The grandmother lake
Conservation and colonialism in Guatemala
Conservation and colonialism in Guatemala
On Central America’s deepest lake, Indigenous communities battle against a $215m wastewater project proposed by environmentalists.
Some time in 1958, though no one is sure of the exact date, fish quite literally dropped out of the sky into Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
Raining down from seaplanes, the black bass proceeded to eat the local crabs, snails, fish and even duck chicks. They were part of a plan by Pan Am, the American international airline, to encourage more tourism to Central America’s deepest lake by populating it with a popular sport fishing species.
The plan didn’t work. But what the invasive fish did manage to do was decimate the local biodiversity and kill off an estimated 16 native fish species. The Atitlan grebe, a duck only found at the lake, dwindled from 200 in 1960 to fewer than 100 by 1965.
In fact, in 1964, the American ecologist Anne LaBastille, known internationally as the “Woodswoman”, came to Guatemala on a mission to save the Atitlan grebe.
The mottled black and brown duck nested in the reed crops grown by the local Indigenous people who have used the reeds to weave mats for more than 800 years. But LaBastille was convinced that the harvesting of the reeds by the Indigenous farmers was disturbing the duck’s nesting and reproduction. So in 1968, she intervened with the central government to introduce a law which would “avoid excessive cutting” of local "tul" reeds on Lake Atitlan.
“The result of the restriction,” writes Juan Skinner, a researcher and environmentalist who founded the Authority of the Sustainable Management of Lake Atitlan and its Environment (AMSCLAE), “caused people to plant and maintain only half of their original plots, reducing the nesting habitat to half, instead of protecting it as it was intended.”
By the mid-1980s the Atitlan grebe, a species unique to the lake, was extinct.
The Atitlan grebe, Anne LaBastille and Pan Am are long gone now. But the Indigenous communities which make up the local area’s more than 380,000 population - 95 percent of which are Indigenous Maya, remain. And so does their mistrust of outsiders who they believe do not understand the lake’s complexity, or their deep connection to it.
So five years ago, when a big project to clean the lake of growing pollution was publicly championed by then vice president Jafeth Cabrera, the locals were understandably wary.
“I’m afraid that one day, I will look out from where I am and see nothing but a muddy puddle,” says Paulina del Carmen Gonzáles Navichoc. “I’m sure it won’t get to that but it’s my biggest fear.”
Paulina, a former teacher, speaks gently and smiles often. She was born and raised in San Pedro La Laguna, one of 13 towns around the lake.
As she walks around the market picking up local fish and produce, Paulina says hello to almost everyone and in return, most stop for a quick chat. Paulina is part of a network of Indigenous elders called the Ajpop Tinamit Oxlajuj Imox (The 13 Imox Council of Elders), tasked with protecting the interests of the community.
There seems to be a lot to discuss. Switching between Spanish and the local Mayan dialect of Tzu’tujil, she asks them about the next community meeting, before reminding them to sign a petition against a proposed project for the lake. “We need to be united to save our lake,” she says, serious for a moment. Then she continues to listen to her neighbours’ concerns before breaking out in a broad smile and bidding them a quick goodbye.
For Paulina, an Indigenous Mayan Tzu’tujil, everything flows from Lake Atitlan. Her memories, her ancestors, her values, the food she eats, the clothes she wears - everything. As a child, her earliest memory is of snakes swimming in its deep crystal clear waters. At its rocky edge in Xetahual, her grandparents grew crops, and she remembers harvesting huge tomatoes that grew little mouths like fish. Her grandmother taught her traditional Mayan dances on the lake’s wide, open sandy shores and when she became a mother herself, Paulina brought her own daughter to the shore to teach her to walk. The lake’s undulating white waves are represented in the scalloped edges of Paulina’s traditional white blouse, while the band across her waist is brightly woven with the birds and fish who also depend on the lake.
“My relationship with the lake is logical,” she explains, “without the lake there is no life.”
Grandmother Lake, as she calls it, is also a healing lake. Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, saw 200,000 people killed, most of them Indigenous Mayans. But Paulina remembers how, after 14 people were massacred at the lake in 1990, when the Guatemalan army opened fire on civilians, the women submerged themselves in its waters to wash away their troubles.
