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Cèsar Barrientos, Asociacion para la Recuperacion, Manejo y Sana Emiento Ambiental
Victor Hugo Fernandez
Degradation of natural resources and the environment on a global scale is primarily a result of unsustainable development models, the production and consumption patterns of the industrialized First World, and the population growth of the Third World. The processes of colonization and imperialism over the past 500 years have resulted in a state of affairs whereby the now-industrialized countries have accumulated wealth, essentially through the exploitation of cheap labor and practically free natural resources. One of many possible examples is the recent exploitation of bananas, cotton, and cattle for export in Central America. The consequences of environmental degradation and ecosystem disruption are nearly irreversible in some cases. Fifty percent of the Central American population will be living in poverty by the end of the present century.
In Guatemalaís case the consequences are very clear: changes in land use for the implementation of agro-export commodity schemes have destroyed entire regions of the humid tropical forest, resulting in climatic and environmental disturbances, and changing ownership rights and the quality of life of the population. One result has been large-scale migration towards urban areas and agriculturally marginal zones prone to severe soil erosion. Another result has been the state of war and general violence over the last 40 years.
Inadequate environmental management, including water resource management, is a result of economic, cultural, and technological factors. The efforts of national and international organizations to preserve the protected areas of PetÈn (the region where the case study site is located) have done little to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants to date. However, a development plan recently put into effect in PetÈn by the Secretary General of Development and Planning (SEGEPLAN), with support from the US Agency for International Development, offers hope of reversing the marginalization of agriculture by implementing a sustainable development process in the region.
Population growth in the region is more than five percent annually, principally due to migrations from the rest of the country. In purely numerical terms, there is a sufficient amount of rainfall to support the human population (more than 1,200 millimeters (mm) per year), yet the supply of rainwater is inadequate in terms of quality and quantity for reasons related to harvesting methods and economics. In the vast, highly porous karst region the bodies of water have suffered a series of geological accidents, limiting the desired level of availability of water. The agricultural soil limitations characteristic of the region can be attributed to these factors.
The paradox of PetÈn is that its agricultural soil and potable water are limited despite the fact that until now, the region has been sparsely populated with approximately nine people per square kilometer (km2). However, for the growing populations that are faced with land availability problems and extreme poverty in the rest of the country, PetÈn now represents an escape, a type of ìwestern frontier.î PetÈnís uncontrolled population growth today poses serious threats to the protected areas as well as to sustainable development in the region. The question arises whether to resolve the entire water and sanitation problem with costly conventional techniques or to use a community-based, participatory method based on incorporation and adaptation of ancestral technologies.
Guatemala is a land of contrasts. Its population is comprised of great ethnic diversity, with more than 21 indigenous groups, each one speaking its own language. The majority of the population (62 percent) is rural. The development theory that has prevailed in Guatemala holds that insufficient infrastructure has resulted in inequalities in the distribution of land and wealth (2.2 percent of land owners possess 65 percent of the useful land; ten percent of the population receives 44 percent of the total income). As a consequence, 77 percent of Guatemalan households currently live below the poverty line.
Guatemala occupies 108,889 km2. It is divided politically into 22 districts, and further into townships; these districts have been clustered into eight regions. There are three administrative levels: governmental, departmental, and municipal.
A great part of the national investment (public and private) is concentrated in the metropolitan region, and therefore is a good part of the services and administration. As a result of past politics, the regions of the PetÈn are not economically integrated with the rest of the country, and lack basic public services and other infrastructure. This lack of services compounds the already high poverty levels in the PetÈn population, especially among rural inhabitants.
Guatemala, as its name indicates in the Aztec language, is a land of forests. The country is also mountainous, with rainfall influenced by the Pacific as well as the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The average rainfall is 1,000 millimeters (mm) per year, mainly across the central part of the country. Here three watersheds converge: the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Honduras, and the Pacific coast. These sources produce important supplies of water, with the resourceís ownership organized according to well-established rights.
