Living on the Edge
Guatemala is a country of incredible beauty and intensely troubled history. At Lago Atitlan, famously proclaimed by Aldous Huxley to be “the most beautiful place of earth,” the watery edge of the volcanic crater is a place that exemplifies this dichotomy. In many of the Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil Maya villages surrounding the lake, the land closest to the lake, which is the most accessible and fertile, has been sold to the wealthy, often foreigners. While you can still stumble through a cornfield as you traverse the lake edge, most families must work scarce land higher up the surrounding mountains. Lack of land, and the resultant lack of access to nutrient rich foods, is compounded by the position of the villages, some accessible only by water. Malnutrition continues to be a critical issue here. While children are not starving, many continue to teeter on the edge of health, with micronutrient deficiencies linked to stunted growth and brain development. It is not hard to see why people have been attracted to the Lake’s edge, to settle and to visit. It is harder, perhaps to see how to maintain and improve life here for all who arrive and for those who call this place home.
Small pieces of land at the edge of the lake are still for farming- corn is grown, along with beans and other vegetables and animals are sometimes kept. Families who keep chickens have been shown to have a strong increase in the quality of their nutrition.
To address issues of malnutrition in the villages at the lake’s edge and beyond, non-profit agencies have set up snack programs for schoolchildren. While these programs feed many children, they often don’t take into account the root causes of nutrition problems and it is unknown what their longterm effects might be.
A line forms as mothers wait for their monthly food supplement at the municipal building. In a place where access to nutritious food is unsteady, the multi-national soda corporations seem ubiquitous, clearly able to get their products to consumers without too much difficulty.
Lanchas, or water taxis, move with frequency between the different villages. Working on or with the lanchas can be a source of income for boys and young men- income that is sometimes spent on foods less nutritious than might be consumed at home.
Traveling on a lancha, or boat taxi, can be expensive and many local families cannot afford daily trips to neighboring villages for supplies. Dressing in expensive huipiles, the beautifully and uniquely decorated blouses, can signify both the special nature of the trip and the pride in the beauty of this Maya craft, and in Maya heritage.
While plastic bottles and wrappers make it to the villages, they rarely make it out. What to do with the build up of non-biodegradable litter is a constant question here. There are innovations for using plastics- creating art, purses, even walls for new houses- but there is a seemingly endless supply.
From one of the highest houses in the village of Santa Cruz, the view of the lake is breathtaking. There is an irony, perhaps, that the poorest members of the community live the highest up the mountain, furthest from all resources- but with the best view.
While many children lead happy, healthy lives in the villages at the edge of the lake, many still lack access to sources of vital micronutrients for healthy growth and development.
Small boats can be a vital means of access to many of life’s necessities. While fishing is no longer a great source of nutrition or income on the lake’s edge, we did find that the small fish remaining, although not culturally valued, did provide a good source of protein to many families.
Kristina Baines is our resident cool anthropologist. She’s been formally trained in applied, sociocultural, ecological and medical anthropology at Florida Atlantic University (BA, MA), the University of Oxford (MSc) and the University of South Florida (PhD). She has a strong interest in corn, how what we do in our environment makes us well, and using innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience. You can find out more about how these interests translate into projects and pursuits by perusing the rest of our site, or you can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org