10 years old, leaders in Fundalaguna’s eco children’s brigade, which was created in local schools to promote environmental awareness. The girls are also Mucumbú and had never seen life in the Urao Lagoon. But now they’re excited to see fish, ducks and a heron.
“I see the lagoon as a sister and a mother. I love to see it full, because I know it is happy,” says Elismar, who has never swum in the Urao Lagoon, unlike Nelly, who often bathed there during her childhood, when the lagoon hadn’t yet been declared a natural monument.
Cleidymar says that on cleanup days, she and other children from her school remove a lot of garbage, which saddens her. She knows that pollution is killing the life that she’s seeing for the first time in these waters. “In the eco talks we have learned a lot about how to take care of our lagoon and I teach that to my relatives,” Cleidymar tells Mongabay.
The Urao Lagoon is unique in the world. Its waters, a light ochre, have the same high sodium content as the Caribbean Sea, even though the lagoon sits 400 kilometers (250 miles) inland, nestled between the moorlands and the Andes. It’s also the only brackish continental lagoon in Latin America, and the only one within an urban area, in the town of Lagunillas.
The lagoon’s high concentration of sodium sesquicarbonate, or trona, a type of salt used for water treatment and food processing, have led to the formation of the mineral gaylussite. The compound was discovered in the Urao Lagoon, turning it into the main extraction site for many years. The name of the lagoon, Urao, comes from the word used by Indigenous people for sodium sesquicarbonate.
Urao is also the base of chimó, a thick jelly prepared since pre-Hispanic times that’s said to have energizing and stimulating properties. Nelly Flores remembers how the Indigenous people and locals in Lagunillas used to make chimó. The last time it was prepared with urao extracted from the lagoon was four years ago. She keeps some samples wrapped in banana stems.
Both locals in Lagunillas and the Mucumbú have a strong mystical bond with the lagoon: the former throw fruit, old coins and food into the water in rituals of gratitude, while the latter dance and perform music during the summer solstice to pray for plentiful harvests.
The lagoon’s decline
The Urao Lagoon is “a little piece of sea in the Andes,” according to Omar Guerrero, a geology professor at Venezuela’s University of the Andes and a member of Fundalaguna. He’s published several academic papers on the lagoon’s geological and biological history as well as on its mystic, urban and political history.
But this little piece of sea is at risk of disappearing, according to other research, as both its surface area and its depth have dramatically decreased.
In 1979, when the Urao Lagoon was declared a national monument by government decree, its waters spanned an area of about 101 hectares (250 acres), and its maximum depth was about 12 meters (39 feet).
But the decree omitted the ecosystems around the lagoon, allowing the development of homes and businesses, agricultural and livestock activity, and water diversion from the micro basins of the seven wellsprings that feed Urao. The lagoon is already vulnerable as it sits in a semiarid region that receives just 400 millimeters (16 inches) of rainfall annually and is highly dependent on groundwater levels. The change in the water cycle as a result of the development drastically reduced the lagoon’s depth, bringing it to just 0.6 meters (2 ft) by 2016.
“Due to the characteristics of the area there is a high evapotranspiration, so with the loss of vegetation and little water renewal, the new rains of these years cannot raise the phreatic level, the underground zone that allows the water to pass from the aquifers to the lagoon,” says Ernesto Gonzáles, a limnologist at the Central University of Venezuela who isn’t associated with Fundalaguna or the research in Urao. “So if tomorrow it stops raining, it dries up again.”
The unchecked growth of Lagunillas has led to pollution of the wellsprings’ headwaters and deforestation across the area. In 2020, as Venezuela suffered economic collapse, the community excavated one of the aquifers in search of water. “It is difficult to explain to the communities how the water cycle works, but also this leads to a cultural conflict because without a lagoon there are no legends, mythology or history,” Guerrero tells Mongabay.
A study by researchers at the University of the Andes, set to be published in early 2023, shows that urban growth and climate variability, especially the cycles of El Niño and La Niña, have accelerated the lagoon’s depletion between 1951 and 2011. The changes are also affecting locals’ health. Cyanobacteria that thrive in conditions of reduced oxygen and increased nutrients from agricultural waste have increased sharply in the lagoon, leading to an increase in skin and respiratory diseases in Lagunillas.
Local fight for restoration and protection
The idea of creating Fundalaguna was born in 2016 in a citizen assembly, as concerns mounted over Urao’s shrinking size.
Yofernisi Ortiz, an architect and organizational planning coordinator of Fundalaguna, says that eco talks in communities, schools and government institutions are among the foundation’s top achievements. “They have been vital to disseminate the current situation of the Urao Lagoon. We have reached 1,200 students,” Ortiz tells Mongabay.