Soil fertility and water availability have long conditioned the location of human settlements, both before and after colonization. The primary group of current residents in the mountainous northwestern zone is of Maya-Tolteca origin, and numbers a little less than five million. This region has high levels of rainfall (up to 4,000 mm per year) and pronounced slopes that are susceptible to erosion, i.e., it is an area with great water potential, but also subject to irreversible damage from soil loss and the alteration of the water cycle. These negative effects have been a consequence of over-exploitation, in turn a result, in part, of overpopulation and the use of inadequate technologies.
The remaining population, another nearly five million persons of Hispanic origin, is settled in the rich plains of the central zone, particularly in the capital city, which has two million inhabitants. It is from the east of the republicóthe driest area in the countryóthat the majority of migrants come.
Finally, some 350,000 inhabitants, mainly migrants from the southeast of the country, are located in the PetÈn region, in the north of the country. These people represent barely three percent of the total population, yet this region occupies approximately one third of the countryís land. Thus there is quite a low population density in PetÈn, but annual growth is close to 5.5 percent. By way of comparison, historians estimate the population in PetÈn prior to the coming of the Europeans to have been more than a million at their time of maximum development, some one thousand years ago.
Situated in the extreme north of PetÈn, adjoining Mexico to the north and west, and Belize to the east, is the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. The Nakum-Yaxja-Naranjo (NYN) Triangle is located within the Reserve, at the southeast of Tikal National Park. The populated area of the Triangle, the focus of this study, is in the border agricultural zone.
According to SEGEPLAN, the population of Guatemala was roughly 10.6 million in 1995, with an annual growth rate of 2.8 percent. At this rate of growth the population doubles every 23 years, making the population density jump from 95 people per km2 to a projected 190 people per km2 by the year 2015.
In PetÈn the estimated population in 1995 was 310,000, with an annual growth rate of 5.2 percent, a very high rate by any standard, resulting mainly from migration. In the absence of preemptive measures, the population will double in 12 years, with enormous impacts on natural resources. The land in PetÈn cannot absorb this number of people, and as a result the quality of life will suffer.
As a result of the high growth rate sustained in recent years, the Guatemalan population is very young; 46 percent of the people are less than 15 years of age. Women represent 49.5 percent of the population, and nearly half of them are in their fertile years (15 to 49). The indigenous population was estimated at 4.9 million in 1995, or 48 percent of the total Guatemalan population. It is estimated that about 3.3 million of those people (32 percent of the total population) communicate primarily through the 21 indigenous languages that are still spoken in Guatemala.
Some districts of the country have particularly high levels of indigenous population. Alta Verapaz is 95 percent indigenous; Solola is 85 percent indigenous; and San Marcos is 80 percent indigenous. These districts are located in the aforementioned regions of limited infrastructure and rampant poverty. In PetÈn 26 percent of the population is indigenous, and the townships of Flores and Melchor de Mencos show 9.5 percent and 6.3 percent indigenous populations, respectively.
Because of gradual improvements in sanitary conditions and the development of key medicines, general mortality rates have declined in Guatemala, from 21.9 per thousand in 1950 to 7.6 per thousand inhabitants in 1995. However, the infant mortality rate remains unacceptably high (48.5 per million live births), among the highest rates in Latin America. PetÈn has a general mortality rate of 7.1 per thousand inhabitants, slightly less than the national average.
Advancements in the area of health have made a gradual growth in life expectancy possible, even though the level is still low (64.8 years) compared with other countries of Latin America. PetÈn has a life expectancy similar to the national average (64.7 years).
The current growth of the countryís population is fundamentally driven by the high fertility rates of Guatemalan women (5.1 children per woman). This rate, although high, still represents a 20 percent reduction from the fertility rates in the 1950s.
Credible figures were not available for PetÈn, but fertility is thought to be greater than the national average. When economic and sociocultural conditions are precarious, as they are in PetÈn, fertility rates generally tend to be high.
The NYN Triangle is located in the northeast of the PetÈn district, adjacent to Mexico and Belize, part of the southeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. From the archeological, anthropological, and natural points of view, the area is a true treasure to humanity, including the National Park of Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other archeological sites also exist in that zone.
