Toas Island, a forgotten territory that struggles to survive

The inhabitants of Toas Island struggle daily for their survival. They see their day-to-day life fade away as they struggle to access food, find drinking water, and endure long periods without electricity which can last for days. There is limited access to health and education, as well as few stores to buy food and medicine. The island was once a source of progress for Zulia, but now, it is experiencing the consequences of profound governmental neglect.

Text: Adriana González
Photographs: María Alejandra Sánchez

At the northernmost end of Lake Maracaibo, Toas Island, one of the island towns of the Almirante Padilla municipality in western Venezuela, welcomes visitors with a pleasant lake breeze and a warm sun that makes the Toas people’s skin golden. This island is located some 51 kilometers from Maracaibo, the capital of the state of Zulia, it has an extension of 3 square kilometers, with hills degraded by the exploitation of limestone, one of the first minerals whose abundance was exploited as an economic activity in the Zulian region.

At the first rays of the sun, modest boats travel the waters of the lake, breaking the silence of the morning with the roar of their engines. In them, men and teenagers set out to cast their nets to ensure their families’ sustenance for the day.

Island fishermen prepare their boats for the day’s work.

On the mainland, the geographical advantages that give this island its tourist potential are barely a consolation for the daily life, in which prevails the struggle to survive the constant failures of public services, the limited conditions for education, the poor access to health services, and fuel, as well as the limited options of stores for the purchase of food and medicines. However, in this desolate panorama, the only thing that seems to remain intact, almost as an inherent trait of the people, is the warmth of the inhabitants and their attachment to the island where they were born.

In the Las Cabeceras sector, a steep stretch leads to the Espina family’s house. Its light-yellow facade has four square holes that function as windows, through which the breeze enters with force and relieves the heat in the middle of the blackouts.

María Gabriela Espina is 50 years old and the daughter of Betty Espina. This woman, with black hair and reddish cheeks due to frequent contact with the sun, says that the electric service on the island is practically non-existent. «Last week we were four days without electricity. It would come for two hours at the most and then go out again», she explains and adds that the sub-lacustrine cable that provides power to the island no longer responds to the demand of the households.

When this basic service fails, telecommunications are also affected. Thus, it is hard to communicate with family members outside the island to get information about events in the country or to access Internet services.

Counting the hours without electricity becomes exhausting. They know when the power goes out, but it is hard to estimate when it will return. Despite of this, families must continue with their day’s work. Every minute counts on Toas Island. Eating is a matter of daily effort, as is drinking water.

Although María Gabriela, mother of eight children, speaks for her family when she says that they have had to get used to dealing with the constant blackouts, this situation takes them away from the possibility of having a decent life. Her mother, Betty, agrees with María Gabriela. «Every day the electricity goes out. Last night it went out about three times».

To Betty’s lament is added the testimony of her brother Ramón, a retired teacher, who said, «Out of curiosity, when January began, I started to keep an eye on how many times the electricity went out during the month. Twenty days into January, the electricity had gone out 21 times».

Siblings Betty and Ramón Espina comment, from their home in the Las Cabeceras sector, on the lack of basic services that they and other inhabitants of the island suffer from.

Even so, for the first months of 2019, the former governor Omar Prieto informed about an investment of 30 million euros destined for the replacement of 15 kilometers of the sub-lacustrine cable that supplies energy to Toas Island.

A year earlier, in 2018, the then Minister of Electric Energy, Luis Motta Domínguez denounced, on repeated occasions, alleged acts of sabotage for political purposes, committed to destabilizing the provision of electric service in the region. A discourse maintained over time by his successors in office.

In October 2021, the sectorial vice-president of Public Works and Services, G/J Néstor Reverol, reported on the progress of new repair works of the sub-lacustrine cable after claiming that it had been vandalized by «unscrupulous hands.»


Stopping eating to fetch drinking water

Drinking water service is another concern for the Espina family, who must fetch water every day to ensure daily activities such as washing or preparing food.

