Guatemala´s treasured lake Atitlan is dying (Tico Times)


Once described by Aldous Huxley as the Lake Como of Guatemala, Lake Atitlán is a justified staple on the Central American tourist trail. However, over the past few years, agrochemicals, raw sewage, litter and shore development have taken their toll, turning the fresh blue water a murky shade of brown, and turning tourists away.

This week a joint initiative by the Italian and Guatemalan governments called “Yo soy Atitlán” aims to raise the profile of Lake Atitlán’s problems and work with environmental organizations, experts and the surrounding communities to combat the contamination that threatens to destroy one of the world’s most picturesque places.

What was considered to be a local problem has drawn international concern as a team of Italian experts arrived in Guatemala earlier this week, keen to share their knowledge of how their own country rescued its lakes in the 1980s.

The Italian Embassy in Guatemala said that in “Italy, too, we have lived through contamination.”

According to a study by Del Valle University in Guatemala, over the past 45 years the pollution of Lake Atitlán, located 120 kilometers west of the capital, has contributed to a reduction in the transparency of the water, from 11 meters to 5.5 meters, and a decrease in the concentration of oxygen in the water from 7mg/liter to 0.3.

Margaret Dix, a biology professor at Del Valle University, said that pollution of the lake has led to a reduction in tourism, jobs, fish and food, and an increase in poverty and illnesses for the surrounding communities, for whom the lake represents a primary source of water.

“Every year one million cubic meters of untreated raw sewage enters the lake; 109,500 metric tons of litter – 3 pounds of solid waste per person, per day – and 110,000 metric tons of soil is lost due to erosion,” Dix said.

“To improve the ecological conditions of the lake, territorial planning is needed with an integrated management of solid and liquid waste to prevent the entry of raw sewage and to reduce the accumulation of phosphorous and nitrogen.

“Experiences in other parts of the world show that generally for lakes similar to Atitlán, traditional treatment plants are inadequate and have a prohibitively high operational cost. The solution is to export raw sewage to another basin where it can be treated to eliminate pathogens and the water can be used in agriculture. Many experts consider this to be the best option,” Dix said.

Various activities have been organized as part of the two-week campaign launch, such as an Italian rock concert in Guatemala City, which was opened by a Mayan cultural group and attended by approximately 1,000 people. Proceeds were donated to the Yo soy Atitlán program.

A forum for experts – from environmental ministers to conservationists – also was held to discuss possible solutions to eliminate the contamination, and a project called “Lancha Azul” will kick off next week to encourage dialogue among the surrounding lake communities and to teach them about solid-waste management.

Yo soy Atitlán hopes to encourage as many people as possible from the government and nongovernmental organizations, as well as environmental experts, communities around the lake and academic institutions to get involved and debate the challenges and goals for Lake Atitlán over the coming years.

The Guatemalan government already has agreed to allocate more funds to increase garbage collections in the area, purify water and improve waste management systems.

“The future is in our hands. There’s still time to stop the degradation process of Lake Atitlán,” said Dix.

Guatemala builds country´s first self-sufficient house (Latina Lista)


“I was searching on the internet for alternative houses – aside from block, cement and metal,” says Amilcar Cachoy. “I´ve always wanted an ecological house like this […] but I didn´t have the opportunity because the materials and resources were out of my reach. Sometimes things seem impossible but I think that what one dreams, when it´s the right time, it comes together.”

Earlier this month Amilcar Cachoy, an elementary school teacher from the small municipality of Santa Lucía Utatlán in Sololá became the owner of Guatemala´s first self-sufficient house and celebrated with an inauguration ceremony that was attended by more than 200 people.

The two-bedroom house, which is built with a bamboo frame and concrete foundation, is lined with solar panels, built to withstand earthquakes and features seven kinds of technology providing clean water, clean energy and sanitation.

Rainwater is collected, stored and filtered for use as drinking water, and water from the showers and sinks is redirected into a wetland to grow plants. Since excessive smoke inhalation is one of the leading causes of death in Guatemala, the house contains an efficient stove that burns less wood and takes smoke outside through a chimney.

