In recent news the Guatemalan tourism sectors informed of a 9% decline of tourism to Lake Atitlan. International tourists are still visiting other important destinations like Tikal, Antigua, Chichicastenango and others, but the lake has less tourism since the bloom took place. As one of the strategies to promote tourism for Lake Atitlan, the Guatemalan Institute for Tourism, INGUAT and several hotels at the lake are offering 2 nights of one and other incentives to attract more tourists. The lake is also included in a new 12 million dollar campaign that INGUAT will implement this year to promote tourism to Guatemala.
We have a different perspective about the lake Atitlan's wellbeing and future. We think that it is very good that tourism has decreased, and the tourism promotion has to wait until the mechanism of water and waste treatment plants are fully implemented, among many other mitigation actions to prevent more deterioration of Lake Atitlan's environment.
Without a severe crisis, businesses and governments do not change their behavior; much less invest in the environment.
Lake Atitlan has been the goose that lays the golden eggs, but businesses have only taken from the lake, they never gave back. (There are maybe 2 or 3 businesses who tried to be environmentally conscious, that is all) The same concept applies to the municipalities surrounding the lake, if they had increased revenues from tourism, they did not use the profit to improve and protect the lake. The Coffee producers around the lake know they are contaminating the lake with the wet coffee processing and over fertilizing ; the practice has not been changed.
Tourism was proclaimed as "the industry with no chimneys"- well, that is a very wrong definition. Hotels, restaurants, real estate, boats, municipalities, all have contaminated for decades, and they knew exactly what they where doing.
Now they are complaining that business is bad.
The same is happening with almost all lakes in Guatemala; they are exploited but not protected. Lake Petén Itza and Lake Izabal are two good examples of lakes that are being contaminated by the tourism industry, agro business, mining and local people. Until they have their own crisis, no serious measures will be taken.
Guatemala is not the only country that is contaminating its water bodies. In the sixties and seventies, in Europe most lakes and rivers had been so baldy contaminated that they where too toxic to use as drinking water or to be used for recreational purposes. They had big signs posted all over the place with a skull and crossed bones: "forbidden to swim in the water, the water is toxic." In Europe it was the ever growing industries and agriculture that exploited and contaminated the water sources and almost killed them. The industries knew, the governments knew, but nobody cared until the water sources became critical.
When the crisis became severe, the environmental movement grew in Europe and applied increased pressure on the politicians, then finally the governments where forced to act and pass legislation to start to protect the environment. The business sector and the local governments complained endlessly, they said that if they where forced to implement the environmentally friendly measures they would not be profitable any more. They threatened to close their industries, to fire people, to move their industries into countries where they would not have to comply with environmental laws, etc., etc., etc.
Well, the European industries managed to survive just fine and kept on making huge profits. The recovery of rivers and lakes was accomplished in twenty to thirty years.
The "green movement" made it happen. They where called crazy, eco- terrorists, anti-progress, mad tree huggers, anti-social, backwards moving, threat to modern society, stone- age people, etc.
We have seen the same situation here. For the past 15 years environmental activists and ordinary Guatemala citizens who care about the environment have denounced contamination by the industries, and they not been very successful. The name calling by columnists and editorials in the Guatemalan media in the last few years, mostly by conservative neo-cons, members and representatives of the powerful industrial sectors have been condemning the environmentalists. The names they used are exactly the same that where used in Europe 3 decades ago: eco- terrorists, anti-progress, mad tree huggers, anti-social, backwards moving, threat to modern society, stone- age people. In Guatemala environmentalists have been killed, they are still being killed; they have received innumerable death threats and are constantly harassed.
The Ministry of the Environment of Guatemala denounced in December 2009, that the powerful private sector of Guatemala demanded the elimination of the regulation of the environmental impact assessments. Fortunately the government did not succumb to the pressures of big business, they keep the laws.
Atitlan is just an example of the agonizing environmental situation in Guatemala, and in many other countries.
