Lake Atitlán is dying — it’s being killed by sewage, run-off from chemical agriculture, and waste products from tilapia farms. The lake is in a caldera and doesn’t have outlets — so everything that goes into the lake stays in it.
Corruption keeps taking money that was meant to help fix Lake Atitlán’s problems, and government and bureaucracies are too slow.
The scientific agency in charge of monitoring Lake Atitlán, AMSCLAE, says that without immediate action the lake will be dead from eutrophication — oxygen depletion caused by contamination — within 7 years.
Lake Atitlán Environmental Interests Group (LAEIG) is a team of volunteers working to mitigate and repair the damage now, while there is still time, by using phytoremediation and bioremediation — including effective microorganisms, floating gardens and floating rings, and tul reforestation.
At LAEIG we are also working to prevent contamination by facilitating organic agriculture, and by helping sewage facilities process effluent more effectively, through natural means.
Lake Atitlán, located in the western highlands of Guatemala, is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The Lonely Planet Guide Book describes it as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth”. The shoreline and the surrounding volcanoes and mountains are home to the indigenous Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil Maya, whose ancient languages, customs, and traditions are still practiced today, and whose health and livelihoods are inextricably linked with the survival of Lake Atitlán.
The lake itself sits in an enormous caldera. With 50 square miles of surface area and an average depth of 220 meters, it is the deepest lake in Central America. Three volcanoes sit on or near its shores. The area has a perfect highland climate, with beautiful flora and fauna. Because of this, tourism is booming.
Due to the increases in tourism and the resulting expansion of agriculture and population, Lake Atitlán is becoming more contaminated every year. The crater has no outflow, so everything that flows in stays in. This includes wastewater from more than 20 towns and vast quantities of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. The lake is now so contaminated that it faces a real and imminent threat of ecological collapse, of death. Nobody knows for certain how many more years it can survive if sewage and chemicals continue to flow in at the present rate, but the point of no recovery could be just a few years away. Doing nothing is not an option.
Lake Atitlán Environmental Interests Group (LAEIG)
LAEIG is an all-volunteer group, established in early 2016, supported by a variety of people from around Lake Atitlán and around the world who are passionate about saving the lake. Our members are lake management experts, environmentalists, farmers, fishermen, local leaders, community associations, school teachers, business owners, and other volunteers.
Saving Lake Atitlán before it becomes contaminated beyond the point of recovery will take a cohesive plan of action, massive mobilization, and effective management and stewardship of remediation projects. If we wait for all this to be done by the government it will be too late to save the lake. Just as they let Lake Amatitlán die, they aren’t doing much to save Lake Atitlán either. So we decided to start making it happen now. We believe that if we mobilize and organize, then together we will save the lake.
Our current projects are collaborative efforts with a range of partners: municipal administrations, non-governmental organizations, diverse community associations, AMSCLAE, and many, many local and international volunteers.
Tul Reforestation Project
The Tul plant (Scirpus californicus) grows naturally in the water near the shores of Lake Atilán, where it provides a protective barrier and filter against contaminants, as well as habitat for waterfowl, fish, crustaceans, and migratory birds. Tul in the lake has decreased significantly due to a rapid change in water levels a few years ago.
We are spearheading initiatives with local organizations and volunteers to reforest Tul. It is very good at absorbing nutrients that are contaminating the lake, plus each plant has billions of beneficial microbes living on it, which consume even more nutrients and also filter the water. The Tul plantings also provide habitat for wildlife, and material for handicrafts to help the local economy. More info.
Floating Gardens Project
Rafts covered with soil and plants are anchored in the lake to create floating garden “wetlands” that clean the water. The plant roots grow through the raft bottom into the lake, where they absorb nitrogen and phosphorous. Bacteria create a biofilm on the raft and roots that consumes nitrogen and phosphorous, converting them to less harmful substances.
Pollutants such as metals and particulates are also filtered out, since suspended solids bond to the biofilm. This makes the water clearer, which lets light penetrate deeper, thereby letting plants grow deeper, bringing oxygen deeper. Organic matter that attaches to the underside of the floating islands provides food for fish, and the islands provide habitat for birds. Planting floating gardens with commercially valuable plants can increase the impact of this project. More info.
Floating Rings Project
Like big hula hoops, floating rings are placed in the lake, and the interior is filled with water hyacinths, which work to consume contaminants and filter the water. Every couple of weeks, some of the hyacinths are harvested for use in composting operations to improve organic farming in the Lake Atitlán area, thus removing nutrients from the lake and converting those nutrients into high-quality organic compost for local farmers. More info.
Organic Coffee Co-ops Project
LAEIG is working to address the main problem of chemical contamination — non-organic coffee farming — by providing needed equipment to the 175-member organic coffee farming cooperative, Cafe Maya Chacaya Atitlán (APROCAMCA), so they can transition another 217 farmers to organic coffee growing. We will also help the cooperative to greatly improve the quality of its compost through addition of Effective Microorganisms and hydrilla (an invasive plant harvested from the lake by volunteers), resulting in higher yields and higher-value products. More info.
San Bartolo Sanitation Project
As a first step towards introducing EM at all Lake Atitlán wastewater treatment facilities, LAEIG will be conducting a 6-month pilot project with AMSCLAE (the authority in charge of policing the wastewater treatment plants in the Lake Atitlan watershed) at San Bartolo. The outflow from this plant contains over 1100 times the accepted level of coliforms (such as e-coli) and is being used for direct irrigation onto human food crops.
Using EM to treat the wastewater in the San Bartolo wastewater plant will both significantly reduce pathogen exposure by the local farmers and increase the yields of their crops, resulting in a huge benefit for the local population of indigenous farmers. More info.
How You Can Help