Tikal, the great city of the classic Mayan period, was literally surrounded by cities of almost equal grandeur and importance, some rivaling Tikal itself. One example is el Mirador, built during the early Mayan period. At least a dozen ceremonial centers, now important archeological sites, can be found in the area at distances that fluctuate between 20 and 40 kilometers from Tikal. Others include Zotz and Tayasal, to the east of Tikal; to the north, Uaxactun, Xultun, Azul River and Kinal; Topoxte and the three sites of the Triangle, Nakum, Yaxja, and Naranjo, also to the east; and Xunantunich, by the border of Belize.
These cities, whose trade system obeyed established routes of passage, storage, and commodity control, were the controlling centers of civilization during the classic Mayan period. This civilization also included such sites as Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in the current center of Mexico. A perfectly structured system of river transport was used: the Mopan-Belize River connected the region with the Gulf of Honduras, bringing boatloads of commodities from the Guatemalan high plains. The transport route to the south was by way of the Motagua River, and by the Caribbean Sea for the rest of Central America. The Azul River to the northeast connected the area to sites such as El Pozito, Cuello, Nohmul, Aventura, and Santa Rita, to the north of Belize towards the Bay of Chetumal, Mexico. That is to say that all the commercial flow of the southeast of Mexico passed by Tikal, with the support of two other great cities, Copan in Honduras, and Palenque in Mexico.
Paradoxically, Tikal is not found on the edge of any important body of water (in order to avoid attacks by water), but at the end of a journey on foot, along paths maintained by workers. The Mopan River lies to the southeast, the San Pedro River to the southwest. Without a secure nearby river or lake water supply, the Mayan Indians of Tikal developed intricate technologies for the procurement of the precious liquid. A system of five artificial Mayan watering stations along the perimeter of the city provided sufficient quantities of water for all uses, and were likewise aesthetically pleasing as the Mayan engineers situated the mirrors of water to reflect the majestic monuments of the city. Thousands of chultunes, a type of subterranean artificial cistern, carved directly into the massive calcareous rock and waterproof stucco, recovered rain water through artificial watersheds like a large funnel.
With regard to the use of water for irrigation and aquaculture, evidence such as satellite photographs show large ìbrokenî areas with sloping terraces and elevated fields, indicating agricultural use dating to the eighth century. Irrigation technology was known by the Mayas in Kaminaljuhy 300 years before Christ, and in Belize almost a millennium before, and was used by the Aztecs at the time of the conquest. Concentrated areas of fertile soil, irrigated by capillary or mechanical means from neighboring canals, had the potential for two or three harvests per year.
The rescue of these ancestral technologies would constitute a base element for the management of water in the villages of today. The experiences in Mexico and Belize concerning the chinampas, or elevated fields, are potentially able to aid the groups in the NYN Triangle. Studies of this natural state are being evaluated by the Ministry of Mayan Agriculture, among other institutions. The project gives primary attention to the incorporation of ancestral technologies of Mayan origin through demonstrative activities that ensure local community participation. Ancestral technologies are being implemented and studied for possible updating by the present populations of the area.
The villages under consideration within the NYN Triangle are no more than 20 years old, and are populated principally by surenos, undeclared refugees from the south and east of the country. They are often landless villagers whose need to subsist pushes them to look for plots of ground, often under threats of persecution or physical harm stemming from the conflicts of recent decades. This contingent of displaced people adds 200 to 300 people daily to the population of the PetÈn. This population achieves small yields from rented municipal or common public lands, producing for local consumption and occasionally modest additional harvests for sale. A large proportion of the population lives off forest products such as chicle, xate, pepper, game, etc. In 1988 a strategy for sustainable development for the PetÈn Region was issued by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), at the request of the Guatemalan government. The Triangle was chosen as the place for a demonstration project, at the suggestion of various government institutions during the First Seminar of Integrated Heritage and Sustainable Development Management, also in 1988.
At the beginning of 1990, with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development, the IUCN engaged a Guatemalan engineer to study the area and familiarize himself with the local population. A plan for funding the program was later put forth by a group of Guatemalan and Latin American engineers. By December 1991 the participatory planning period and preliminary activities, which included information dissemination in order to gain the acceptance of the community, had been concluded. The water and sanitation component was not implemented until 1994 through the current plan.