Atitlan is in serious trouble, will it die? It depends on us. The sub director of the AMSCLAE, Association for the management of Lake Atitlan, declared recently that the reports in the media had been exaggerated, that the lake now looked clean and the waters where crystalline. Yes, on the lake surface, at this moment, the water looks better, but the content of contaminants in the lake are the same and are still increasing. The lake not been cleaned by the benevolence of the Holy Spirit, as far as we have been able to document with facts.
This will have to be a long term effort.
Events since the "bloom" happened last year
A good plan was elaborated to clean the lake and restore its natural balance. On paper!!
Some measures have been taken.
Entities involved in saving the lake:
The Ministry of Environment and Natural resources, MARN
The government through the Social Cohesion program
Ministry of Agriculture, MAGA,
Infom, Institute development of the municipalities,
Conap, National Council of National Parks,
Association of management of Lake Atitlan, Amsclae
The Mayors of all towns surrounding the lake
NGO´s like Todos por el Lago
External Cooperation (Spain, Italy and some others)
The Ministry of Environment and Natural resources has passed a decree to prosecute contamination of the lake by hotels, restaurants, houses and businesses surrounding the lake, that is very good news. Now the law has to be implemented. The new protagonist to get things done in Lake Atitlan is the First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom. She is now in charge to direct the implementation of the rescue plan.
Some private initiatives and NGO´s (Todos por el Lago) have already been implementing small reed wetland plants in several places, groups of indigenous people are planting reed to help to clean the water. The initiatives at this stage are on a very small scale, well intentioned; technically some are sound, meaning effective, some are not.
The government through the Social Cohesion program and MAGA are providing incentives for people to implement reforestation and cleaning of the lake.
Universidad del Valle of Guatemala will establish a research center to monitor the progress of the lake and to study alternative interventions.
The group "Todos por el Lago" has received a generous donation from Mac Donald's and they are also implementing actions of reed planting.
The majors of the towns surrounding Lake Atitlan have promised to contribute with part of their budgets to clean the lake, to build water treatment plants, waste management plants, to promote clean up campaigns, it remains to be seen if they will keep their promise. So far they have participated in some trash collection campaigns.
There are international cooperation agencies (Spanish cooperation, Italian cooperation and others) in different towns at the lake that have their own projects to implement mitigate actions for the environmental and build treatment plants. Some of the treatment plants are already been inaugurated, we don't know jet how well they are working. They have their agendas and their projects that where elaborated before the blooming occurred, most of the times the international cooperation agencies can't just change the priorities of the project and change the budgetary items.
The new problems that are surfacing.
As usual when new resources appear, the fight for protagonism and money get's very intense. Who is the best, who knows more, who gets the money, who has the power, who is really the boss in all this hub of activities? This is becoming a serious obstacle in effectively coordinating the different efforts.
The syndrome of "hyper- activitis" has appeared. Activities are everywhere, uncoordinated, without proper supervision and without technical evaluation of the effectiveness and/ or cost- benefit.
The good news is that things are happening to save the lake. The Guatemalan media is keeping a close eye on what is happening and so do we as part of the national media. Now the monitoring process has to start to evaluate what is being done, what works, what does not work, who is keeping their promises, who is not, who are the key scientists that have the adequate knowledge to address the problem, what needs to be investigated, what important questions remain unanswered, what is the best and appropriate technology for this specific environment, which interventions are sustainable, which are not.
A lot of challenges lay ahead, but saving Lake Atitlan will not be easy, cheap or quick, we all have to participate for the long haul.
See our previous articles for more information:
Help save Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, October 27, 2009
Guatemalas Lake Atitlan disaster, the explanation, October 30, 2009
Action plan to save the Lake Atitlan, November 3, 2009
Guatemala: Vice President Espada takes leadership to save Lake Atitlan, November 11, 2009
From Guatemala, Planting trees, Happy Holidays, Peace to the World
Picture: Our reforestation project at Lake Atitlan