Vivamos Mejor is eco-restoring the craterous Solola region; basin by basin. This is tough going because the mountain tops are cut like arrow heads with their sides sheer and balding. During Tormento season (Aug-Nov) storms power-wash the caldera widening furrows and speeding mud and rocks into settlements and, ultimately, into Lake Atitlan.
Without intervention, the land erodes at a rate of as high as seven metric ton loads of soil, per hectare, per year. After months of deluge, the mudslides have rinsed away grower’s fertilizers enriched with chemicals. Phosphorous and nitrogen, for example, (over)feed the noxious algae bloom that is fast turning this gorgeous lake into a swamp.
The technology Vivamos Mejor employs for taming waters in the hills is ancient and labor intensive. This is partly because heavy machinery cannot negotiate the steep angles and the steeper the hill the shallower the steps must be. Workers cobble a wooden “compass” to trace the mountain’s curvature. The ad hoc measure called “Tipo A” is about 3-4 feet high with a rock suspended from the apex as a plumb line. Each section is evenly spaced by pivoting the legs. Once the curves and the widths of the risers have been laid out, corduroy fences are pounded into place retaining each step, then, fist diameter to skull size rocks are inlaid for draining these plateaus. Finally, three foot long cuttings of branches known to grow profound roots fast (sacara raize) are planted as upright “X’s” midway in the rocky tread — between the upper and lower risers. In some crevices, the tiers might be constructed from tires stacked and skewered into place with poles.
“It takes about three months for the terracing to slow the water. In that time, the roots intertwine among the rocks and the mud gets trapped the, now, branching X’s“, said Carlos Gomez of Vivamos Mejor’s forestry division.
“We have about 4,500 people working to reclaim the steep hillsides; they are planting Valerian, Palo de Agua and Campana,” Mr. Gomez explained. “In the cuencas (basins) of Concepción, San Lucas Tolimán, San Marcos La Laguna and Santiago Atitlán the communities replanted about one million native species between 2007-09. This year, they have planted over a quarter million.”
He displayed a Google map of the Lake Atitlan region and pointed out the massive barren areas that still needed help and added that most funding is for only a year or two, although some supporters like The Nature Conservancy are serial donors.
Clearly, saving this lake from eutrophication will require more than reforestation. As I left the Vivamos Mejor offices, I saw a man with a giant sack; clearly marked “phosphorous and nitrate.” He told me that the government gives this stuff away but will punish the farmer who is found using it on the land.