Mayan traditional ecological knowledge and wetland restoration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Jorge García Polo

State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), and Centro de Estudios Atitlán, Universidad del Valle de Guatemala

Co-Authors: Stewart Diemont

A biocultural ecological engineering framework that links traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) with science, management, and policy could be vital for Mesoamerica and elsewhere where indigenous and local groups have a history of environmental management. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, a formerly pristine volcanic lake with a long history of Mayan traditional use, is now heavily impacted by land management that results in cultural and environmental degradation. Littoral wetlands are important areas for fish spawning, waterfowl nesting, erosion control and nutrient cycling. Wetland loss has diminished livelihoods of local peoples of the Lake Atitlan region. Mayan TEK influences fishing, crab and snail collection, and harvesting of wetland plants Typha domingensis (cattail) and Schoenoplectus californicus (sedge). These plants, together called tul, are traditionally used to weave crafts, such as sleeping mats. Interviews with farmers, fishers and artisans were conducted in three Tzutujil-speaking communities: Santiago Atitlan, San Juan La Laguna and San Pablo La Laguna. Interview results were categorized into uses, environmental impacts, and restoration of wetland plants. Collaborative fieldwork included stressor rapid assessment, water quality measurements, sediment analysis, and macrophyte diversity. All results were analyzed in participatory workshops with TEK-holders, practitioners and scientists. Findings showed that water level is a major driver of plant decline and the principles of traditional wetland management were widely used. This research will inform a more holistic vision for Lake Atitlan restoration.

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6 thoughts on “Mayan traditional ecological knowledge and wetland restoration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

  1. Great work Jorge! Do you have a sense of where the phosphorous inputs to the lake are coming from? Also, would you please say a little more about possible restoration plans for the lake? Thank you!


    1. Thank you Dr. Jayakaran for your questions. I have been tracking the phosphorous inputs, found that one of the two main rivers (River Sn. Francisco) had a large P discharge in 2018. However, that watershed has agricultural non-point sources, and untreated wastewater discharge from domestic and tourism services. About possible restoration plans for the lake, in addition to littoral wetland restoration, constructed wetlands and riparian zone restoration are required. There is a high demand of firewood in the area and this relationship give a great opportunity to restore the relationship of people to riparian zones, and reduce the sediment erosion. However, sanitation is also relevant the improvement of wastewater treatment plants, integrating with constructed wetlands and fruit trees irrigation in parks could help to treat wastewater from both domestic and tourism services. This all could reduce nutrients to enter the lake.


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