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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Environmental Devastation:
Who's to Blame and How Can We Stop It?
Beautiful Santiago de Atitlan
The Guatemalan landscape is divided between high mountain plateaus with towering volcanoes and vast valleys of lush tropical forest. The country is a patchwork of farms and pueblos connected by winding dirt roads and larger highways, which inevitably lead to the many bustling cities like Huehuetenango and Flores. Guatemala faces serious environmental problems both in its crowded cities and in the rural countryside. Although it is in the cities where most of the commerce and industry takes place, the richness of the countryside makes it a prime target for environmental exploitation.

Cities like Xela and Guatemala City are centers of modern-day Guatemalan civilization. Their streets are crowded with cars, buses, and trucks that choke the air with thick black fumes. Guatemala is a developing country, and its supply of relatively cheap labor has made it a very appealing place for foreign (mostly European and American) industry to set up shop. As a result, thousands of factories pump fumes into the air while polluting the water with their by-products and waste. Human waste is no small problem either. Millions of tons of sewage are created daily, much of which ultimately ends up back in the rivers and lakes that cover the countryside. Garbage dumps overflow with trash and streets are clogged with litter. Or garbage is burned, releasing ash and toxins that further pollute the air.

Sunset over Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes
Although much less populated, the countryside faces many of the same problems. The most serious environmental problem threatening Guatemala right now is deforestation. The country has lost over sixty percent of its tropical rainforest to roads, ranches, and farms, and currently a major oil-drilling project threatens what was once protected land. Water and air pollution from the cities and pueblos are also ruining natural habitats. Tainted water from cities and factories flows into the rivers, killing fish and ruining the water for human use. Fumes from cars and smokestacks fill the air with metals and poison gases, creating acid rain that can destroy forests. The cities themselves are constantly growing, requiring the paving over of more natural habitats and putting more population pressure on resources.

Chemical Disaster:  Women washing clothes in Lake Atitlan
Right now I am living in a village on the shores of Lago Atitlan, a beautiful mountain lake which is in danger of being spoiled if radical measures are not taken to save it. Although this region was considered remote and had not even been introduced to plastic until fifteen years ago, the water here already contains dangerous levels of toxins and bacteria. Fishing, which has been replaced by tourism as the main industry, has become more and more scarce as fish are over-harvested or killed by garbage in the water. One reason is that much of the sewage seeps back into the lake before it can be treated. Another is that women here wash clothes right in the lake, dumping tons of soap and packaging into fragile lagoons.

One main cause of all these problems is that although Guatemala has the technology and resources to produce and consume, it is not wealthy enough to take care of the problems that arise from industrialization. For instance, the government can set emissions standards for automobiles, but it simply cannot afford to enforce them. Although the regulations placed on factories and industry are much looser than those in the U.S. and Canada, even the ones that exist are often ignored because of government corruption and lack of resources. Many of the towns surrounding Lago Atitilan seem very littered and dirty - but not because people here like being surrounded by garbage. They just cannot afford to haul it away and dump it.

Sadly, many American corporations such as Shell and United Fruit bear much of the responsibility for the environmental devastation that continues to ravage this country. While placing huge burdens of extraction on the land and its people, companies like these have done little to improve the quality of life or of the environment. Ultimately, the Guatemalan people--and the land itself--pay an incredible price so that these corporations can profit. If you are interested in taking action against this destruction, check out Kavitha's Making a Difference activity for today.


Abeja - Why Do People Know What They Know
Team - The Miseducation of Latin America
Kavitha - What's This Oil Doing in My Lake?!?
Kevin - Watch out World!
Kevin - Watch out World! (Kid's Version)
Shawn - A History of Terror in Santiago Atitlan
Make a Difference!
Monica - Greetings
Meet Shawn | Shawn's Archive
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