The original project area was home to some 15,000 villagers, located alongside 150 kilometers of highway from Uaxactun to Melchor of Mencos, on the border with Belize. This area includes about 3,500 kilometers of tropical jungle, the archeological sites of Uaxactun, Nakum, Yaxja, Naranjo, and Holmul, more than 40 small towns, and two municipal commons. All are in the extreme southeast of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. In consultation with the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), studies were made and actions implemented, including components such as: the identification and characterization of core areas linked to the Tikal National Park; compilation of a forest inventory in support of a demonstration project for sustainable community management in Uaxactun; creation of agro-forestry plots for those who live in the common public lands of Flores and Melchor of Mencos; and development of tropical wood crafts and eco-tourism plans in the small villages of El Remate and Lake PetÈn-Itza, among others.
These activities were supported by communication initiatives, including a radio program and community theater projects that advanced the goals of nature conservation. All these activities served as a basis for subsequent water and sanitation projects, which were eventually developed in 12 of the principal small towns.
Two years of experimentation led to the acceptance of cistern latrine models, which ensured proper waste management and reduced contamination of water supplies. This first phase of the project was financed by the Embassy of Denmark. The project has strengthened the community organization, which is currently engaged in the second phase of the project, diffusing the technology. This second phase is financed mainly by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation (AECI). Through this program the community has implemented the latrinization (approximately 200 units) of two villages (Vinas and Paxcam), facilitated technology access, and enacted more conventional social projects for potable water construction as a priority in the area.
The Fund of Social Investment (FIS) is evaluating these projects and considering the latrinization of other small villages, where the plan has already worked in experimental form, with prototype production expected to reach 1,000 units in the near future. The Macanche latrine construction project (145 units) has already been formulated for presentation to the FIS. Immediately thereafter, projects for cistern production in the small towns of Zocotzal and Porvenir (with 80 units to start) will be integrated into the project. In addition, there is the possibility of making cisterns in various small villages located in the PetÈn Sayaxche municipality and elsewhere in the country. The acquisition, management, and distribution of water for human consumption are organized by the national Council of Rural and Urban Development through village-level structures. Such structures exist in the villages of Ixlu and ìEl Naranjo,î to the south of Tikal, over the Flores-Melchor de Mencos route. These communally organized structures have helped to resolve the problem of the lack of water in the farming lots. A system was made to derive water from a nearby fresh water source. Reasonable monthly contributions for each family were established to pay for the delivery of the water. Additionally, each family was made responsible for the installment of pipes for connection in the home.
The majority of the time, the people use water very rationally, as the resource can be very difficult to find. The greater the distance to a source and the more precarious the means of transportation, the more sparing is the use in quantity and quality. As already indicated, the villages are conveniently located with respect to available lakes and rivers; the land allows little economical extraction of subterranean water, although some wells do exist. Others make use of fresh water supplies, such as small artificial lakes, for washing clothes, domestic consumption, and occasionally as drinking water for domestic animals. The majority of the population collects modest quantities of rainwater, using zinc roofs and canals for collection and barrels for storage. Closed plastic receptacles are also used for storage of water for human consumption. Only a little water is boiled or filtered, as indicated by the high infant mortality from water-borne sicknesses. Attention is given to dividing the water into cistern trucks during the dry season, when fresh water supplies (rivers and small streams) disappear.
Unlike the old Mayan population of the area, the present inhabitants have not developed a dry-season substitute for the cultivation of unirrigated lands. However, the villagers use ancestral knowledge from the south, adapted for the region, to achieve satisfactory agricultural yields during the rainy season. The traditional crops of corn, beans, and rice are planted with the coming of the first rains. The yield is enough for subsistence.
In general the management and carrying of water is done by women and children. The men dedicate themselves to agricultural labor, hunting, and forest extraction. The washing of clothes is mainly done in improvised washers in the waves of the lakes and rivers, or in water supplies held for that purpose. Availability permitting, the women gather water for cooking, washing utensils, and drinking.
