Flighting Slime With Music on Lake Atitlán

Seventeen miles long, 11 miles wide, and at least 1,115 feet deep in places, Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán is likely one of Central America’s largest lakes. Located at 5,125 feet above sea level and surrounded by three inactive volcanoes, it fills the caldera of a volcano that last erupted 84,000 years ago and covers 53 square miles. Some 200,000 people live along the lake’s shores, including those from the T’zutujil, the Kaqchiqueles, and the Quiché tribes. Aldous Huxley famously called it “really too much of a good thing.”

For the past decade, its crystalline waters, jagged hillsides, and Mayan inhabitants have drawn backpackers and curious travelers to the region. But now there’s too much of a bad thing contaminating the lake: And the lake’s health and the region’s economic well-being hang in the balance due to the influx of blooms of blue-green cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria is a thick scum that turns brown and stinky, and is caused by the deposit of phosphorous, nitrogen, and human waste into the lake. Its stems from the increase in population and the intensification of agricultural cultivation in the region. Contact with the cyanobacteria can cause severe dermatitis; skin, eye, and respiratory irritation; stinging and burning sensations; and red, swollen blisters. The water is clearly not safe to drink and conventional filtration methods must be augmented to make it fit for human consumption and domestic use.

Lake Atitlán can no longer absorb the contaminants and cleanse itself. The planting of tule reeds and other wetlands plants may help mitigate the problem, but the local people’s health and livelihood–already tenuous due to repeated hurricanes, landslides, and human rights abuses targeting Mayan people during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war–remain at risk, especially as much of the local economy depends on tourism.

The ninth annual Lake Atitlán Music and Arts Festival, which was held on Saturday, March 13th, is a community-based attempt at improving the situation. The festival, which calls itself an “eclectic alternative cultural event,” is held on the outskirts of town of Santiago Atitlán, and offers music, theater, circus arts, food, drink, an art gallery, camping, and activities for kids. All of the money raised from the 100 Quetzales ($12) entrance fee and ten Quetzales ($1.20) camping fee supports local environmental education programs about cyanobacteria. The festival’s organizers hope to put out an ecological comic book about the situation for illiterate adults, a coloring book for kids, and educational materials for area schools. They’re also broadcasting TV and radio programs about the bacterial invasion in three languages: T’zutjuil, Kaqchiquel, and Spanish. Last year, the festival raised 16,000 Quetzales (nearly $2,000), which it donated to the Hospitalito (the little hospital) Atitlán in Santiago. Some 1,000 people from all over the world attended the festival last year.

I got in touch with self-titled festival “instigator” Roberto Luz to find out more.

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This year was the festival’s ninth year. How did the festival begin?
The festival began as a series of concerts that we did in 1990 with the musicians living around Lake Atitlán that we organized to create SIEMBRA, a cloud forest reserve project on the Atitlán volcano that is thriving to this day. In 2001, we formalized the “movement” as Festival Atitlán and have tried to put on a yearly event ever since to inspire and fund local projects.

What are some of the most popular events at the festival?

Each year things are different. It’s a very eclectic event, with many kinds of music and art represented, everything from the local T’zutujil cofradia bands to internationally known bands like Brian Howe from Bad Company and the LeRoy Mack bluegrass band. We also feature the best of the Guatemalan bands like Cosmica and Naik Madera and native dance troupes like Sotzil.

How long has cyanobacteria been a problem at Lake Atitlán?

We started noticing it in 2008. It disappeared with the cold weather, and in 2009, came back with a vengeance. Apparently it has been in the lake in small quantities for many years, and things have just gotten out of balance. In parts of the lake, it got so bad that a thick layer of slime was covering everything and killing the rest of the vegetation. At this time, the cyanobacteria is in a dormant stage again because of the cold weather.

What are the health effects of the cyanobacteria on the people living near the lake?

Luckily, the strain that has invaded the lake was found to be not as toxic as we first thought. However, it does cause rashes and, when it is in its more lively stages, makes the water unusable for human consumption in a place where it is the only option. It has also taken a toll on the fish that are an important part of the local diet.

Do you feel any progress is being made in terms of confronting the bacteria blooms?

Honestly, so far there has been a lot of talk, but not very much action by the authorities. The job that they need to do is large (they need to put sewer systems or septic tanks in several of the bigger towns), and the local technical savvy is pretty sparse in that area. That’s why we have dedicated our project to getting some simple information about what the common man needs to do to eliminate the problem. Until the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen that are entering the lake are drastically lowered, there is no magic solution.

What needs to be done to halt the influx of phosphorous and nitrogen into the lake?
First, we need to convince the local inhabitants to change some bad habits and give them the information that they need to understand the problem and its solutions. Second, we must set up the infrastructure to filter the wastewater from the larger towns and do drainage studies for the whole watershed. Third, we need to discourage the use of agricultural chemicals (or at least give some training and create some regulation in safe use of chemicals) and give the people access to information about safe organic alternatives. And lastly, we must work on the erosion problem.

Is the Guatemalan government involved in protecting the lake?

Lake Atitlán is a national park, and the government is taking the problem seriously by allocating some funding to it. The problem is that in the developing world everything takes too long and we lack the technical expertise to be able to react in an effective manner without outside consultation. The actions that have been taken so far by the authorities have been for the most part cosmetic. There is, however, a large local movement that is very active.

Check out “Guatemala Magic,” a video that complements Carl Hoffman and Pete McBride’s May/June 2008 feature story on Guatemala in Traveler.

Photo: Peter McBride