«Sometimes, we have to stop making lunch to buy water,» Betty laments. With this confession, the white-haired woman highlights the sacrifices she has had to make in recent years when, in her opinion, the situation of public services worsened.

«We buy water from some men who set up tanks on top of trucks and sell the water by barrels. That’s how we get water when we can buy it,» Betty continues and explains that buying 20 liters of water can cost one bolivar, while a full barrel, equivalent to 200 liters, costs around 8 bolivars. This translates into a little more than a dollar and a half, a figure that exceeds the minimum wage in Venezuela, established in the Official Gazette at Bs. 7.00 since May 2021.

According to the Espina family, the water pumping in Toas Island comes from a sub-lacustrine pipeline supplied from El Moján, in the neighboring Mara municipality. However, the supply network only covers half of the island, about 3 kilometers from the Espina family’s house.

A house at the top of the Las Cabeceras sector on Toas Island. The water supply is insufficient to cover the needs of all the sectors of the island, so families must fetch drinking water daily to bathe or prepare food.

To alleviate this situation, a one-million-liter tank was built on top of a hill called «El Calvario» to supply half of the deprived island. This mechanism only worked for a couple of years. Since then, water has been distributed by a single water truck that, according to what they say, only supplies certain homes. The rest of the population must fetch water by their means.


Charcoal for cooking

Betty Espina is a confectioner. With her cakes and sweets typical of Venezuelan gastronomy, she has brought sustenance to her home for more than 60 years. But, to achieve her preparations, she now must cook with charcoal.

«I have had to cook the cakes over coals. I put a platter in the kitchen and put the coals in,» she says, after explaining that cooking with firewood is no longer an option because it was affecting her health. Beads of sweat drip down Betty’s forehead during the day, as the heat from the burning coals adds to the lack of electricity that prevents her from turning on the fans in her house.

When Betty does not cook with charcoal, it is because she can afford to fill a gas cylinder in El Moján, about 5 kilometers away from Toas Island.

The kitchen where Betty Espina prepares the sweets that have supported her family for 60 years.

Filling 10-kilogram gas cylinder costs 20 bolivars, about four dollars. It can last about 20 days. The 18-kilogram gas cylinder can be acquired for 28 bolivars through the Mayor’s Office, but when this does not happen, the budget and currency of payment varies, which implies disbursing about 12 dollars.

The preparation and sale of food as means of subsistence is common on the island. María Gabriela, Betty’s daughter, makes about 100 tequeños daily. In the morning she is in charge of cooking, and in the afternoon, she must walk carrying the tequeños for sale about two kilometers to El Toro, the capital of the Almirante Padilla municipality. There, she sits on a busy street to secure customers.

«If I don’t sell the tequeños, we don’t eat,» says the woman. Usually, there are good days, and with the profits, she can secure the day’s food. But when that is not the case, María Gabriela returns home, and the tequeños become food for her family.

Her sister-in-law, Francia Espina, also prepares coconut, pineapple, banana, and guava sweets. Her husband helps her sell them. Every day, the man walks a couple of kilometers from his house, in Las Cabeceras, to the Campamento sector to offer the neighbors the dessert of the day.

Otherwise, they would not be able to subsist. The monthly income of Francia, a practicing teacher, together with her husband’s retirement pension, add up to about 300 bolivars a month, which they must manage carefully to buy drinking water, food, natural gas, and ingredients for sweets. «We have to do magic with that,» says the couple.


Every bolivar counts

Despite qualifying them as insufficient to cover their needs, the Espinas are relieved to receive the bonuses granted by the national government through the homeland card (Carnet de la Patria). It all adds up, they say. Although they do not receive the bonuses frequently, the amounts can vary between 7.00 and 45.00 bolivars.

The higher bonuses may yield a couple of days to alleviate household expenses, especially for the food purchases they must make daily. They mostly consume rice, flour, grains, and tubers. If people want to eat animal protein, they must turn to fish due to the high costs of other animal proteins, such as meat, chicken, or eggs, which make them difficult to access.

