Contamination of Sacred Lake Underscores Environmental Racism in Guatemala

A boat of tourists arrive at the dock of San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan's southern shore in September, 2012. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)A boat of tourists arrive at the dock of San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan’s southern shore in September, 2012. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)

Lake Atitlán, in the Guatemalan highlands, draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually to the vast blue waters and towering cliffs of its scenic volcanic crater. But the lake is in crisis. In early March 2016, the lake’s Indigenous Mayan communities and the National Indigenous Observatory, with support from a number of local organizations, filed an official complaint against the 10 municipalities around the lake about the continued deterioration and contamination of the lake due to corruption and the mishandling of official funds.

“The situation in the lake is very critical.”

Protesters across the department have united to demand that the government clean up the contamination. In July 2015, a movement called Atitlán Sano, or Clean Atitlán, began on social media. It quickly picked up speed, focusing primarily on drawing the attention of area businesses, local municipal governments and the Authority for the Sustainable Management of the Basin of Lake Atitlán, a government body formed in 1996.

“The situation in the lake is very critical,” said Marvin Romero, from the Scientific Committee of the Atitlán Basin and one of the founders of Atitlán Sano. “Because the contamination is reaching dangerous levels. The municipalities have the legal responsibility [to protect the lake]. But they have done little to resolve the contamination. They have little interest in investing in the environment. And when residents have demanded that the municipality do something, the municipal mayors have claimed there is no money.”

The systemic failure to resolve the rampant contamination reflects a larger problem within Guatemala: the historic racism against Indigenous communities. This racism has guaranteed that Indigenous communities are repeatedly left to bear the environmental costs of industry. As a result, these Indigenous communities are often at the forefront of resistance efforts against environmental contamination.

A fisherman rows his boat through an outbreak of cyanobacteria along the shore of San Pedro la Laguna in September, 2012. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)A fisherman rows his boat through an outbreak of cyanobacteria along the shore of San Pedro la Laguna in September, 2012. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)

An Explosion of Cyanobacteria

Women from the southern town of San Juan La Laguna — who regularly wash their clothing in the lake — were the first to formally denounce the municipalities. They traveled to the Human Rights Ombudsmen office in the nearby municipality of Santiago Atitlan to raise their concerns after observing a massive bloom of cyanobacteria, a potentially toxic bluish-green algae. Residents have observed regular blooms since Hurricane Stan, a tropical cyclone that hit in 2005. The blooms jeopardize the lives of the thousands of residents who rely on the lake for drinking water.

Little can be done to save the lake until officials address the amount of wastewater entering the lake every day.

“According to our grandparents, in the 1940s or 1950s, it was a lake that was incredibly clean; the lake was a place where you could drink the water straight from the lake, and not have any problem,” Francisco Quiacaín, a Tzutuj’il Maya and member of the Community Committee for Development of San Pedro La Laguna, told Truthout. “But today you can get sick from drinking the water. This is because of the increase in population.”

On the other hand, some tropical lake experts have suggested that the cyanobacteria blooms are the result of the lake healing itself after severe tropical storm damage.

“After a major storm there is a lot [of] organic material and soil entering the lake. The cyanobacteria is a process of healing [for] the lake,” said Juan Skinner, an environmentalist, expert on tropical lakes and a member of the Japan-based International Lake Environment Committee. “It multiplies and consumes those excess of nutrients, then dies and sinks to the bottom.”

Skinner also suggests that the cyanobacteria blooms occur more frequently than communities have realized. He has found scientific articles from the early 1900s that reference the blooms.

Some local fishermen have confirmed that they had seen the cyanobacteria in the lake before the hurricane. “The cyanobacteria has always been in the lake,” Nicolas Tumax, a representative of the Association of Fishermen of San Pedro La Laguna, told Truthout. “We saw it every day in the lake, but we have never seen it explode like it has since 2009.”

A fisherman fishes near the dock of San Juan la Laguna in April, 2016. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)A fisherman fishes near the dock of San Juan la Laguna in April, 2016. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)

Failures and Corruption in Resolving the Contamination

Pollution of Lake Atitlán has increased significantly in the last 10 years, and was exacerbated by the destruction of the wastewater treatment plant in the lakeside city of Panajachel during Hurricane Stan in 2005.

“Prior to 2005, the treatment plant in Panajachel functioned very well,” Romero told Truthout. “The plant had the capacity to capture 82 percent of wastewater. But when Hurricane Stan hit, the plant was destroyed.” As a result, raw sewage was dumped into the lake.