In 2020 and 2021, Fundalaguna also developed a reforestation plan for the area around the lagoon, in collaboration with Rural Development, a local public institute. Volunteers, mostly Lagunillas residents, planted 2,132 trees in three areas bordering the lagoon at the origins of the seven tributaries. They planted three species in the higher regions — blue jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia), vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) and tampaco (Clusia multiflora) — and seven different species on the hill of San Benito, south of Urao Lagoon.
At the same time, pressure from activists has stopped construction in the lagoon’s areas of influence, including a high-profile case in which a prominent Mérida lawyer threatened Nelly Flores for protesting the construction of a restaurant. The lawyer tried to bribe staff in the mayor’s office to allow the construction to resume, according to Fundalaguna.
Cases like this are why Fundalaguna is demanding that the Ministry of People’s Power for Ecosocialism and the National Parks Institute (Inparques) enact a management plan that would protect 5,562 hectares (13,744 acres) surrounding the lagoon. This would encompass the seven micro basins, though it doesn’t appear likely to happen, given that the government has granted new tourism infrastructure concessions to businesses in protected and endangered zones similar to those in Los Roques and El Ávila national parks. “That would provoke many conflicts because there is not a real environmental policy in the country, but an economic crisis-driven one,” Guerrero says.
There have been efforts from the ecosocialism minister and the National Parks Institute to restore the lagoon through hydrological works, reforestation and waste cleanups, especially between 2017 and 2019, but without changing the area’s legal status. Neither the ministry nor Inparques had responded to Mongabay’s request for comment on Urao Lagoon by the time this article was published.
Fundalaguna says it wants Urao Lagoon to be declared a Ramsar site, part of a global network of ecologically important wetlands. It’s a stopping ground for migratory and local birds like the Andean sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), house wren (Troglodytes aedon), purple gallinule (Porphyrula martinicus), yellow-tailed oriole (Icterus mesomelas) and golden-olive woodpecker (Colaptes rubiginosos). The international funding that would come with Ramsar status could be used to undertake the hydrological works needed to restore the lagoon, Fundalaguna says. Guerrero’s research team has already located two streams feeding the lagoon and has plans to secure them. This partially involves drilling holes in the water table to create a transfer pool bearing the same characteristics as the lagoon. This water would rehydrate the clay at the bottom of the lagoon, currently inflated by dehydration, helping it to retract and restore Urao’s original depth.
“We have the knowledge and even some tools, we only need $30,000,” Guerrero says. This amount would be enough for his team to carry out the surveys showing how much sediment is on the bottom and where the supply streams are passing through. “But we need coordinated state action, [the lack of] which is currently paralyzing us.”
Guerrero adds that the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology has denied them the installation of a meteorological station, although they know that the office has the necessary equipment. “It is a governance problem,” he tells Mongabay.
Fundalaguna has other ideas to protect the Urao Lagoon, such as declaring it the first global geopark in Venezuela. This UNESCO status assigned to “sites and landscapes of international geological significance managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development.” Fundalaguna plans to campaign for this before a delegation of parliament’s environmental committee, which is scheduled to visit Urao by early 2023.
Huerta, P., Guerrero, O., & Alvarado, M. (2016). Evidencias de registro paleosismico y sedimentologia de los depositos de Laguna de Urao (Merida – Venezuela). Revista Ciencia e Ingeniería, 37(3), 37-44. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332038336_EVIDENCIAS_DE_REGISTRO_PALEOSISMICO_Y_SEDIMENTOLOGIA_DE_LOS_DEPOSITOS_DE_LAGUNA_DE_URAO_MERIDA_-VENEZUELA_EVIDENCES_OF_PALEOSEISMIC_RECORD_AND_SEDIMENTOLOGY_OF_THE_DEPOSITS_OF_URAO_LAKE_MERIDA_ANDES_V
Guerrero, O., & Contreras, W. (2019). Laguna de Urao: Monumental Natural en Mengua. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331974359_LAGUNA_DE_URAO_MONUMENTO_NATURAL
Guerrero, O., Toro, R., Uzcategui-Salazar, M., Jegat, H., & Cerrada, M. (2020). Evaluación de la recarga de laguna de Urao con aplicación de técnicas isotópicas. Lagunillas, estado Mérida, Venezuela. Revista Latino-Americana de Hidrogeología, 102-117. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347986580_EVALUACION_DE_LA_RECARGA_DE_LAGUNA_DE_URAO_CON_APLICACION_DE_TECNICAS_ISOTOPICAS_LAGUNILLAS_ESTADO_MERIDA_VENEZUELA
Banner image: The only brackish continental lagoon in Latin America, Urao, is under threat from development. Image by María Fernanda Rodríguez.
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