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Water defenders protect Guatemala’s majestic Lake Atitlán from mountains of garbage

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Hundreds of activists from across Guatemala walked along the shores of the majestic Lake Atitlán in the country’s western highlands in commemoration of World Water Day on March 22. In their hands they carried white flowers, which they left floating along the shores as an offering.

The ceremony was held as part of the regional meeting of water activists to mark the international day meant to bring awareness to the water crisis around the world. This meeting was hosted by the local collective Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’, which has become one of the most active water rights defenders in the Central American country.  

For years, once a month, women have gathered alongside local fishermen to collect mountains of garbage along the shores of the lake and in the waters of the popular tourist destination. But with the lifting of their hard-won bans on plastic bags and single-use products during the pandemic, they are now renewing their struggle to limit waste.  

There are groups in over a dozen areas of San Pedro la Laguna that mobilize to clean the shores. But they don’t do this just for tourists; many join because they rely on the waters of the lake for daily chores.

Women wash their clothes in the waters of Lake Atitlán on Feb. 25. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“The water is used for everything — for use in the home or cleaning clothing,” explained María Díaz, an elderly Maya Tz’utujil resident of San Pedro la Laguna who explained that she and many others lacked access to running water in their homes.

Residents have gathered each month to clean up the shores and waters of the lake since 2009 following the outbreak of cyanobacteria. This critical work has fallen on locals and community associations because the Guatemalan government has shown little interest in cleaning the lake. 

Among the key organizers of these efforts are the women of the collective Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’, who in the last year have not only collected and disposed of the garbage, but also sought to bring national attention to the pollution. They argue that there is little interest from national authorities in responding to the contamination. 

“It is incredible the amount of garbage that makes it into the lake, and local and national authorities do not fulfill their responsibilities,” said Nancy Gonzalez, who works with Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’. 

As much as 3,000 tons of garbage enters the lake during the rainy season, which lasts generally between May and November. And throughout the rest of the year, tons of garbage produced by residents and tourists alike enter the lake from the various clandestine dumps surrounding it. 

Climate change has played a role in the continued contamination, with heavy rains and heavy unseasonal winds bringing garbage down into the lake.

“All the garbage that arrives here largely comes from the north side of the lake when it rains,” said Nicolás Roq Ché, who works with the Association of Fishermen and joins the women from Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’. “Many of the garbage dumps are near the rivers and as a result it arrives in the lake.”

The problem of contamination of waters in Guatemala is much bigger than just Lake Atitlán. It is estimated that between 90 and 95 percent of water across Guatemala is polluted, including Lake Atitlán, Lake Amatitlán near Guatemala City, and Lake Izabal in eastern Guatemala. 

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While the contamination affects the majority of residents and neighboring countries, subsequent Guatemalan governments have done little to resolve the problem. According to the women of Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’, the Guatemalan business councils, which have regularly opposed efforts to ban or reduce the use of single-use products are largely responsible for the contamination. 

So the women decided to take direct action to protest the contamination of the lake, and symbolically return the garbage to what they say is the source.

Business leaders’ responsibility

In October 2022, members of Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’ traveled just over 100 miles from San Pedro la Laguna to Guatemala’s Industrial Business Council in Guatemala City to protest private industry’s part in the contamination of the lake. Members brought baskets filled with garbage that they had collected from Lake Atitlán, throwing it over the fence.  

“We decided to gather the garbage and return it to the business leaders,” González said. “They have a great responsibility for the management of the lake and the final disposal of waste.” She added, “we could continue to be here year after year cleaning, but we went to demand that the business leaders assume their responsibility.” 

The community has taken steps to reduce the amount of products that contaminate the lake. Residents of San Pedro la Laguna pressured the municipal government to issue a municipal-wide ban on single-use products, such as styrofoam plates, plastic utensils and plastic bags, which was enacted in October 2016. Residents quickly adapted, bringing tupperware to the market to store proteins such as chicken, or using hand-woven or recycled bags to carry purchases. 

But the Industrial Council filed a lawsuit against the local initiative, which ended up in the country’s Constitutional Court. The measure was protected by the court, and other Indigenous communities across the country quickly adopted similar initiatives to ban the use of plastics. 

However, many of these measures were set aside because of the limits put on indoor dining during the pandemic. Since then the residents have renewed their efforts to reinstate the ban and reached out to other communities to join them.

Expanding efforts

The summit in San Pedro la Laguna on World Water Day was part of Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’s efforts to expand their efforts to clean Guatemala’s contaminated waterways. The collective has utilized social media and local television and radio stations to encourage the community to get involved.

Local fishermen rake the sands in one of the sectors of San Pedro la Laguna on Feb. 25. They say that local business owned by foreigners have done nothing to help their efforts. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

According to González, their efforts have inspired others to join in the efforts to clean up the lake. But while Lake Atitlán is considered a popular destination for eco-conscious tourists, the women of Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’ say they receive little support from tourists or foreigners that live along its shores. 

“We have to educate so that we improve,” said Salvador Quiacain, a respected elder in the Maya Tz’utujil community of San Pedro la Laguna who works with Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’. “We are calling on the national and international community to help together.”

The municipality of San Pedro la Laguna has taken steps to control the garbage, opening a new facility in 2016 about four miles from the town to properly process garbage. This is the only option in the area, and it has become key for disposing of the trash that the women and their collaborators remove from the lake.

At the heart of their actions, whether it is the education, cleaning or successfully implementing the prohibition of single-use products, the goal of Comunidad Tz’unun Ya’ is to reduce the amount of garbage that is created, so it doesn’t end up in the lake or clandestine dumps. 

“We are seeking to produce less garbage,” Quiacain said. “There will come a day when the pile of garbage will be bigger than our volcanoes, and that will be a risk to human life.”

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