And in turn, when the cyanobacteria bloom blanketed the lake in 2009, alarming Paulina and others, women in the community waded in to heal the lake with their own hands, using baskets, cloth or buckets to scoop out the algae and stop the contamination from growing.
For a short while, after they gathered to pray for the health of the lake, their living ancestor, it seemed like it was recovering. But smaller cyanobacteria blooms would return with increasing regularity and preoccupy more of Paulina’s thoughts and time.
“I’m grateful to God he has given me my place here,” she says. “Everyone knows me here and that’s why it’s very important to me to be part of the collective organisations, to help protect the wellbeing of the people of this community.” At the heart of this work is protecting the lake because, as she explains, one cannot flourish without the other.
When I ask her what she thinks is the biggest threat to the lake and the people who live by it, she tells me it is not the cyanobacteria, or the plastic bags and rubbish that have polluted the lake in recent years - it is the “mega-collector”.
Walking round the pretty streets of San Antonio Palopó, with its brightly-coloured homes, little shops clambering up the hills and alleyways with young children playing, Jose Toriello, a confident, young man with shoulder-length hair and baggy trousers, looks exasperated. This is the town he grew up visiting in summer as an escape from the capital, Guatemala City, and for him, the changes he has seen over time have been hard to accept.
Like many of the shore towns around the lake, San Antonio is populated by mostly Indigenous communities. But over the summer and Easter holidays, many well-off residents of the capital, like Jose, descend upon it. Their numbers are small but they have built second homes here and feel connected to the lake and its future.
“I’ve been coming to this lake since I was very, very little,” he says. “I would come here with my grandfather and we would row, and I remember rowing as a child and saying ‘Grandpa I'm thirsty’ and he would say ‘drink some water, you have plenty’ and I would drink water from the lake.”
But this changed as Jose grew older. He started seeing dirty water flowing into the lake from the streets of San Antonio - worsened, he believes, by the growing population of the once small, sleepy town. Jose also recalls seeing Indigenous women washing their clothes on the shore and believes that this contributed to the cyanobacteria bloom in 2009.
In the alleyways of the little town where his grandfather’s simple home grew into a luxury lakeshore property, Jose points at little streams of grey water coming from people’s homes and trickling down the streets.
“It used to anger me a lot,” he admits, looking at the dirty water. “Now, it’s just part of reality that we need to fix, you know?”
And Jose, who heads up Amigos del Lago de Atitlan (Friends of Lake Atitlan), a private NGO composed of vacation-home owners like himself and privately funded by businesses, believes he has the solution.
“One of the largest problems we have in Lake Atitlan is raw sewage going straight into the lake,” he explains. “It’s been going on for years and years. And so our proposal is to conduct all these raw sewage waters through a tubing system and collect them on the south. That's basically it - it’s to prevent the dirty waters from going into the lake. However that's how it started and it quickly became a much larger project, a project that deals with the sourcing of fresh water for people and then the collection of their sewage.”
And it is this very project which worries Paulina - the project known as the “mega-collector” by its critics. Developed by Amigos del Lago, it would install pipes all around the lake to collect wastewater from the Indigenous communities and then transport this nutrient-rich water outside the basin to irrigate agricultural lands and generate electricity. It would cost an estimated $215m and would rescue their dying lake - or, at least, that is what Jose believes.
He says that raw sewage is flowing into the lake at a rate of 300 litres per second - a guesstimate, he explains, that comes from the local authority for the sustainable management of the lake. “But I believe it’s at least 300 litres per second. I mean at least in this town, how many litres per second is here? You know? I believe it.”
Despite his conviction, the tiny streams dribbling through the streets appear to be grey water - not raw sewage with human faeces. But Jose insists that if only they could get rid of this raw sewage, this place would be as beautiful as Santorini and would enjoy the same level of tourism. The whole town could be a success and the lake could be protected.
“This is somewhere we bring people because the problem is so obvious,” says Eduardo Aguirre, a project leader for the Amigos del Lago water and sanitation project. An architect by trade, Eduardo lives in Guatemala City but has a vacation home - and fond memories of holidaying - at the lake.
