Oct 11

A watershed advocate in Guatemala respects local economic realities

by Muriel L. Hendrix

(This article sent to me by a friend, reprinted from The Working Waterfront…..Carlos)

AMSCLAE, like Friends of Casco Bay, takes a pragmatic approach to its work, respecting the economic realities of the watershed’s population.

Juan Skinner, director of AMSCLAE, The Autoridad para el Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca del Lago de Atitlan y su Entorno Ecologico (Authority for the Sustainable Management of Lake Atitlan Basin and Environs), is talking about efforts to clean up the watershed of Lake Atitlan — a magical lake at 5,125 feet in Guatemala. It is bordered by three volcanoes on its southern edge, the highest rising to 11,670 feet, and steep cliffs on its northern side.

At times, such as when he starts to talk about waste water treatment, Skinner puts his head in his hands, rubs his forehead and exclaims, “Ai Yi Yi … .so much is needed to clean up, it’s just incredible. I don’t know how we’ll ever get the money.” Or, he swings to the opposite extreme, as when he explains there’s only one municipal dump in the 224-square-mile watershed, which covers 15 municipalities and a total of 200,000 people scattered in the rugged mountains of the western highlands, and he’s trying to build four more dumps this year. Then, he laughs and laughs, with a hilarity fed by desperation. “Each dump is a lot of work,” he says, and rambles off into a string of hearty laughs over the understatement of these words.

Despite the difficulties, the effort to deal with waste management in towns around the lake and throughout the watershed is enjoying some success in protecting what Aldous Huxley once described as “the most beautiful lake in the world.”

AMSCLAE is a government institution composed of representatives from national government and non-government organizations (NGOs) and local officials. The idea for it developed in 1994, when local and national officials realized that NGOs did not have the resources needed to protect Lake Atitlan’s basin. AMSCLAE was established by act of the Guatemalan Congress in 1996. Like the Friends of Casco Bay, its mission is to improve and protect the water quality of a body of water whose health is vital to the country.

The lake provides water (untreated) for more than 50,000 Guatemalans. As a tourist destination, it generates more than $30 million annually, a colossal figure for a country where most of the indigenous population barely ekes out a subsistence living. During the past 23 years, the population in the lake’s watershed area has doubled.

Lake Atitlan also serves as an important resource for local fishermen, generating about $400,000 a year in sale of fish, and for mat makers of Santiago Atitlan, who continue a hundreds-of-years-old tradition planting, pruning and cutting reeds which grow in a long, shallow bay on the southern side of the lake. One of AMSCLAE’s first accomplishments was to take legal action necessary to help mat makers of Santiago regain control over this natural resource so important to their survival. The Guatemalan government had in the 1960s centralized control of the reeds under the Ministry of Agriculture, which made all decisions about the reeds and taxed their use. “According to the peace accords [of 1996], indigenous people are allowed to manage their natural resources,” Skinner says.

Skinner, who began to work for an NGO, the Friends of Lake Atitlan, in September, 1992, was asked in 1994 to help establish AMSCLAE. For two years he battled resistance from heads of agencies and members of Congress who did not want to relinquish control over any environmental work, although he says their efforts had been minimal and ineffective for Lake Atitlan. (He laughs and explains the bill was finally passed in 1996 after he sent `a pretty girl in a short skirt’ to do the lobbying.)

Skinner spent another two years gaining a niche for AMSCLAE in the Department of the Environment’s budget. Meanwhile, he obtained a grant to set up an office in Solola. “Those first two years, 1996-98, I spent writing proposals, getting equipment and getting a position in local politics,” he says.

In 1998, he arranged a three-day retreat for mayors of the 15 watershed municipalities to educate them about Lake Atitlan’s environmental situation and allow them to discuss priorities. He emphasizes that local involvement is crucial to AMSCLAE’S work and gives it a viability that outside NGOs and other organizations have been unable to develop.

“When those mayors took office, we had already an environmental agenda they had approved,” he says. “It pointed out all the problems causing decay of the lake’s environmental quality, and the values we needed to protect it. We prioritized the agenda and everybody agreed that waste management was the big alert light – solid waste management and waste water management.” The mayors agreed, he explains further, “that lack of sanitation alone causes more problems to the local population because of the impact on tourism [from] polluted waters and beaches, and the impact on their own health because many towns consume untreated water.”

Skinner becomes animated as he expresses his frustration about problems created by outside NGOs who fail to support AMSCLAE’s agenda.

“They don’t look at the problem and then look for the solution,” he explains. “They look for the money and then they will do whatever the agency that is financing them wants them to do. The worst problem we have right now is [the U.S. Agency for International Development] investing outside the agenda. These guys are coming in to decide something that we don’t have priority in and they are just dumping a lot of money when we’re in need of money to do priorities. They completely break the democratic process. Their decisions come from Washington; it’s disrespectful intervention.”

He strenuously objects to what he calls a “park mentality” – “putting in laws that are for jungles and tropical forests” in an inhabited area. He says that some agencies further antagonize the local population by hiring people who have never lived in the area.. “They come in with a lot of money and have just a little view of the reality, when we are there with a lot of projects already planned and just waiting for the money to do it,” he says.

“When I renew the agenda, I have all the mayors sign it and members of the institutions, so I can say, `Look here, each municipality is in on this.'”

Over the past two years, he says close contact with the mayors (AMSCLAE’s staff speak at least one, some two, of the three indigenous languages of the watershed villages in addition to Spanish) has created a savvy group of officials who have become willing to put off the needs of their particular community if other communities’ problems have greater impact on the lake. “It is really good, now,” Skinner says, “because we can tell the mayors, `Look, we can clean up your town, but if we don’t clean this other town that pollutes more, we are still going to get the lake in bad shape.’

“The mayors have really taken this seriously. They say, `No, no, Panachel pollutes more, you put the money there in Panachel and don’t worry about my town.”

Still, there are giant steps to be taken, among them, to protect and restore forests that are areas of water production, develop purification systems and treatment for polluted waters, teach farmers sustainable use of agrochemicals, expand programs for waste management and treatment and develop a comprehensive environmental plan.

Overall, Skinner says, the lake “is a miracle.”

“It has beautiful crystalline water,” he explains, “but what’s really sad is to have such a healthy lake when you see the whole body of water at once, but also to understand the problems that are at the edge, at the town fronts and where the rivers come in. That’s what we’re trying to take care of.”

(Thanks to Professor Janice Jaffe of the Bowdoin College Department of Languages for translating the AMSCLAE brochure. AMSCLAE can be contacted at 5a.Avenida 8-00, Zona 1, Solola, Solola, Guatemala, C.A. (502)762-3987)

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