Once the heart of Venezuela's oil boom, Mene Grande is now a zone of desolate abandon / © AFP/File
Greasy slicks continue to darken the ground in Mene Grande, a modest town where Venezuela's oil boom was born more than a century ago. But now the days of crude glory are gone, replaced by desolation.
The asphalt on the roads is worn down. Water, cooking gas and electricity are absent most of the time. Locals, who previously received generous oil-related salaries, have left the country because of the worst crisis their nation has known.
"We used to live like kings," recalled Henry, a 48-year-old former oil well worker who declined to give his last name.
"This was the biggest oil area in Venezuela... You stopped here and used to see a big number of barges working there. Now, all that is finished," he said, indicating Lake Maracaibo, a vast body of water in Venezuela's northwest.
The region lived a bonanza that started 105 years ago when oil exploration started here, thanks to the discovery that Venezuela boasts the biggest proven reserves of oil in the world. Between 2004 and 2015, the black stuff brought in $750 billion.
- Unemployment -
Henry lives in San Timoteo, a community near Mene Grande on the shore of the lake where houses sit upon stilts. They used to have a view of oil platforms belonging to state company PDVSA.
A plaque in Mene Grande commemorates the beginning of oil exploration in Venezuela on July 31, 1914 / © AFP/File
The steady decline of the industry, due to under investment, an exodus of qualified engineers and corruption among the military bosses meant to manage the sector, has seen oil production slump from 3.2 million barrels per day in 2008 to less than 1 million in February.
Olivero Bracho, 46, is among the hundreds fired from the barges that would ferry them to the platforms. "There's nothing left. The operations have stopped. They got rid of the workers."
Bracho's two children left for Colombia, among the 2.7 million Venezuelans who have abandoned their country since 2015, according to UN figures.
"Before, there were a lot of people working. People bought food. Now we don't even have basic items," he said.
San Timoteo is the most rundown part of Mene Grande's municipal region. Half the wooden pontoons that connect the houses on stilts have been washed away by rain.
"Nobody has come to help us, not the municipality, nothing," Henry said.
Residents have had to turn to collecting rainwater because supplies of drinking water have stopped. For washing, water is scooped up from the polluted, brackish lake.
"We go to the shore to wash dishes and bathe," said Dinoria Estrada, visibly angry.
The few people who remain are without work, she said, adding that she herself relied on money sent by relatives abroad.
Eduardo Bracho, another ex-oil worker and now a member of the local council and a supporter of President Nicolas Madruo's government, admits the situation has deteriorated.
- 'Gone backwards' -
Viewed from a distance, Mene Grande looks like a zone of scorched vegetation. Up close, the black coloring turns out to be oil. A pumpjack -- a metal arm used to mechanically lift oil out of a well -- remains from the first well set up in 1914, a half-forgotten testament to a happier, more profitable era.
A pumpjack once used to lift oil from a well is left to decay, a relic to a more profitable era / © AFP/File
"It's a relic. It should be taken care of better. But it's abandoned, like all the oil facilities," said Freddy Cardoza, a farmer.
Mene Grande also hosts an immense tank that stores fuel for neighboring states.
A few meters (yards) away sits an abandoned oil plant where families gather to fill cans with water from a broken pipe. Some use wheelbarrows to haul the cans to their homes.
Jose Esclona, a 47-year-old engineer who used to do contract work for PDVSA, waits his turn to get at the water, needed to save his tiny plot of tomato plants. He cautions his neighbors that the water should only be used for washing, not for drinking.
"In this century we should find solutions for this sort of problem," he sighed, bitter that his once-rich country, floating on a sea of oil, is reduced to such a state.
"Our resources are being diverted. This country shouldn't be like this. We've gone backwards," he said.