When it was first set up in 1990 with Eduardo’s father as a founding member, Amigos del Lago focused on more traditional environmental NGO initiatives such as tree planting, recycling, education and awareness-raising projects - many of which are ongoing and popular. But following the cyanobacteria bloom of 2009, the NGO has been working on the more ambitious, $215m sewage treatment project.
Eduardo and I take a boat ride out to San Lucas Toliman on the lake’s southeastern shore and the sight is shocking; the small bay is badly littered and the surface of the water is covered by what appears to be algae.
In a chance meeting with a local fisherman named Guillermo Campa, an unassuming figure in his late 40s dressed in well-worn work clothes and wellington boots, Eduardo talks about the growing pollution and Guillermo agrees that it is a huge problem.
Eduardo points to the women washing clothes by the water as a source of all this pollution, but Guillermo tells him he thinks it is an issue of maintenance and that the local authorities need to fix the nearby wastewater treatment facility. The treatment facility may be treating the water of its worst pollutants but the post-treatment water is still foamy. Their exchange shifts to the wastewater project and, without mentioning his role in Amigos, Eduardo asks Guillermo what he thinks of it. Guillermo pauses for a moment, and then says: “I’ve heard of it. Some are against it, others in favour ... They say it will only help with 20 percent of the contamination so the people don’t agree with that.”
Eduardo replies that it will at least take away 100 percent of the faeces and “yes, there are other problems, sure”. Guillermo repeats that he feels that the solution must come from better sewage treatment from the local municipalities around the lake. Eduardo tells him he does not want to take up any more of his time - his fish will spoil.
As we stand at the polluted bay, Eduardo gets a call telling him of a clash between his colleagues and a local Indigenous group from San Pedro La Laguna. The group, which included Paulina, had organised a press conference about their opposition to the project. A heated argument broke out between the two sides and was captured by the press. In the video that circulated on social media, a member of the Amigos team raises his voice and demands respect, while those holding the press conference tell him to talk to them with respect, not to raise his voice and then, eventually, to leave.
“Our board member attended and he listened to everything and of course it was misinformed and they were all a bunch of lies. And he politely raised his hand to set the record straight but it didn't go well,” Eduardo tells me. “They weren't expecting somebody to set the record straight in front of the press. So they practically kicked him out of the place.”
Despite the public opposition, Eduardo insists that those who oppose the project are simply misinformed. “Probably they have another idea, some proposal. But we asked for the proposal but they said they didn't have it. So they’re just opposing, not proposing. That's not right,” he says.
Jose insists that most of the people he talks to think their project is a wonderful idea and Eduardo says that 70 percent of people, like Guillermo, are just “nice people who need things to be solved”. According to the two men, the resistance to the project stems from a misunderstanding that could be resolved with better communication.
For Paulina, who spoke at the press conference where the two sides clashed, the reasons for resisting are straightforward.
“They have never asked for the consent of the population,” she says, “They never ask us when they come to do anything here. Now, with this … mega-project, we don’t believe that they have good intentions because if they had good intentions they would have already come to consult us.”
While the Indigenous communities’ right to consultation for a project like this is enshrined in UN law, the Amigos, who commissioned two American scientists to develop this project, were able to go straight to the (now ex-) vice president of Guatemala Jafeth Cabrera for project support. In fact, in July 2018, during a ceremony for a new market, the vice president, who was also in charge of the country’s lakes, told residents that he was working to get funding for the project. Jafeth Cabrera did not respond to invitations to comment.
At community meetings against the project in Santiago and San Pedro, the mistrust and indignation at being ignored are repeated by many.
In Santiago, around 15 men and women gather in a small room decorated with maps, old photos and candles at the local Cabecera to voice their concerns about the "mega-collector" project. The mood is defiant.
“We aren’t ‘friends of the lake,'” says Felicia, a grandmother and Indigenous resident who is part of the same network as Paulina, in reference to the name of the NGO behind the project. “We belong to the lake and the lake belongs to us. It’s our inheritance and we will fight for it … They come here and force projects on us without respecting our culture, our history, our territorial sovereignty - without even consulting us.