They usually eat twice a day, and sometimes only once. It all depends on the family’s financial resources. In this context, the few grocery stores on Toas Island have bio payment, a system that facilitates the exchange of state aid for food.

But in these few establishments they cannot buy all the items they need, and often their prices are higher compared to those offered in Mara. Therefore, families often have to travel to this municipality about 15 minutes from the island to access food.

At the Toas Island Hospital, the personnel lack the necessary supplies to attend to the people who go there.

The same happens when it comes to buying medicines. People who go to the Toas Island Hospital, the only one on the island, do not find any supplies or medicines to treat their conditions. The health personnel, in the face of the shortage, can only limit themselves to evaluating cases and issuing prescriptions.

There are no cotton pads, gloves, or injectors. Due to electrical failures, the hospital spends more time without electricity than with service to be able to function. A similar situation happens at the Comprehensive Diagnostic Center (CDI) of Toas Island, where people must bring supplies to be attended. Given the lack of access to quality health services, the inhabitants warn that if any person needs emergency care, the best option is to travel to another municipality in the region, such as Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia State.

For minor ailments, medications such as analgesics, antipyretics, or anti-allergics, among others, can be purchased at a grocery store. Even so, the costs of these are very high compared to those that can be found outside the island.

There is not even a pharmacy on Toas Island. The owners of the last establishment of this type left the municipality some 15 years ago, according to the Espina family. There are also no supermarkets, hardware stores, or shopping centers. Whatever cannot be found must be bought in other municipalities. Thus, commerce has become just a memory of better times on the island.


A day without fishing is a day without eating.

Toas Island is a village of fishermen. They find in the waters of Lake Maracaibo, the largest lake in Latin America, an opportunity for subsistence. They mainly fish croaker, catfish, and white fish, being the first species the best paid in the markets of Mara, where they trade fish after daily days that do not allow for a break.

Risks are abundant when fishing. Despite this, Deslin Almarza, a fisherman who lives in the Tara-Tara hamlet, speaks without fear. He has green eyes, and his skin is tanned by the trade he learned at the age of 13. Now in his 50s, he says times have changed a lot. «We don’t get fuel on the island. We must go to El Moján, but they attack us a lot,» says Deslin, referring to the fact that meeting with National Armed Forces officials can mean being held up until they give up fuel or part of the day’s catch.

Gasoline must be purchased at black market prices, where a liter can cost a dollar and a half. They leave the island with a dozen empty carafes, where they can store 65 to 70 liters. This can last for two or three days of work. When there is no gasoline, they must fish with hooks in the nearest waters. This is another type of fishing, a slower and less effective one, in which patience is put to the test, «to see what you get».

A group of fishermen from Toas Island before going out to look for the catch of the day which is traded in the different markets of the Mara municipality.
A fisherman prepares the nets under the shade. Most of the island’s inhabitants depend on fishing to feed their families.

«Gasoline gives us a hard time. Here we workday by day. If we rest one day, we starve to death,» warns the man. In good seasons, like the one they experience in the first months of the year, they can return home with up to 200 kilos of fish. That translates into being able to eat three meals a day. In the bad seasons, they come home with only about 20 kilos.

«When there is a shortage, we get skinny,» Deslin says. On average, every three months there is a drop in the catch, and then it picks up again.

A kilo of croaker can cost 10 dollars on average. It is the best seller. After a day of work, the hope is placed in a successful sale, because not only the food for the families depends on it, but also the purchase of fuel to continue the daily work of looking for sustenance.


No food, no education

A sandy floor welcomes the children who study at the Neighborhood Early Childhood Education Center #8, where the shortages are equal to the deep commitment of the teaching personnel to keep the school afloat. On its façade, covered by layers of worn paint, stands out an identifier with the eponym by which the school is best known: «Teacher Heberto Espina». This institution is under the administration of the regional government and makes up the education network in Toas Island, together with a couple of other preschools, three basic schools, and two high schools.