The two-bedroom residence was designed by Manuel Antonio Aguilar, a Guatemalan social entrepreneur who studied Astrophysics at Harvard University before deciding to return to his home country and dedicate himself to solving social problems. In 2010 he co-founded Quetsol, a solar energy company focused on rural electrification and is now the president of CASSA, an environmental construction company that built Amilcar´s house

“The relationship [between] CASSA and Amilcar was a match made in heaven,” says Manuel. “I presented the project at numerous meetings of local leaders in the region and Amilcar himself approached me after one of the events. We are grateful that our first customer is as visionary as Amílcar, who recognized the value of a self-sufficient house and decided to invest his savings in this solution.

“We believe Amílcar will be an excellent example for the region and the rest of the country, since he will serve as a spokesman for self-sufficient social housing and living proof of the effectiveness of these solutions.”

Guatemala´s housing deficit currently stands at 1.7 million and while this model, which costs approximately Q100,000 (US$12,500), is not an affordable option for the entire country, according to the Guatemalan Construction Chamber, it is comparable in price to a house of the same size (50-square meters) made from concrete block and metal sheets.

“An appropriate social house provides its users with vital protection from the elements, physical and mental security and an adequate platform from which to develop. Gaining access to basic services such as water, energy and sanitation is something truly transformational that augments the quality and quantity of life, as well as development opportunities,” says Manuel.

Rolling Jubilee (Positive News)

A group of former Occupy Wall Street activists has abolished nearly $15 million of medical debt as part of a debt cancellation initiative to liberate debtors at random.

Thousands of Americans are free from debt thanks to a grassroots project called Rolling Jubilee.

It has raised $700,000 (£422,000) by crowdsourcing money to buy consumer debt on the secondary debt market for a fraction of its original value. It then spent $300,000 (£181,000) wiping out almost $15m (£9m).

So far, 3,801 people have benefited in 46 states and Puerto Rico, according to organisers.

“It was a godsend. I didn’t know these people,” 80-year-old Kentucky resident Shirley Logsdon told Agence France-Presse, after her medical bill was paid off.

According to Rolling Jubilee, 62% of bankruptcies are caused by medical illness.

The campaign is a project of Strike Debt – a group of former Occupy Wall Street activists in the US, who campaign for economic justice and democratic freedom.

Rolling Jubilee Fund vice president Thomas Gokey said: “We have no moral obligation to pay a debt to an investor who purchased our debt on average at 4% and then claims we owe 100%.”

However, critics say the campaign fuels the secondary debt market and fails to expose other reasons for consumer debt.

But Rolling Jubilee exceeded expectations. The original goal was to raise $50,000 (£30,000) and abolish $1m (£600,000). It now plans to eradicate other types of debt, such as student loans.

Guatemala’s 6.8 Palopó makes Buzzfeed’s global list for restaurants with incredible views (Tico Times)

Forget the list of restaurants with the most Michelin stars, the best chef or the one that boasts the best wine. The list to be featured this year has restaurants with the best views, at least according to Buzzfeed.

The social news website that turns cats and puppies into Internet sensations has come up with a list of 32 restaurants with the most spectacular views in the world. And Guatemala’s 6.8 Palopó made the cut.

Perched above Lake Atitlán, 147 kilometers west of the capital, and with a view of Tolimán, Atitlán and the San Pedro Volcano, 6.8 Palopó is part of Casa Palopó, a five-star luxury boutique hotel. It is one of only two restaurants to appear on Buzzfeed’s “South America” list. (When are Gringos going to learn that we don’t live in South America, we live inCentral America?) The other is Peru’s Sanctuary Lodge, which overlooks Machu Picchu.


I feel very proud to share a little piece of our beautiful country with the world, and hope many have the opportunity to come see it with their own eyes, because the energy you feel in person is another story,” says Claudia Bosch, who originally checked into the hotel as a guest and left as its new owner.

While there is no doubt that 6.8 Palopó deserves its place at No. 7, it’s perhaps a less adventurous choice than some of the other restaurants highlighted by Buzzfeed.

The Rock Restaurant in Zanzibar is quite literally just that: a restaurant on a rock in the Indian Ocean, where you have to earn those precious views by first swimming out to the secluded eatery before placing your order. Equally as entertaining is Thailand’s Soneva Kiri restaurant in Koh Kood, where customers are hoisted up in bamboo dining pods to admire the ancient rain forest while waiters deliver food to them on a zip-line.

Check out Buzzfeed’s full list of restaurants here.

The Emaciated Children Who Successfully Sued Guatemala (VICE)

Six-year-old Bryan couldn’t tell you who the president of Guatemala is, but three years ago he took his government to court and won.