“It’s the same kind of situation that happened during the war when the communities were affected and we would meet up like we are doing now to talk and to make decisions. For them we are the problem but in reality they are the problem,” says Antonia Petzey, an Indigenous elder, with anger. “We don't want the mega collector on our lake, we don't want it, that's why we are here.”
At a community meeting in San Pedro, Paulina says that the press conference showed the Amigos for who they really are and that more people are coming forward to support their campaign against the "mega-collector".
“They never ever consult us. It's always a game. We have been mocked. And they go on. After 500 years, they go on. Let's go ... for 600 years,” says Felipe Tuy with quiet anger. “Well, the people have reacted now.”
The reference to the civil war or the hundreds of years of Spanish conquest might seem out of place here, but it may be key to understanding why the Indigenous community and the Amigos are at such odds. In 1524, Spanish colonisers arrived in Guatemala and devastated the Indigenous population with disease, violence and resource extraction.
The conquistadors then captured Indigenous communities and put them to work under an exploitative labour system to enrich themselves further. And this didn’t come to an end with independence from Spain in 1821. In fact, scholars have argued that “colonial structures and practices established in the colonial era proved to be durable, as they were modified, yet mostly maintained even through independence, liberal reform, and US intervention.” For example, Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by poor education, poor housing, unemployment and poor health outcomes; they also are often the targets of violence and have poor recourse to justice following abuses of power.
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, official data also indicates that extreme poverty affects 21.8 percent of the Indigenous population, compared to 7.4 percent of the non-Indigenous population.
The roots of this conflict are something that the Amigos acknowledge. When I ask Jose about it, he takes a long drag of his cigarette and pauses before he replies. “So as you know the population around here is highly Indigenous - it’s the majority of the population. And historically there's been mistreatment of this group. Originally from the Spanish conquest but then from the state there's been a systematic mistreatment of Indigenous. And so there's a resistance to any sort of big project coming from ‘Westernised ideals’…So I think a lot of people assume because it's coming from an association that's, you know, scientifically focused and many many people are Western if you will, it’s seen with this scepticism of ‘they always tell us these projects are going to benefit us but they don't actually ever do’, right?”
“And that’s the challenge, how are we going to make sure that people actually love this project,” says Jose, speaking to me on camera at a hotel overlooking the lake in Panajachel.
But in an earlier, off-camera interview with Jose and Eduardo in Guatemala City I asked about whether they had sought consent from the local population for their project and Jose replied: “This is not very politically correct what I am going to say but I feel we’re at the point where it’s like ‘shut up, we need to do this… we will explain to you [the Indigenous communities] what we are doing, but get out of the way, we are doing this.’” After a second’s pause, he added: “But maybe you don’t quote me on that.”
“And in this politically incorrect conversation…In which country in the world do you have to ask people if they agree to clean their water source? Really? It’s crazy,” Eduardo added exasperated. “You don’t ask that. You do it!”
When I asked Jose and Eduardo from the Amigos to address the discrepancy between these two statements, Eduardo replied via email in February 2021: “I'm referring to the frustration we feel towards government authorities excusing their lack of action (historical lack of action) with the argument of delegating their constitutional mandate of guaranteeing access to water and sanitation to a local consulting process. It should have never happened! The lake should have never been contaminated, people should have never gotten sick, the main tourist attraction in the country should have never been damaged.”
When asked about the consultation process for their specific project and whether they had consulted the local population, this was Eduardo’s reply: “To consult or not to consult is not our decision or responsibility, we think that for this project to be successful the local communities have to be an integral part of the process. Permission should not be required, instead local empowerment should be desired if the government wants to succeed.”
Eduardo added that this consulting process has begun and the Amigos' main goal of getting government institutions to take responsibility and control of saving the lake is well underway. He added that a central component of this work is to inform and listen to local authorities and stakeholders. “The first of hopefully many workshops was conducted a couple of weeks ago with the idea of establishing a baseline of local social awareness, interest and willingness to embark on a process of rescuing the lake.”
Jose Toriello did not reply to a request for a response about whether the Amigos had sought to consult the local communities and to address his earlier statements.
After the clash at the press conference, posters against the project popped up everywhere around the lake and the number of people who had signed the petition grew to more than 5,000.