“The overextraction of water from the lake is the greatest threat. It is this that has killed the most lakes around the world.”

After the storm, the municipality of Panajachel, with encouragement from the Inter-American Development Bank, opted to build a new plant, rather than repair the very minor damage to the existing plant. The new $90 million plant had a monthly operating cost of 150,000 quetzal (roughly $20,000). Due to these high costs, the new plant never operated beyond 38 percent efficiency, while the original processing plant — built with assistance from the European Community — was designed to be low cost and low maintenance, and had been operating at 82 percent efficiency before the hurricane to clean the pollution from wastewater. The $90 million replacement was shut down by another hurricane a year after its completion.

Little can be done to save the lake until officials address the amount of wastewater entering the lake every day. But potential solutions are prohibitively expensive, or are themselves wrapped up in corruption and special interests, or both.

“Because of corruption, the more they construct, the more they can steal,” Skinner told Truthout.

Fishermen patiently wait for the fish to bite along Lake Atitlan's southern coast near San Juan la Laguna in April, 2016. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)Fishermen patiently wait for the fish to bite along Lake Atitlan’s southern coast near San Juan la Laguna in April, 2016. (Credit: Jeff Abbott)

A Growing Problem

The population around the lake basin has grown significantly since the 1950s and is augmented exponentially by the Atitlán-based tourist industry. The Guatemalan Ministry of Tourism, INGUAT, reports that 2,142,398 people visited Guatemala in 2014 alone, a majority of who visited Lake Atitlán while in the country. Each one of these visitors contributed — directly or indirectly — to the lake’s contamination.

“Tourism brings impacts,” Romero told Truthout. “It brings with it garbage that isn’t managed in a good manner, and it generates residual waters, and sadly due to the lack of infrastructure, these waters end up in the lake.”

According to Romero, in 2004, there were 600,000 cubic meters of wastewater entering the lake. In just 10 years, due to a combination of hurricane damage to the treatment plants and the expanding tourist industry, that number had grown to 1.4 million cubic meters per year.

Special Interests and Companies Propose Solutions to Contamination

To address the pollution problem, members of Amigos del Lago, a private nongovernmental organization made up of wealthy recreational homeowners along the lake, have collaborated with professors from California and the Authority for the Sustainable Management of the Basin of Lake Atitlán to introduce the multibillion-dollar Integral Management Plan. The plan centers on the construction of a super-collector designed by experts from California State University, Chico, and University of California, Davis, based on the waste disposal system at Lake Tahoe in the United States. The system would include a pipe network that would connect to each community, and then would transport wastewater outside the basin to be used for farmland irrigation on the southern coast. It would also generate electricity.

The plan has been presented as the only option to save the lake, and is also supported by large landowners on Guatemala’s southern coast, who see the construction of the pipe system as a means of cheap fertilizer and water for their vast fields of African oil palm and sugar cane.

But experts fear that this mega-project will only lead to new problems. “They got the private sector to support the plan,” Skinner told Truthout. “The risk is that they always will want more water for agriculture. So to solve one problem, you’re creating a larger threat.”

The production of export agriculture, such as African oil palm and sugar cane on Guatemala’s southern coast, has ravaged the region. Other than the loss of land for production of staple crops, big agriculture has monopolized the access of water for small farming communities across the region. Furthermore, the production of monocultures has led to the destruction of forests and biodiversity.

“Most of the powerful people always blame the poor and the Indigenous for destroying nature, when it is actually the opposite.”

In addition to potentially worsening the environmental problems caused by large-scale monoculture, the proposed project could decrease water availability for campesinos and small farmers. For the last 15 years, campesinos in the Madre Vieja river basin — which neighbors the Atitlán basin and is in the path of the proposed pipeline — have struggled against the palm firm HAME. The company has regularly diverted rivers for its crops, cutting off the campesinos’ water supply. HAME is among the groups that stand to benefit directly from the regional wastewater collector that is proposed as part of the Integral Management Plan.

Skinner also warns of the potential of a situation like that in Bolivia, where a national emergency was declared in 2016 when Lake Poopó evaporated due to climate change. According to Skinner, the lake was also undermined by the diversion of rivers for agriculture and mining.

“The overextraction of water from the lake is the greatest threat,” Skinner told Truthout. “It is this that has killed the most lakes around the world.”