Poor sanitation and hygiene results in high rates of infant mortality, as previously noted, and high incidences of intestinal infections and respiratory illnesses that range from the common cold to tuberculosis. There is no need to examine statistics to demonstrate the severity of the situation. It is enough to count the proportion of coffins made for children, five for every one made for an adult, to understand the extent of the infant mortality rateóa gloomy way of regulating population growth.
There have been some isolated efforts on the part of the municipal and departmental authorities to remedy this situation, with the support of the institutions in charge of health and education. But their coverage and impacts are minimal. Programs for latrine extensions and hygienic education, if supported by greater resources, would be able to begin to resolve the sanitary problems. Previous donor-driven projects have suffered from a failure to adapt to sociocultural and environmental conditions, preventing the true appropriation of the technology by the villagers. For example, excavation of the regionís characteristic calcareous rock for the building of latrines is done easily enough, but the existence of fissures means that the end result is the contamination of nearby bodies of water. The weight of the iron latrines makes them extremely difficult to transport to sites inaccessible by motorized transport. Above all, the misunderstanding of the cyclical processes of infections and infestation among the villagers themselves causes the programs of latrinization to fail. This paper proposes below an experimental program using alternative technologies and relying on community participation, which can be easily developed following this project.
The management of water resources and environmental sanitation, even though a priority for the communities studied, can only occur in the context of meeting the needs of daily life: access to land, housing, the production, transportation, and commercialization of products, and so on. For those who live day-to-day at the subsistence level, as do most of the villagers of the area, it is very difficult, and possibly inappropriate, to compartmentalize a problem-solution binomial as a donor prescribes. Therefore the redemption of ancestral technologies for water and environmental sanitation management should not be seen as a step backwards. Indeed the vision should extend to the integration of agro-forestry and pastoral elements, and beyond, to include a whole system of integrated environmental management that combines the management of soil, forest, trash, hygiene, i.e., the entire human-nature relationship. The real goal is ecological, economic, and cultural community sustainability.
The Institute of Anthropology and History, CONAP, and a multi-organizational working group on the Integrated Management of Heritage and Sustainable Development of the NYN Triangle are working to develop integrated use of ancestral technologies in jobs of restoration and conservation of pre-Hispanic monuments. Water and sanitation management could well be another subject included as a vehicle for the enrichment of technological knowledge through the same communities.
The cultivation of non-irrigated flood plains would be one excellent area for a project. Study and experimentation should proceed simultaneously, and the project should incorporate conventional techniques, excavation, and filling of demonstration plots of land to understand the roles of elevated areas and adjacent canals. The project should also extend the experience of poly-harvesting (corn, beans, gourds, peppers, rice, etc.) for local use into the area of aquaculture.
These elements are in a way alien to local customs, yet are also familiar and desirable, as they represent the basic combination of production and agro-nutrition. Certain changes in attitude and alterations of accustomed practices would be necessary, introducing risks, in order to effect a transformation from a scattered, relatively inefficient exploitation of the water-soil resources to an intensive, highly productive method that does not leave as much to the natural elements alone. It would imply cultural changes in the community, perhaps requiring the participation of the entire family in the agricultural activity, rather than only men, among other things. There would be multiple uses of the water resourcesófor aquaculture, irrigation, domestic use, etc.ócombined with an intensive use of the soil for harvests according to a distinct regimen, with more than one crop per year.
One must at this point ask, ìWhat disposition is there among the villagers to change their customs? What experimental subjects would be most appropriate to attempt on a natural scale? What instruments will be used? What will be required of the engineers? How will deficiencies in knowledge and training be addressed?î The answers to these and other questions will be critical for determining the forms of the resumption of ancestral technologies. Note that the proposal does not dismiss the technological knowledge of the villagers, who are, after all, doing their best to harvest water and manage their resources. It is only that, comparatively, a great concentration of community work in the arable area is required in order to give the project form and make yields adequate for the physical area involved. The project might even make possible the abandonment of lands less apt to be recuperated and assign them to other, more appropriate uses, such as reforestation. Thus the project would permit a double technological resumption: that of the traditions alive today in the community and that of the lost ancestry of local ethnicity, going back a millennium or more.
