Changing Our Relationship with the Planet
- Friday, 19 February 2010
I cannot decide if I should consider myself lucky or unlucky to bear witness to an ecological catastrophe. Lake Atitlán in Guatemala is being overwhelmed by cyanobacteria. This problem is not new in the world of aquatic ecosystems. It has been seen in other places in the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Guatemala but here in the ancestral home of the Tzutujil, Katchiquel, and Quiche Mayan peoples, it feels much worse and it is a perfect symbol for what is happening to our planet thanks to its biggest feeders, us.
Scientists say this dramatic bloom is due to a combination of high temperatures and high phosphorus levels in the water. Lake Atitlán is a crater lake. It sits in the bowl of an ancient super volcano whose eruption over 15,000 years ago sent soil traces as far as Ecuador. Three smaller dormant volcanoes ring its shore. Over 40,000 people populate its watershed. Due to the steep hillsides, arable land is precious and unsuitable for mechanized, monoculture agriculture. Coffee grows here. It is the base crop for agroforestry systems that help shield the soil from heavy rains and provide income for rural families.
Traditionally, residents reserved the beaches for small-scale agricultural production, mainly maize for subsistence, and recently other horticultural crops like tomatoes, cabbages, and onions. Guatemalan law stipulates that individuals cannot own property immediately on the lakeshore and residents once had their plots assigned to them by the local authorities. However, due to the popularity of the area and the need of the indigenous population to have money to spend in a global economy, the shore has been sold off piecemeal to people wanting to build hotels, cabins, and dream homes. When agriculture is subsistence and may only provide around US $2,000 per year in income for a rural family, the idea of having US $20,000 makes selling the right to one’s plot a tempting proposition.
Apart from the temperature and the phosphorus combination responsible for the immediate crisis, scientists say the root of the problem is long term nutrient storage in the lake. The main contributors are human-related and include naturally phosphorus rich soils washing into the lake from deforested hillsides, over-fertilized soils from input-intensive agricultural production at higher altitudes in the watershed, and the dumping of raw sewage into the lake from the surrounding communities.
The Mayans believe this particular lake, which in Spanish is “el lago Atitlan”, a masculine noun, is actually a feminine energy, “ati’t” or grandmother, in classic Mayan. The lake, whose original name was “Ati’t Ala’”, means literally the grandmother and the young man. The masculine component comes from a phallic interpretation of the volcanoes on her shore. The feminine component comes from the idea that from her dark, mysterious depths we derive our existence. It is the glorious union of the two that creates such spectacular scenery and makes this such a revered place.
Water is essential to human life. It makes up about 80% of our physical mass and it is the sustenance of human development in the mother’s womb; that is, the embryonic fluid. We all owe our lives to this resource but often we take it for granted. Forgiveness and healing ceremonies have been taking place around the lake and at other key points in the country to make it up to our "grandmother lake" for our collective carelessness and apathy regarding her gift of fresh water.
Metaphorically and spiritually, Lake Atitlán is believed to be the navel (ombligo) of the world, the result of tying off our umbilical cord, our original link to our own mothers, and our lifeline in the womb. This identity may be due both to its physical location in the Americas, the center of the two continents of North and South America, and its depth, approximately 300 meters, or around 900 feet at its center. These factors combined with its altitude of approximately 4500 feet above sea level, it is as though we are sitting on top of one huge “outie”. This lake symbolizes our precarious existence on the planet and the ease at which it can be cut. The Mayan peoples take this problem seriously. They say the lake is a mirror and the state of the water is a reflection of all of us. Unlike Narcissus who is entranced by his own beautiful reflection in a transparent pool, ours is glaring back at us in the form of putrid, brown water.
Cyanobacteria are the root of all life on this planet. They are the first love child of the union of the masculine sun and the feminine earth. The elements of fire, water, earth, and air worked together to produce this ancient life form. We are all linked to this simple bacterium, our first ancestor. Its presence is a sign of creation in its basest elemental state. When we see cyanobacteria in our water systems, we must ask how we are creating our reality. Is the earth trying to tell us something? To some, the message is clear: we are sucking her dry and unless we start to find better ways to live in harmony with the earth, we are all toast. Nature will get rid of us fast and we will be replaced with new life, our buddies; the cyanobacteria are the frontline of a new evolutionary process.
This environmental wake-up call is manifesting some immediate responses. The Guatemalan government is listening to the voices of its constituents and acting in the form of new legislation to control the use of chemical agricultural inputs and to reforest denuded land with native species. They realize the sewage treatment plants must be installed and not held up by political battles. They also realize now how much we still need to invest in environmental education in public schools and agricultural extension for the farmers in the area, how large scale land conversion to organic agriculture and a renewal of ancestral practices could well be necessities for our survival. It helps that the lake itself is an important economic generator for Guatemala. Some say it is the number two tourist attraction in this developing country. It is certainly, along with the ruins of Tikal, one of the most emblematic. If this lake dies, and some say it is already dead, what then? What does that mean for the residents, the country, and for the rest of the world who come here to renew themselves by basking in its beauty?