“[The lake authorities] have presented this [mega-collector] as the only solution. They are fooling everyone. They need to know you don’t solve a problem by lying to people,” he added.

As authorities debate how to clean up the lake, local fishermen and residents have taken it upon themselves to remove garbage from the lake. For example, the Association of Fishermen of San Pedro La Laguna, who have been heavily impacted by the contamination of the lake and who have received little support from the municipal government, have set aside the last Saturday of every month to clean the garbage, parasitic plants and cyanobacteria from the lake.

Guatemala’s Wider Movement for Water Rights

The Atitlán debate is unfolding in the context of a national conversation about water rights. On April 11, hundreds of campesinos left the northern border town of Tecun Uman for an 11-day, 260-kilometer march to Guatemala City to demand that the Guatemalan government respect their right to water. Along the way, they were joined by thousands more. The march was organized to draw attention to the problems rural communities across the country face when their water supplies are contaminated or diverted by monoculture farming, mines and hydroelectric projects.

“I am here defending my right to water,” Esperanza B’atz, a Kaqchikel woman from San Juan Sacatepéquez, told Truthout during the march. “Our rivers have been contaminated by the transnational companies.”

According to Guatemala’s minister of the environment and natural resources, Sydney Samuels, the ministry has identified 50 rivers that have been devastated by agribusiness on the southern coast alone. “There are countless industries and countless farms that divert rivers,” Samuels told the press. “We thought we would find a few, but all farms of the south coast who are handling cane, oil palm, banana and other products are diverting rivers at will.”

Residents of the Atitlán basin joined the protest in Guatemala City to demand an end to the super-collector project, the water pollution and plans to divert water out of the lake basin.

Contamination and Environmental Racism

Indigenous communities across Guatemala are regularly blamed for the contamination and environmental destruction that companies and the wealthy create.

“Most of the powerful people always blame the poor and the Indigenous for destroying nature, when it is actually the opposite,” Skinner told Truthout. “They always blame the victim.”

The department of Sololá, where Lake Atitlán is located, is among the poorest departments in Guatemala, with one of the largest Indigenous populations. According to the 2002 census, 75 percent of households in Sololá have “dry” latrines that don’t produce sewage.

“Poverty is directly related to low consumption and production of pollutants,” Skinner told Truthout. “People in poverty barely have money to eat, much less to buy soap or a toilet.”

The contamination has hit the Indigenous communities of the lake hard. “The lake is very important to us,” Francisco Quiacaín told Truthout. “From the point of view of the cosmovision of our grandparents, the lake is our mother that gives us life. The lake for our ancestors is something that is very sacred. From the perspective of our Mayan culture, everything from nature is sacred, especially the lake. The lake is the energy that is transmitted to us to purify us spiritually and physically, and it is a resource that we have that allows us to survive.”

The contamination also impacts Indigenous communities’ traditional economies, especially fishing. “When I began to fish in these waters, there were a lot of fish,” Nicolas Tumax told Truthout. “Before, we could catch 50 pounds of fish daily. But sadly, this has all stopped due to the contamination, especially in Panajachel. I don’t understand why the authorities don’t care.”

Fishermen like Tumax have worked on the lake their entire lives. But as their catches continue to decrease, they are forced to seek other opportunities, such as coffee production.

“It pains me to see the lake this way,” Tumax said.

Effectively, much of the cleanup work has been left to the Indigenous communities who live around the lake. As a result, many people accuse both local and national authorities of environmental racism.

“When they have big blooms of cyanobacteria, [the local municipalities] get the local women to go out and scoop it up off the lake,” Padma Guidi, a long-term resident of Panajachel, told Truthout. “It is disgusting. It is just another example of the racism [in Guatemala].”

Furthermore, local authorities and experts have blamed the communities themselves for the contamination. Experts have blamed contamination on the women who wash their clothes in the lake, on the misuse of fertilizers by campesinos around the basin and on the poor disposal of garbage. While these factors have in some part contributed to the contamination, the effects of industrialized tourism and agriculture have been far more damaging, and are largely ignored by the government.

“If this lake was in [the mainly white department of] Zacapa, we would have a lot of money, it would be privatized and the government would pay much more attention,” Skinner told Truthout. “But because the lake basin is in an Indigenous stronghold, it suffers from the same exclusion that all Indigenous lands suffer from within the country.”

Skinner added, “This is a tourist mecca, an incredible natural wonder, it is still abandoned and excluded because the majority is Indigenous. Because this is a racist country.”