Other than the lack of consultation, a major concern is the possible privatisation of the lake water and the potential for exploitation in a country where the business lobby is powerful and water-hungry.
Josue Chavajay is a young activist working with the Indigenous opposition to the project who clashed with the Amigos at the press conference. Like Paulina, he is Indigenous, grew up and lives in San Pedro La Laguna, and sees this as the major threat posed by the project. “The control of water when it comes to it is power,” he explains simply.
“In a country like ours, where the development statistics place us very much towards the bottom; in a country with a lot of inequality, where we cannot access education, where we cannot access health services, and all of a sudden, we would not be able to access water is a problem. Because we know the moment they have control of the water, our human right to water is lost.”
Right now, control of the water around Lake Atitlan falls under 15 local municipalities, but with this project, the water would be controlled by a public-private entity approved by congress. And it is this shift away from local powers, who are (mostly) accountable to their communities, to more centralised and private entities that worries Josue and others.
One concern is that poor communities might end up having to pay for water. "If now it weighs on us to buy a small glass of pure water, a little bottle,” says Paulina to a small group of her neighbours at a local community meeting in San Pedro, “how much more to bathe, to drink, for all the water that we need for our crops? … They don't think about that.”
Wrapped up in the fears around privatisation is not only that the poor communities might end up having to pay for water but also that their water may end up being diverted and taken away. Jose and others at Amigos have dismissed this fear saying that they have no interest in diverting clean water - only the polluted water - and have insisted that these fears are ungrounded.
For many in the communities, however, the “logic of privatisation” as Josue calls it is a slippery slope and the stakes are high for the communities. On the south coast of Guatemala, for example, where the sewage would be taken to irrigate agricultural land by the Amigos project, farmers told me how rivers had been diverted by large sugarcane and palm plantation owners in the country, depriving them of their ability to grow their own food.
The Amigos have insisted that the diversion of water is not the aim of their project and that these fears aren’t grounded in any facts. This may be the case but the community’s suspicion remains. “We have seen a lot of projects that are not for the wellbeing of the community, there are all sorts of examples and the idea that it trickles - it never trickles down,” says Josue. “There is enough evidence in this country these projects never end well. There’s never ever a happy ending, there’s just destruction and poverty and inequality.”
Guatemala is considered one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, with a tiny minority able to leverage its economic power into political influence. Jorge Santos, a human rights defender at UDEFEGUA, an NGO focused on defending human rights and based in Guatemala City, tells me that the richest 10 percent of the population hold around 50 percent of the country’s wealth. “This concentration of power is a process that has occurred over time and taken place in a history which allowed elites to use their power to gather all these resources and to create a whole state in their image,” he explains during an interview in his office. “How powerful can you be? In Central America, Guatemala is the only country that has half its people suffering malnutrition and also has multimillionaires.”
In fact, the Amigos' close relationship to private business has been a source of mistrust for many in the community. Many of those in opposition to the "mega-collector" regularly refer to the Amigos as "empresarios" or businessmen rather than NGO workers. “We do concrete things,” Eduardo tells me when I ask about the work of Amigos. “We set our mind on a project that's going to make the water at the lake wastewater-free. And that's what we’re going to do. It has a beginning and it has an end. So I think people relate to that because most of our donors are from the private sector and that's what they are used to ... It’s also what put us in the place that we are today. And that's the place ... where you can talk to a vice president and you can talk to a president, you can talk to a minister of finance ... You also have to be able to make company owners, big company owners trust you. And that's with work and that's what we've done.”
When the Amigos were invited by the community organisations in San Pedro La Laguna to talk about the project, Josue says that it didn’t go so well. “I remember the first time that their representatives came to talk to us, he basically said 'I come to present to you but I don’t have a lot of time to talk to you.' And that shows that they did not want to dialogue," says Josue. "What they evidenced is that they only wanted to impose, impose, impose. And for us to just say, yes, yes, yes.”
As well as speaking to the Amigos, those in opposition have been speaking to local scientists and experts about the project. “We’ve also gone to various universities who have done studies on the contamination around the lake,” Paulina says, “and now we feel like we’ve taken all this information and we feel strong (in our decision).”
