Lake Atitlan is an Environmental Tragedy Howling for Catharsis

Like a classical hero, Lake Atitlan seems to be disaster in slow motion – lurching blindly towards some preordained misfortune. This profoundly beautiful lake is turning into a swamp — real time.

A snap history of the lakeside town, Panajachel, is a good place to count the ways that the massive caldera became so despoiled that it fast approaches eutrophication. Shortly after the country’s Independence, in the 1880’s Europeans, came to cultivate shade coffee; these settlers were followed in the early 1900’s by, (then) junior juggernaut, United Fruit Company that quietly engorged on lands near transport. Fortunately acquisitive multinational trends bypassed the remote lake area; it remained agrarian with tidy coffee fincas and truck farms side by side until the Pan American highway reached Solola after World War II.

In fact, Lake Atitlan’s has only been really accursed since the 1950’s when PanAm Airlines stocked the lake with Black Bass in order to create an “Angler’s Paradise.” This reckless act appears to be a major contributor to the current cyanobacteria blooms, and, certainly gutted the local fresh water fishing industry.

By the mid 1960’s, native fishermen were unable to catch the new dominant species with their spears because the fish had grown so large that scuba gear or sports tackle were required to handle them. The resultant kill-off or die-off (caused the Grebe bird to go extinct) fueled an indigenous exodus towards coasts and cities or across boarders. Certainly, Atitlan’s fishing industry was a relatively small casualty in a 36 year of Civil War that would, ultimately, displace thousands of people and leave 200,000 dead but the moribund environment endures.

Many of the indigenous fled further up, into the jungles and forests, cleaed land there and started new settlements, other survivors would find a way back and attempt to reclaim homes and farms after the war. A toothless and confusing document vague on the terms of distribution, the Peace Accord continues to obfuscate land divisions and promotes litigation to this day. Many mundane transfers could have been streamlined if Guatemala had stepped up to modern land tracking systems. As it is, the Republic is the latest country in Central and South America to automate basic cadastral surveys. These records are key to property management — providing information that is crucial to bank financing, equitable taxation and efficient transfer. (The new system is by far preferable to the more mutable rocks, trees or dead horses that lately served as metes and bounds.)
(see 2002 landmark Los Cimientos, Chajul Mayan Land title dispute case),,USCIS,,GTM,,3decc9724,0.html

The mid 1970’s saw a sustained coffee boom. Witness: leader, Starbucks, was acquired as an already strong chain in 1987. Now, this Company, alone, buys close to 300 million pounds of beans around the world. In a swift and massively misguided response to this trend, USAID began promoting a forest clearing, pesticide and fertilizer intensive methodology to coffee growers beneficently named “Sun Farming” in 1970-80’s. NOTE: Like all volcanic lakes, Atitlan is canted like a paper coffee filter this causes the unintended result that local fincas efficiently funnel run-offs rich in phosphorus and nitrates and this has the effect of chemically fertilizing an already “overfeed” the lake.

If the Peace Accord did nothing else, it eased the way for foreign investments and, even before peace was declared, cruel destiny had the government sponsoring a tourist industry on the lake. This unwieldy initiative metastasized into a wildcat building boom all across the lake. The randomly sited houses and hotels were soon exceeding sewage treatment and delivery capacities and began leaking their raw wastes into the lake and ground waters.

While gringos supplied cash, they also brought in lots of intractable garbage like diapers, plastics and electronics. And, as the indigenous people prospered from tourist trade, they, too, were able to afford detergents and bleach to scrub their pets, clothes and cars and, worst, eventually they came to dispose of their own “gringo trash”… in the lake.

Fold in natural disasters that are always possible along three faults and the severe weather. Since the late 1990’s, climatic or seismic forces have become more virulent — predictably wiping out roads, bridges. Stan roared through leaving only a few functioning sanitation plants around the lake.

This is the short bill of particulars. This community’s tourism business depends on the lake as magnet and that body of water needs to be protected from the forward fates.

Could a solar powered sewage barges be deus ex machina?

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Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

3 thoughts on “Lake Atitlan is an Environmental Tragedy Howling for Catharsis”

    1. Thanks for your opinion.

      The next article will review stalled STP build out and offer alternative remedies

      Following pieces will list and critique efforts at introducing the technological and administrative changes required to restore this national treasure. This third piece will include inquiry into the effects that quotidian corruption and lack of professionalism have on land development.

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