So, why does the Dragoness emit verbal “selfies” instead of playing Candy Crush Saga?

I am still so full of opinions and meddlesome advices that if I did not write I would certainly seethe in my dotage. However, I live in a place where I had to learn a new language or two and I am amazed when I can transmit a thought. My artistic friends are as fun and fashionable as ever but …they happen to be indigenous Mayans – not New Yorkers.

This blog began life as a black box beaming back coordinates to a distant (receding) base. But the longer I drifted the more it became a message in a bottle – navigating flotsam and dolphins. Maybe I have given up on being rescued and hope to leave a trace… an actionable trace, please.

I am still so full of opinions and meddlesome advices that if I did not write I would certainly seethe in my dotage. However, I live in a place where I had to learn a new language or two and I am amazed when I can transmit a thought. My artistic friends are as fun and fashionable as ever but …they happen to be indigenous Mayans – not New Yorkers.

Swapping the Hudson for Lake Atitlan was shocking and necessary. For enough reasons, I could not afford to live in the US in the post 9/11 economy. In the weeks before I left, I fixated on the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. I can’t say how many day/nights I sat switching though the multiple cameras on the BP website and watching the robots dance even as the engineers failed. In that hot summer I would force myself out to walk 10,000 steps as I must and then, rush back to the danse macabre in progress. It was matricide live and in real time. So, when a friend responded to my request with a hook up to a volunteer opportunity in Guatemala I was on the plane in less than 24 hours. That was five years ago.

It turned out that the whole place was blooming with opportunities. But, the party did not begin until Rosa figured out how to use me. She began modestly. I would meet with 15 local kids on Saturdays. In the shortest time, they grew to be teens but Rosa has more…looks like more than 500 in three villages. Yes, she will keep me busy until they put the lid down and it is for this that I write, fume and ruminate. Go ahead, open the bottle.
Este blog nació como un cuadro negro radiante volver coordina a un (retroceso) de base distante. Pero cuanto más tiempo me quedaba más se convirtió en un mensaje en una botella – navegar restos y delfines. Tal vez he renunciado a ser rescatados y espero dejar una huella … una traza procesable, por favor.

Todavía estoy tan lleno de opiniones y consejos entrometidos que si yo no escribí Sin duda bullir en mi senectud.

Yo vivo en un lugar donde tuve que aprender un nuevo idioma o dos y me asombro cuando puedo transmitir un pensamiento. Mis amigos artísticas son tan divertido y de moda como siempre, pero … que se encuentren indígenas mayas – no los neoyorquinos.

Intercambiar el Hudson para el Lago de Atitlán fue impactante y necesaria. Por razones suficientes, no podía permitirse el lujo de vivir en los EE.UU. en la economía post 9/11. En las semanas antes de irme, obsesionado con el derrame de petróleo de Deep Water Horizon. No puedo decir cuántos días / noches me senté cambiar aunque las múltiples cámaras en el sitio web de BP y viendo los robots bailan incluso como los ingenieros fallaron. En ese verano caliente me obligarme a caminar 10.000 pasos que debo y luego, lanzas de nuevo a la danza macabra en progreso. Fue matricidio en vivo y en tiempo real. Así, cuando un amigo respondió a mi solicitud con un gancho a una oportunidad de voluntariado en Guatemala que estaba en el avión en menos de 24 horas. Eso fue hace cinco años.

Resultó que todo el lugar estaba floreciendo con oportunidades. Pero, el partido no comenzó hasta Rosa descubrió cómo me use. Ella comenzó modestamente. Me encontraría con 15 niños de la localidad los sábados. En el menor tiempo, que creció hasta convertirse en adolescentes pero Rosa tiene más … se parece a más de 500 en tres pueblos. Sí, ella me mantendrá ocupado hasta que pusieron la tapa hacia abajo y es por esta causa que escribo, humos y rumiar. Vaya por delante, abrir la botella.