This can only occur as a result of community involvement. Such a project, involving the cooperation of villagers, administrators, consultants, and multiple organizations would require some level of foreign subsidy, in both technical and financial terms. This support must be sufficient in level and duration to create lasting results; if the support is only a token amount, to the contrary, the entire experience would be truly finished with the end of the project.
The larger goals of the project must ultimately be sustained by the villagers of the area. It will be important to identify and support local leaders so that the objectives are internalized by the villagers. In sum, the goal is development centralized among the people, meaning:
In the Peten area, where access to water is difficult and requires special techniques, users and local authorities should share responsibilities and make appropriate changes in customs and practices, which may derive from other places. Adaptation should not wait until soil and vegetation failure is total and disease is rampant. The region should do what is necessary, including adoption of some principles of Mayan technology, adapted to current knowledge and needs.
Management of water is not isolated from integral environmental management, especially in dealing with a protected area of world interest. The participatory character that has been a focus of the project under study should be sustained by subsequent politics and practices. Support initiatives must be implemented at the local level, building on the acquired experience of this project. Initiatives like those of PAHO/WHO (Health and Environmental Plans in Sustainable Development and the UN Subregional Program on Environment and Health in the Central American Isthmus Healthy Environments Project) in Central America are perfectly consistent with these standards and should be supported.
ARMSA, the non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, posed the necessity of including water and environmental sanitation projects to fill the vacuum in the sustainable development strategy of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Initially, as a result of the constituency of the agencies that arrived to collaborate, the main concern was with conservation of the forests, with little attention paid to the populationís basic needs. Fortunately a working methodology for participatory planning was adopted, which engaged the community in identifying their problems. For the majority of the villagers the most urgent necessity is a potable water supply. Existing supplies were scarce and of poor quality, aggravated by contamination of the majority of water sources as a result of the custom of open air defecation.
A new system of water management was established, which needed the mobilization of the community for planning, implementation, operation, and maintenance. The principles of ìconcurrent actionî and ìshared responsibilityî were adopted, meaning that the community recognized the labor of different development agencies as welcome contributors. Each agency had its own vision, but all were coordinated in order to attain the common objective of improving the quality of life of the population, starting with water management. Quality control, with the installation of monitored chlorinators and laboratory analysis, was a first priority, along with an evaluation of the complex system of existing supplies.
For the immediate future, the results of the projects by IUCN (1990-94) and ARMSA (1994-96) in the agricultural border area of the NYN Triangle are very promising. These projects involved the sustainable use of the forest, to the north of the area, as well as the environmental management of the populated areas (water and sanitation included). Having experienced the modality of community participation in both projects, the population can easily respond to participatory processes in massive water and sanitation programs. This ability has been demonstrated in current projects on watershed and latrine construction in Flores, with support from AECI-ARMSA, reaching some 1,000 families in various villages. However, improving the understanding and use of water resources by reviving technologies of Mayan origin has not been attended to yet.
Physically, the area under study is quite fragile for sustaining a population accustomed to the traditional cultivation of corn, beans, and fruit. The migrant population should adapt the environmental means of the original population, by which new relations and new communities from distinct districts are created. In sum, the population should develop a new culture, for which technical and political support is needed.
A gender focus has been emphasized in the project with very good results, with a great number of women involved directly with water management. However, participation in the management of only one resource is insufficient; all resources should be incorporated into family and societal structures. Everyone should have a role in the use and management of resources.
None of the above will have great meaning if the focus of development remains encouraging habits of over-consumption by minority consumers. Developmentís current focus fuels tendencies of population growth by encouraging migration to marginal agricultural areas in order to satisfy the demands of the agro-export industry, in Guatemala and in many other countries.
In order to make substantial changes feasible, it is proposed (with acknowledgment to the collaboration of Dr. Carlos E. Pomes) that all countries form an international consensus on sustainable socio-economics that limits strategies, mechanisms, and practices that give incentive, induce, or oblige less developed countries to pursue avenues of economic growth that are harmful to the socio-biosphere, to the hydrological cycle, or to the formation of culturally and ecologically sustainable societies.
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