Despite the Amigos’ project being scientifically focused and their insistence that this is the “best project environmentally and economically for the lake”, their science has been criticised by several scientists and hinges on experts from the US rather than locals working at the lake day in, day out.
Claudia Romero, an ecotoxicologist and director of the Atitlan Research Centre at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala at Lake Atitlan, says of the project: “based on the data, I would be a bit uncertain if it's really a feasible solution or if it's really answering the environmental questions of the lake.”
She says that climate change, the introduction of invasive fish species, air-borne pollutants and many other factors are at play here. So focusing on the grey water or residual water going into the lake - which she believes isn’t causing the cyanobacteria bloom some people suggest it has - will not work. “So the project that is being encouraged in the basin, based on the scientific facts, it would be hard to see if that would be the solution or what would happen after the implementation of this project… I would suggest changing the focus onto something more integral, to really focus on the sources of contaminants. And also to have a change of attitude towards the people and to reinforce the authorities that are responsible for controlling the environmental issues in the basin,” she says.
To put it simply, she believes the proposal is failing to fully grasp the real complexity of the lake and so won’t solve its problems.
Calm and serene now, Lake Atitlan was birthed by a violent volcanic explosion more than 80,000 years ago. And the Indigenous communities who have settled around the lake for thousands of years have seen their share of violence, too, from Spanish colonisation in 1524 to the deadly conflict between 1960 and 1996 perpetrated by a right-wing dictatorship. In the past, violence looked like forced relocation, conversion and oppression but today, some feel that it comes in the guise of an imposed form of "development and progress".
"The state of Guatemala, the model of democracy of this country, has been built under the cover of violence,” says Jorge. “This means for example that there is no right to consultation provided to communities, the communities don't get to participate in the models of development. Basically these are just models that are imposed on them by way of fire and blood.”
Josue says that it was in a meeting with the Amigos and the vice president Jafeth Cabrera's office that he realised that two worlds were colliding. The Amigos’ language, he explains, proposed a scientific solution that was from “a focus of business and commodification of water and even sewage”. In contrast, Indigenous communities understand water and sanitation as a public good. “A public thing with a scientific solution of course, but one which wouldn’t abandon the cosmo-vision and perspective of the community. So that’s why I say our languages began to confront each other,” he says. “In fact, they weren’t just confronting each other, they were diametrically opposed.”
For Josue, capitalism is generating pollution and this project, rather than stopping the pollution, seeks to manage it and monetise it. “Capitalism destroys the environment and it affects really negatively this beautiful environment which is so fundamental in our lives, and so because capitalism is the cause of our problems, it couldn’t come and say what the solution was,” he explains in his family garden in San Pedro La Laguna.
In fact, he tells me the community sees this contamination as a moment to unlearn the bad habits forced on them by the Western model of progress, such as using plastic bags and chemical fertilisers. “I don’t want to romanticise things - I don’t want to return to the way things were 100 years ago. What I’m saying is that we need to return to that feeling and sentiment that gave value to things. We need to reconsider our consumption, we need to reconsider our relationship with water, and respect the life of the lake because she has life, we need solutions, we need hydraulics, we also need to get back to ancestral knowledge and understand what they did, which is that the water is sacred.”
Indigenous communities which make up less than 5 percent of the world's population, protect 80 percent of global biodiversity and have done so for centuries. A landmark 2019 UN report found that while humans “are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, there was one major exception; where Indigenous communities managed the land, the ecological decline was far less severe - and in some cases had been avoided altogether.
The lake reveals this thread of resistance, perseverance and survival. In September 2020, the communities in San Pedro La Laguna, including Paulina, petitioned the Constitutional Court - via online conferencing - against the project by the Amigos del Lago and their lack of community consultation. They argued that as Indigenous communities their right to consultation is guaranteed by the International Labour Organisation's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 and so the project cannot go ahead without their consent. They now await the court’s ruling.
Sat in front of a community mural opposing the privatisation of water, Paulina says she is fighting for the next generations’ survival. “I am here fighting today, so that my daughter can live a good life. So she is well, so she has good health and she is happy and blessed,” she says. “When I’m gone, I want her to take on these ideas and to know that sometimes people aren’t happy with what you are doing but that you have to keep up the fight."