Alongside four other emaciated children, Bryan was part of a lawsuit that Nuevo Día, a local NGO, launched against the Guatemalan state in 2011 for failing to protect its kids against malnutrition. The judge found the government guilty in a landmark ruling in Latin America, but that doesn’t mean the president’s party cares.

Bryan still lives in a straw hut, high up in the mountains of Eastern Guatemala, in a town called Camotán that is synonymous with famine. He gets tired easily, doesn’t speak much, and doctors say he has a growth disorder — possibly a result of a genetic condition, or from a lifetime of poor nutrition.

Guatemala is one of the most malnourished and unequal countries in the world. The richest commute to work by helicopter, while the poorest slave for less than a dollar a day. According to theWorld Food Programme, the chronic undernutrition rate for children under five is 49.8 percent, the highest in the region and the fourth highest globally. Around 90 percent of Camotán’s population lives in poverty, with over 38 percent in extreme poverty, so ingesting sufficient calories is the main concern.

During the trial, four-year-old Mayra received a hip operation, enabling her to walk properly for the first time in her life, and medication to combat the diarrhea that a doctor had previously predicted would kill her. But these are one-off measures, which may have only bought her a little more time.

With the aim of producing long-term change, the judge ordered various ministries to create food and employment programs to stop Mayra and Bryan’s conditions from continuing as the norm. Both the families and the surrounding communities were ecstatic. Nothing much has happened, however. The only major change is that each of the children now receives an extra bag of rice or packet of beans.

Jorge Castillo is the project coordinator of Nuevo Día, the NGO that took the government to court. Here’s what he has to say about the case.

VICE News: How did the trial come about?
Jorge Castillo: The idea to sue the government came from a nourishment campaign. In 2010 there was a food shortage. We lost crops and famine struck, so the whole world turned to help. Nuevo Día said: Yes there’s hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, but we’re not looking for pity. They’re human beings and they have a right to food, health, and education.

What was the main objective of the trial?
To tell the state to modify its policies — this is the only way to stop poverty and malnutrition. The state has to see and recognize that we’re a country where our rights are constantly being violated.

When did the trial begin and how long did it last?
Around 18 months. The lawsuits were presented on November 17, 2011.

What type of publicity did it generate?
The counselor had the view that we shouldn’t make it very public. Firstly, because we were talking about children. Secondly, the state has a lot of legal influence and could have influenced the judge.

What conditions did the kids have?
Very serious conditions, very serious malnutrition. If we hadn’t intervened, Mayra could have died of malnourishment. Even Leonel, who’s 13, now he’s a teenager, he [still] has stunted growth, [problems with his] hair and skin, and [other] physical conditions. Mayra had a lot of diarrhea, as did Dina and Mabelita.

What were your concerns during and after the trials?
That the judge [wouldn’t] be impartial. That he would state there weren’t any violations. That the state would take the kids away and institutionalize them — that was one of our strongest fears.

What did you do to prevent the children’s institutionalization?
In one of the hearings the state representative said: “The solution is simple: we can institutionalize all the kids.” Then our lawyers said: “That’s fine, let’s institutionalize all the kids from Tisipe and all the kids from Lelá Chancó because they all live under the same conditions.”

What was the result of the trial?
We saw the sentences as very positive. That the judge stated that there were violations is of course a result, but the bigger result is [what] this process [taught] the officials. The goal right now is that these lessons reach more Guatemalans.

What does the government have to do?
Reformulate public policies. [The judge] mentioned 12 institutions and [ordered them to carry out] 28 actions.

What’s the government done?
The Ministry of Agriculture gives monthly food, the health center gives more visits, [and] sometimes evaluates the water quality. What they’ve done is intensify their programs [and] their visits, but without any results as they don’t have a coordinated work plan.

Have the children’s lives changed?
The families are being monitored more and the kids have learned to interact because of all the visits. The families and the mothers talk more about rights — they know what they’re doing.

Has the result of the trials had any impact on the community?
There hasn’t been a positive impact. Sadly there’s been a negative impact because of the state’s non-compliance.

Do you expect the government to comply?
We are betting on the verdicts being complied with. Our goal is that the families change their lifestyle substantially but gradually.

Has there been a change of power in Camotán since the trial?
The four families have learnt to empower themselves. We hope the community learns from them and also claim their rights.

Have the changes been institutionalized?
Rights are still being violated, but worse as now they’re violating the sentence.