Panajachel NGOs seek “organic” unification with Guatemala Non-Profit Network

Judy Sadlier of the Guatemala Non-Profit Network (GNN) was pleasantly overwhelmed by turnout for their introductory meeting. The organizer from Antigua welcomed more than thirty five people representing a score of NGOs and not for profits from around Lake Atitlan. Collectively, her audience reaches way out beyond the impoverished and illiterate Department of Solola. Some of these people are designing their work to be scale-able and build it to roll throughout Guatemala and beyond. Others have more focused and comparatively, modest ambitions.

During the introductions, it would become apparent that these organizations are creatively addressing chronic concerns around health and education. For example, they are introducing micro-finance, micro-consignment, women’s empowerment, mobile libraries, vocational trainings, environmental stewardship, animal health, violence prevention and security. As exhaustive as their array of offerings is, still more impressive is the tens of thousands of people served by this handful. But, this powerful and dedicated audience came in with plenty of skepticism. After all, collaborations have been proposed before. And, nobody was particularly cheered because Ms. Sadlier’s Facebook page revealed that “… some call (her) Queen of the NGOs..” On the other hand, they were happy to learn that she earned her crown by establishing and growing the First (Guatemalan) Women’s Network in 1975.

She began her short remarks by enthusing that there are an equal number of local groups willing to participate but that they were unable to attend this meeting.

“We are going to explore the idea of bringing everyone together,” she began. And speaking from experience, she added, “The process must be ‘organic.’”

“In 2005-6 NGOs were not talking together and there was no publicity about them. So, we developed the Community Forum in Antigua to network opportunities and, from a meeting like this one, the idea of the GNN began. This Network schedules a series of presentations to be followed by a meeting. GNN produced a special event showcasing ten participants in order to raise awareness of their work within their communities and, secondarily, to raise funds. We now have a site,, with 75 members posting their profiles, job opportunities and events.”

The size of the crowd drove the meeting. The short but numerous introductions would make it necessary to forgo any agenda and cut right to a 20 minute brainstorming session. This part was peppered with good ideas and invitations. Someone advocated for sharing training instructors and materials; another person promoted exploring themes of best practices for small groups. Could we combine to find ways make a wider impact? Get on the radio? Develop volunteers? Share medicines? Actually collaborate this time?

When all was said, the demographics revealed only one Mayan founded organization; the rest were founded by North American and European women. That is: the most glaringly absent were representatives from the big name NGOs. Players like Habitat for Humanity, Nature Conservancy and the European NGOs that have greater access to government connections and the deepest pockets did not attend this meeting. Is it that they do not want to network or need to cooperate?

Setting up some kind of umbrella group for coordination and communications among NGOs is excellent and there are structural barriers. Beyond the obvious distinctions of capitalization, there are two general classes of missions: those that promote culture and tourism and those that support health and welfare. All incorporate with restrictive “mission statements” to enable them to solicit grants and donors. So, expanding beyond the stated scope and scale to, say, share resources might be minor charter violation or it could be tantamount to fraud.

The task before the organizers is massive. They need some sweetener such as the ultimate ability to connect to something the members could not access alone – like’s shared technologies In any case, they must define common ground, attract a credible percentage of the groups and develop a unifying theme before the next disaster.

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Lake Atitlan – insulted beauty

Looking down River Jucanya Bodega and STP (not visible) on the left

The so-called “Golden Goose,” Lake Atitlan is variously insulted by farm runoffs, landslides, garbage and sewage.

At first glance it appears chemical run off would be easy enough grievance to check off the list. But, alas, phosphates and nitrogen, though officially outlawed, are supplied by the government.

Anti landslide measures- like reforestation -are unable to keep up with hurricanes and wildcat building.

Solid waste and trash disposal are utterly dependent on iffy roads and bridges.

So, by default, the easiest to remedy must be Sewage Treatment.

The former Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) was decommissioned by Hurricane Stan when rains killed at least 1500 people and wiped out entire towns. Floods and mudslides inflicted physical damages around Lake Atitlan. And, one day, the enraged river undermined Panajachel’s 1990’s vintage Sewage Treatment Plant. That was six years ago, the replacement plant is still under construction up river from where the old structure came to rest. Building any STP on volcanic soil is like trying to build a swimming pool on Rice Crispys.