Despite having 266 children enrolled, 100 in pre-school and 166 in basic education, an average of 40% of the enrollment does not attend school regularly. This often happens when parents, mostly fishermen, are unable to provide food for their children. On occasion, some children join the school day late as soon as their parents arrive from fishing and the first meal of the day is on their tables.

Mariluz Parra, director of the Teacher Heberto Espina Basic Education Center, from her office where there is no electrical service due to the recent theft of the wiring that energized the institution.
Boys and girls shelter from the sun in the courtyard of the Teacher Heberto Espina School.

So says Mariluz Parra, director of this educational center located in the Las Cabeceras sector. «This is a very vulnerable community because all the children here are fishermen’s children, and they have many needs. When there is no good fishing, they don’t eat and are not sent to school,» she laments. In addition to this situation, which prevents children from accessing their human right to education, there is also the precarious provision of public services, such as drinking water. When there is no water, school uniforms cannot be washed, and children cannot bathe.

Absenteeism in the classrooms worsened during the two years that the school canteen, which is part of the School Feeding Program (PAE), has not been operating regularly, especially when the school came under the administration of the outgoing regional government.

Mariluz pleads for the reactivation of the School Feeding Program, while her voice cracks and tears wet her cheeks. After a pause, she regains her strength and continues: «The situation we are living in is quite lamentable and decadent. I would like the current governor to resume the provision of food so that the children can come to school every day”.

«The children are not acquiring the required skills. It makes me want to cry because I have a sense of belonging,» says the teacher from her modest office, an office where there is no electrical service due to the recent theft of the wiring that energized the institution.

The ravages of the underworld have deteriorated the already precarious educational conditions. But Mariluz, as well as the 14 teachers who work at the educational center, is working hard to prevent her students from having more reasons not to go to school. For this reason, she says that she has had to safeguard equipment, materials, and even part of the electrical wiring that the thieves could not take after completely ransacking the kitchen and taking all the equipment, destroying the didactic material for the classes, stealing the chairs from the classrooms, and leaving without doors, toilets, and even without slabs the bathrooms of the institution. All this between November and December 2021.

A child plays in the playground of the Teacher Heberto Espina School. Absenteeism in the classrooms has worsened in the two years that the school canteen attached to the School Feeding Program (PAE) has not been operating regularly.
Shelves with didactic material protected from the underworld rest in the library of the Teacher Heberto Espina School. This institution is under the administration of the regional government and part of the education network in Toas Island, together with a couple of other preschools, three basic schools, and two high schools.

If the upper part of the classrooms is energized, it is because with the help of an electrician, Mariluz decided to reconnect a section of wiring. This is how the fans in the classrooms manage to work. However, natural light is the source of illumination due to the lack of light bulbs.

And just as there are no light fixtures on the roofs, there are no blackboard erasers or acrylic markers, not even nails to hang new blackboards. Some teachers write down their lessons leaning the blackboard on their desk. «I would like to be able to solve more situations, but my salary does not allow it either,» explains Mariluz, referring that her salary as the director is 55 bolivars every two weeks, about 11 dollars a month, while the rest of the teachers earn a salary of Bs. 22 every fifteen days, which is equivalent to about 4 and a half dollars a month.

The adverse living and working conditions on the island have caused several educators to ask to be transferred to other municipalities. «I have fought to replace the teachers who leave for Maracaibo. Although it hurts me that they leave the positions empty, I have to give them the opportunity. I know it’s not easy here,» concludes the director.


Leaving the island in search of better living conditions

The teachers are not the only ones who leave Toas Island as an act of survival. The island looks desolate. Roofless houses abound. The families that emigrate remove the roofs of their homes to take away the asbestos and sell it to pay for the fares to Colombia, the first destination of the people who yearn for the decent living conditions they cannot find on their native island.

Sandy Chacín, a driver in the area, says that many leave in pursuit of «the Colombian dream». Although Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and the United States also figure as frequent routes.

Sandy Chacín with his vehicle, with which he provides transportation services to the different sectors of Toas Island.

