To defend the lake is to defend life. Colectivo Comunidad Tz´unun Ya´

21 March 2023

Women in the department of Sololá, Guatemala confront high levels of pollution of Lake Atitlán, a water source with which they have a great spiritual bond. Now, in addition to capturing wastewater, the lake is the destination for much of the plastic garbage generated in the region. For this reason, as part of the Tz´unun Ya´ Community Collective, women engage in activities to clean the lake and lead a legal battle against the state project “Mega – Collector of Waters”. Solutions to the problem of pollution that do not consider the voice of the indigenous communities do not respond to all the problems they face, and only benefit powerful national and international economic groups. Based on their ancestral knowledge and their deep spiritual connection with the lake, these women propose a series of actions to defend the water and, with it, life.

Lake Atitlán is located in the department of Sololá, Guatemala. Surrounded by three giant volcanoes, Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America. Its beauty attracts almost 1 million tourists a year. For those who live around the lake, its importance goes beyond the visual – it represents one of the local women’s spiritual and ancestral bonds with life. For that reason, they clean it, take care of it, and defend it.

The pollution is endangering the lake as well as those who live around it, primarily Mayan peoples. There are various sources of contamination: the discharge of wastewater, chemicals and fertilizers used in agricultural activities, solid waste (garbage), excessive tourist demand, and erosion and deforestation in the area. To this is added the institutional inability to protect and care for the lake in a coordinated and comprehensive manner.

At least since 2009, groups of women who wash on the shores of Lake Atitlán in the jurisdiction of San Pedro La Laguna, alerted municipal and public health authorities to the presence of green stains floating in the water. It was identified that this was generated by garbage waste, especially single-use plastics. This directly affects their health; 70% of the water is already contaminated with microplastic particles, which they refer to as "silent and established violence" in the lake.

Four years ago, the Guatemalan government presented the "Mega - Collector of Waters" project as the solution to the problems facing the lake. It was at that moment that the actions of the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective began.

According to members of the collective, this project "is not an inclusive and effective response but is the product of political decisions oriented by market ideology for the benefit of a few powerful national and international economic groups," said Nancy Gonzáles, coordinator of the collective.

With the support of people from universities, members of the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective identified that if the project were to be carried out (which was not previously consulted with the indigenous population that inhabits the territory) it would address only 14% of the pollution that is currently generated and only address pollution related to wastewater.

Through their organizing and resistance processes, the women of the collective held a community assembly and informational days to inform the rest of the population about the risks of the project, the importance of defending the lake and the right to prior, free and informed consultation, which is guaranteed by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). They also started a legal process before the Constitutional Court to stop the project.

The women who make up the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective maintain an active opposition to this project because they know the contamination is real. They remember that 25 years ago the lake was crystal clear with beaches full of sand. One member noted, “There was life in abundance inside the lake. In recent years, the capitalist system and consumerism led to enormous deterioration of the lake. They removed a large amount of sand, and the beach became swampy.”

Along with their legal process to stop the megaproject, the collective carries out other actions to reduce pollution levels. Regarding wastewater, they propose that biodigesters that can treat the waste be installed in homes and then be taken to a location where waste will be communally disposed. They have started transitioning from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers in local agriculture. They are also committed to recovering the beaches and declaring them for community use, given that the beaches serve as a natural filter.

By organizing cleaning days on the beaches and the lake, where they classify solid waste, Municipal Agreement No. 111 - 2016 was approved, which prohibits straws, styrofoam and single-use plastics.

Those who make up the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective are also clear that both the government and companies must assume their responsibility in the generation of pollution and garbage. In November 2022, after carrying out a cleaning day on the lake, they held a peaceful protest in which they "returned" the garbage to the companies that generate it, making an international call and leaving a clear message to the plastic industry that operates in Guatemala.

During that demonstration they threw the garbage they had collected in front of the facilities of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF, according to their Spanish acronym). "Companies must assume their commitment to the final disposal of their waste, because they are turning us into garbage dumps, we are sacrificing land to become garbage dumps”, said one member.

As UAF-LAC we have been able to follow the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective’s resistance processes. Talking with them has allowed us to understand that their defense of water is a defense of life itself. The women call the lake Qatee´Ya´ which means “our grandmother lake”. “She is our ancestor and giver of life. She provides us with food, sustenance, and even calm. When we feel bad or are in pain, we go to the lake, that is why what is happening to our mother hurts us. It hurts to see companies pollute the lake.”

The women of the Tz'unun Ya' Community Collective join the campaign #WeWomenAreWater because of their commitment to real, comprehensive and inclusive solutions, and their international calls for governments and companies to assume responsibility for water pollution problems that affect us more and more everyday.

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