Most STP’s are not well suited for jagged karst topography, either. The larger the capacity the less well they will do. STP’s sit atop a land of glorious waterfalls and springs. That water makes way through underground tubes and makes pools in caves. In a drought or in case a feeder stream gets rerouted, the lacy under structures can collapse. This is called a sinkhole. Additionally, while rich in nutrients, volcanic soils are mostly sand – tiny, shiny glass shards. In fact, this soil is so brittle it pulverizes under pressure making it a poor choice for mixing with cement. Over time, small and chronic breakages destabilize materials and that undermines the integrity of a structure.

Getting sufficient land is not done under the police powers of zoning. — far from employing orderly eminent domain procedures, acquiring land for sanitation or any public works is an opportunity for a seller to scalp the Municipality.

STP’s are designed for maximum land use. Their pools and tanks are built close together. But, this necessity focuses a lot of water weight in a small area. UASB (Upflow Anerobic Sludge Blanket) technology requires a series of shallow lagoons. The volume and number of these rectangular feeder pools is driven by the shape of the site and the size of population served. Gravity drains collect pool sludge into an aerated cylindrical tank – diameter and depth driven by the same variables.

In a properly functioning UASB plant, bio-gas can be harvested to power the facility.

NOTE: Gas is naturally produced from bio-wastes and could simply be flared – but, capturing it is cost effective. Current “Best Practice” has the cement cylinder fitted with a “pre-fab” liners – the liner installation needs to be “spot on; balls accurate” to avoid wobbling which would cause a poor seal. Obviously if the gas capturing apparatus has a loose or improper fit it wastes a usable bi-product and could pose an immediate danger.

It is quite possible that the replacement plant’s technology is deficient. In their paper “UASB Technology-Expectations and Reality” Tare and Nema point out flaws in using UASB for sewage treatment – as opposed to processing more fiber rich industrial wastes.

NOTE: As discharges decompose they extract oxygen. So, major objective of conventional wastewater treatment is to dilute and reduce the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) so that the oxygen content of the receiving water body will not be reduced…

In their study of 9 UASBs the authors found that these plants required an additional “finishing pond” or chemical treatments to have an acceptable BOD.

NOTE: Poo-Gloo’s nested aerators could increase the capacity of these ponds (see Resources.)

“UASB is found to be very effective on high strength industrial effluent. distilleries, pulp and paper plants and food processing.” These high organic loads allow for the capture of enough excess biogas that they pay for themselves in three years. The bi-products of human wastes were not as good as for the industrial masses. We can assume that Panajachel’s biogas yields are probably less than 30% of expected production and we know that there were no buyers for the sludge as fertilizer. So, far from being a profit center the Jucanya plant might require supplementary diesel to run and probably have to pay to dispose of the sludge as well.

Despite the technology’s draw backs and the site’s unfortunate geology, a replacement UASB STP is currently (and at last) being built 50 feet upstream from where the prior plant crumbled down the cliff.

The replacement STP site looks slightly bigger than the prior one. But, unlike the prior plant, the replacement STP’s floor has been dug down 15-20’ below grade to just about 10’ off the river bed. There is a ramp for vehicles and the plant’s vessels are stepped back away from the river. It looks like the neck of the countersunk cylinder will sit about 5’ above the finished floor and the tops of the pools, on their elevated plateau, will sit about 15’ above the finished floor. The entire plant is protected river side by parallel bulwarking. This is a cement filled 1-2’ wide 15’ high gabion berm sunk about 7’ below and parallel to the bed about 10 feet from separate it from the ramp. There are ongoing efforts rerouting the river by dredging a trough, banking and stacking gabions. I mention this because this plant was probably designed before the river taming measures were conceived. So the effects of the bulwark and moat are yet to be seen. Because of the possibility of plant acting as an up river dam and because of the wild streams upland of the plant, it might be prudent for the plant’s neighbors to shore up their adjacent fields on their stream and river sides.

There are multiple alternatives to STP including biodigesters. But, then, there is a balance to be struck between owning and maintaining a septic or other system and relying on public works. Considering that Mayans do not take kindly to utility bills providing individual installations may or may not be a good thing – some training and incentive for compliance has to be factored in. Even though the Panajachel community is stuck with one imperfect plant there is an array of new technologies like the Poo-gloos that could be set afloat in a shallow, impermanent ponds and those solar processing ponds could be placed and easily replaced across the lake.