Will you take more cases to court?
Not at this time. We want the verdicts to be complied with and a new protocol established.

New tax relief for social enterprises (Positive News)

The UK government is hoping to encourage investment into businesses that are working for social benefit, through the creation of a new form of tax relief.

From April, equity and certain debt investments into social enterprises will qualify for a 30% tax credit.

Unlike businesses and charities, social enterprises, such as The Big Issue or Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen, have never had their own tax relief scheme. This initiative is the first of its kind in Europe.

“Access to finance has always been the biggest barrier for social enterprises to both start up and grow, and the social investment tax relief has the potential to inject much-needed capital into these organisations,” says Nick Temple from industry body Social Enterprise UK.

Characterised by their combination of philanthropy and profit, social enterprises are on the rise. Government data estimates there are approximately 70,000 of them in the UK, employing almost one million people.

Change is happening for the women of Sololá (Tico Times)

Today is International Women’s Day, which has been observed since the early 1900s. 


Indigenous women in Guatemala occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. A lack of education combined with a traditionally machismo culture has produced generations of often illiterate Mayan women who are unaware of their rights and unable to break the cycle of poverty in which they exist.

In general, Mayan culture prepares women for their future role in the household from early on: Girls typically attend primary school for only two years, have families at a young age and are isolated from local politics. The United Nations estimates that nearly 45 percent of indigenous Guatemalan women have suffered some form of violence in their lifetimes.

In the indigenous community of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, in the western highlands of Guatemala, extreme poverty is widespread. Historically, men used the land here to grow maize and beans, while women were confined to weaving huipiles inside their homes until the sun went down and darkness prevented them from continuing.In 2006, a local nongovernmental organization called ADAM started working with women in the area to diversify the community’s output. Last year, they produced nearly 280,000 units of broccoli and 50,000 units of cauliflower, and exported more than 77,000 bundles of spring onions and 11,200 units of carrots for sale by supermarket chain Wal-Mart in the United States.

ADAM gives out seeds and holds workshops on the most efficient methods of cultivation, but any agricultural organization in the area that wants to benefit from the project needs to be working with women.

Through combining agricultural development programs with women-empowerment workshops, ADAM has transformed the lives of many in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.

“[Before] we only worked around the house; that was the woman’s role. But with these trainings we have been awakened to the reality and are getting to know our rights,” says Isabel Carillo, who used to make weavings before she started cultivating peas four years ago.

“In community meetings a woman wasn’t allowed to give her opinion; they thought it wasn’t useful or it had no value. … But through these training sessions we know about our rights, the communities, know more about women’s participation, and we go to the meetings and have more spaces to give our opinions,” she adds.

“It has helped me a lot on a personal level. I was married, but my marriage wasn’t stable. Before I couldn’t leave the house because my husband was very strict. But now that I am separated, I feel liberated and I can go to the trainings, I can give my opinions without having to worry about getting scolded if I leave. I believe it has helped me a lot to know my rights,” she says.

During the fortnightly training sessions, 81 women have learned about gender equality, domestic violence, health and access to land, and they are encouraged to share it with family members and friends. Increased participation in the communities has not only empowered women, but also has increased their capital.

Manuela Guachiac, 52, works for an organization called ADIAP, which sells peas, carrots and broccoli.

“I’m part of the board of directors, but you would never have seen women in these positions before,” she says. “We grow carrots, and that is helping us a lot in our economy, and all of what we learn we will pass on to our children. They will learn and will keep these spaces, not like before when everything was closed off and only for men. Now I can teach my kids about this change and continue it generation to generation.”

There is also a financial benefit. Before, Guachiac says, men would sell firewood and travel to Totonicapán and Salcajá. There wasn’t much revenue.

“Now, with the training that we’ve received in cultivation, we have a more favorable income. I have my vegetable patch, my husband has a patch and even my kids have their patches,” she says.

By helping to expand the organizations with which it works, ADAM has implemented further projects such as vermicomposting, a seed bank and a greenhouse, which have enabled the community to become more productive and generate more income.

ADAM is funded by the international NGO ActionAid. Guatemala Country Director Laura Hurtado says: “We support these programs because we believe that the first step our society should take is the empowerment of women and youth. More than improving their living conditions, these projects motivate them to know, demand and fight for their rights.”

Learn more about International Women’s Day by clicking here. Learn more about ADAM here.

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