Even though living in Toas Island is a daily struggle to survive, the roots are deep among its inhabitants. «I love every part of Toas Island and the Almirante Padilla municipality. I respect my land. That is why it is difficult to think about leaving», says Dariana Vílchez, who is the mother of Cristin, a 6-year-old girl who went viral on social networks thanks to a video in which she eloquently lamented the fact that her dog had gone astray.

Since then, Cristin’s social media posts, under the supervision of her mom and aunt, have turned the spotlight on the island. A community of 65.6 thousand followers on Instagram has helped her make community pots, deliveries of toys, clothes, and shoes for children. In December, they decorated the plazas with Christmas ornaments. For the people of Toas Island, Cristin is synonymous with joy.

«Despite our roots, now that we are in the social networks with Cristin, we have had to travel frequently to Maracaibo and thought about moving there because I want to give my daughters new opportunities. We do not have recreational activities, academies, or courses on Toas Island where children can outdo themselves. It seems that to emerge you have to leave. (…) It is a sad reality,» says Dariana, sadly.

Still, for the Espina family, for example, leaving is not an option. «What are we going to do in Maracaibo or another country? We are staying here. We are holding on», says María Gabriela Espina with aplomb, even though two of her children have emigrated.

The Espina family, despite the difficulties, and like many other of its inhabitants are reluctant to leave the island.

It is not only the love for her island that gives her the strength to resist. For this mother, all the sorrow vanishes in the morning, when she wakes up and hears Angelito, her 12-year-old son, tell her “mother”. «I listen to him, and it makes me want to go on. I fight for him».

For Ramón, María Gabriela’s uncle, survival itself pushes him to continue. While Betty describes the feeling of an entire population: «When we want to fall, we look for strength wherever we can. We fall, but we also get up».


The island, once a source of progress for Zulia

For a long time, Toas Island’s principal source of income has come from the exploitation of mineral deposits. Limestone, fundamental for obtaining cement, has been key to the industrialization of the Zulian region, especially for its capital Maracaibo. Tourist activity was once a booming activity, but it has lost strength due to government abandonment, which has taken its toll on the island.


For many years, the limestone extracted from Toas Island supplied the most important cement factory in the region located in the San Francisco municipality, helping the development of large constructions in Zulia since the 1950s and until the 1970s and 1980s.
The San Rafael del Moján lake terminal, where all kinds of goods are transported daily to and from Toas Island.

Historian Angel Lombardi, former rector of the University of Zulia and rector emeritus of the Catholic University Cecilio Acosta, recognizes that the greatest economic importance of Toas Island is the open-pit limestone mine, which supplied the most important cement factory in the region, located in the San Francisco municipality, helping the development of large constructions since the 1950s and until the 1970s and 1980s.

And although it has given so much, this has been a population with very little official attention at all times, notes Lombardi. «Neglect has been a permanent feature. It still is and has been aggravated in recent years, which is a shame because that whole area from a tourist point of view has enormous potential,» assures the historian.

To develop its potential, Lombardi asserts that fundamental problems such as access to drinking water, health services, and fuel, as well as quality basic services, would have to be addressed, and a profitable economic activity that could generate jobs would have to be promoted, which in his opinion fits perfectly into a major tourism project model. «But as in many other regions of ours, abandonment and indifference have prevailed in Toas Island,» he laments.

Birds soar over Toas Island, while its inhabitants wait for solutions to their most basic needs after years of governmental abandonment.

This is a feeling shared by the inhabitants of Toas Island, such as Eroa Flores, mother of fishermen from the area. «They have forgotten us so much that sometimes I think we are not even on the map. They don’t take us into account at all», she claims with her eyes set on one of the boats floating in the shining waters of Lake Maracaibo, without losing hope that someday, the island will return to the way she once knew it.

This is the seventh text that includes Faces of the Emergency, a series of chronicles, promoted by Codhez and presented in alliance with El Pitazo, to make visible stories that deserve to be told in the context of the complex humanitarian emergency in Venezuela.

Translation: Alejandra León

Toas Island, a forgotten territory that struggles to survive

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