My favorite solution is even fun and an attractive alternative to both to UASB and any other static STP. It is a sewage treatment barge. These floating urban beach barges set sail on the Danube and they are so odor-free that they have swimming pools and restaurants topside.

Here, they could be spud type barges because that craft has telescoping legs and could “anchor” in a protected cove during a hurricane.

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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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Mayan Families’ Veterinary Operations

It is said that there are ten dogs for every person in Guatemala. Around Panajachel sizable packs of them range throughout the barrios, but, dogs are most often found underfoot; begging at café tables or asleep on the sidewalk.

Before Patti invited me to drop in on Mayan Families’ ( veterinary operations at the local Zoo Mascota, I had already noticed people in colorful scrubs taking short breaks in front of Dr. Miguel de Leon Regil’s clinic. Patti told me that that crowd was interns; “almost” veterinarians and part of a larger group of volunteers from U. San Carlos, who come up from the Capital work around the lake a couple of days a month.
Dr. Miguel de Leon Regil

In 2005, Mayan Families sponsored Dr. de Leon Regil’s training in the McKee Project protocol. And, he has been instructing veterinarians in the “Quick Spay” method, ever since. The procedure (favored by U.S. Humane Society) requires no follow-up care–not even prophylactic antibiotics; so, it is cost-effective and close to perfect for street dogs.

After upgrading their ability to care for local street animals, Mayan Families was able to negotiate with the Panajachel municipal authorities to stop them from destroying animals. This agreement has been in effect for more than five years, now, because the San Diego based organization sponsors free veterinary clinics.

I asked Patti just how the seeming indulgence of pet care squared with the necessities of humanitarian outreach.

“Why would people fund this initiative rather than pay for human food, medicine and education?”

“The street dogs are not always ‘strays’ – sometimes they belong to families, who just let them out during the day to eat,” she began.
“Besides, they are part of the family. The people really love them but when they get sick they have no money to take care of them.”

Another reason why the Mayan Families does this, here, particularly, is that where twelve foot high walls with broken glass tops are the norm, guard dogs and ratters are hardly a luxury.

Inside, the team worked with dispatch and in an ad hoc operating theater set up in a hallway lit by few, widely spaced, low-wattage bulbs. Two vets deftly lifted a large dog and secured her to the work table. Two others moved in to shave and vacuum a less than two inch square operating area while yet another colleague shot a free paw with sedative. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes. And, the morning’s patients were laid out like sausages on blankets covering the recovery room floor. The whole back wall was occupied by animals in various stages of awakening — snoozing side by side, without regard to species.

At 1:30 lunch was delivered in one of Mayan Families’ fleet of yellow tuk-tuks. Trays of food were set up in the back and poco a poco the doctors served themselves a delicious lunch of chicken, tortillas and a sweet thinned oatmeal drink. After that, a few stood outside waiting for the next furry patient to arrive.

Soon enough, an owner lugged what looked like an Aikita-Setter into reception. Two vets squatted down to talk to the dog, then opened the crate and kindly lassoed the frightened beast’s snout with a leash. Once pried out the big dog became utterly docile and was easily led into the impromptu O.R. without any sign of resistance.

The professionalism of the young vets under the supervision of Dr. de Leon Regil was evidenced by their prodigious numbers. They treated almost 250 animals in three days.

Because I am focused on the lake, my animal activist friends often judge me to be less than “fuzzy” about street animals. Perhaps, it is because I see the average dog as a producer of 274 pounds of non-compost-able waste (NOTE 1) each year and because that is flushed directly into the lake through street drains it is becomes a public health problem (NOTE 2).

Using this formulation, in one month, Mayan Families saved the lake from 68,500 pounds of waste annually.

1. Dog waste contains pathogens and parasites that can hurt water quality.
2. This could be mitigated by enacting “pooper scooper” laws. But, then, such sanitation regulations would also need to cover the chickens, pigs and goats that share the same system.


reforestation at 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.

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.