Things That Matter

Water Pollution In This Guatemalan Town Dropped 90 Percent After The Town Banned All Plastic

The residents of San Pedro La Laguna have witnessed their town’s lake go from a garbage dump to its original pristine alpine condition within just three years. Why? In 2016, the entire town and its municipal government took on a monumental task: no new plastic would enter the town. Three years later, Lake Atitlán is clean, and plastic waste in the lake has reduced by 90 percent. It took all 10,000 residents of the town to fully commit to completely eliminating their use of plastic in order to revitalize Lake Atitlán, but it was worth it.

“Quitting plastic has not been an easy task,” resident Taira told Naturaleza Gurú, “but you just have to get used to it. We wrap the food in large banana leaves, store the bread in cloth napkins and use wicker baskets or woven palm bags to take purchases home.”

The town unequivocally banned straws, plastic bags, and styrofoam from entering its borders.

Credit: the.yogi.nomadic / Instagram

“There are three products that may not seem significant,” San Pedro’s Mayor Mauricio Mendez said last year. “But when we start to see rivers and lakes polluted with these products, we realize that they are a very important key to create change on this planet.” The town swiftly put up a banner at the entrance of the town that announced Municipal Code 111-2016: “No uso bólsas plásticas, pajillas y duroport.” San Pedro does not use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam.

Instead of plastic, the town has been using banana leaves or maxán leaves, which are traditionally used for tamales. to store their food.

Credit: DW Español / YouTube

When the town passed the ordinance, it received a lot of pushback. Rolando Paiz, Guatemala’s Plastic Commission’s President, told DW that plastic is “one of the noblest materials that humans invented,” and that San Pedro simply needed infrastructure to properly store garbage. Paiz appealed the ordinance to no avail. Three years later, the town has proved itself right.

The initiative has brought the town back to its traditional ways, bringing back childhood memories for many.

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Bakery owner Graciela Batz said that the return to traditional cloth and paper bags are bringing back memories from when she was a little girl. Another resident said that the mayor’s initiative is a real opportunity for the town to save its lake. “We always invoke the thought of revolution,” Mayor Mendez said, “The revolution is not about weapons. It is to make structural changes in each of our lives to create change.”

Lake Atitlán is a major tourist attraction for the town.

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While the town is more than 90 percent made up of indigenous Tz’utujil Mayans, there is a growing expatriate community of Americans and Europeans. That may be because Lake Atitlán is a major source of revenue for the town, drawing in hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world each year. The lake rests at 9,905 feet in elevation and sits beneath Volcan San Pedro. Tourists enjoy kayaking, canoeing, and snorkeling in the lake, which was becoming increasingly littered with trash. The community not only saved its economy, but it saved an entire body of water from dying.

Residents volunteered their time to take canoes out to the lake, and collect trash.

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Collectively, they would remove nearly 700 pounds of trash from the lake, each day. It was a last resort after protesters demanded the government clean up the lake. In July 2015, #AtitlánSano went viral on social media, but the government did nothing. The indigenous communities had to take it upon themselves to save the lake, which was experiencing explosive blooms of cyanobacteria, making the lake water toxic for human consumption. 

Atitlán has become the center of debate in Guatemala’s growing demand for water rights and an end to environmental racism.

Credit: true_nature_travels / Instagram

As massive international farms begin to operate in the country, rivers have been diverted, and waste management has not prioritized for indigenous communities.

“If this lake was in [the mainly white department of] Zacapa, we would have a lot of money, it would be privatized and the government would pay much more attention,” expert Juan Skinner told Truthout. “But because the lake basin is in an Indigenous stronghold, it suffers from the same exclusion that all Indigenous lands suffer from within the country. This is a tourist mecca, an incredible natural wonder, it is still abandoned and excluded because the majority is Indigenous. Because this is a racist country.”

San Pedro residents have become a shining example of the organizing strength of indigenous communities, in the face of a government that continues to divert funds to white communities over indigenous communities.

READ: The United Nations Gave Costa Rica The Highest Award Possible For Their Work Saving The Environment

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