Guatemala's Mayan Towns Declare War on ... Plastic

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Mayan communities are rising up, banning plastic and challenging big industry in this Central American country.

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On the streets of San Miguel Petapa, a working-class town 10 miles south of Guatemala City, the taste of tostadas with guacamole, tamales and fried chicken sours when it rains. For years, everything in this city — from snacks on the street and food at the market to groceries at the retail store — has come packaged in plastic bags or served on foam plates with plastic silverware. Most of this plastic ends up in sewers and is flushed out onto the streets when it rains. Until now.

In June, Luis Reyes, the mayor of this municipality, banned all single-use plastics here. Starting in August, at the end of a two-month information campaign, any store or street vendor caught packaging or selling his merchandise in plastic or foam needs to shell out between U.S. $150 and U.S. $650, a hefty fine for a country with a per capita income of $11 a day. But Reyes is no lonely anti-plastic activist in a country that is already bearing the brunt of climate change — Guatemala is among the 10 nations most affected by extreme weather.

Town after town across this Central American nation is banning or mulling regulations on plastics amid growing evidence that nonbiodegradable waste is choking and killing the country’s lakes and rivers. It started with San Pedro la Laguna, a tiny town on the shores of Lake Atitlán, which many Guatemalans think of as the most beautiful lake in the world. Surrounded by three volcanoes and 14 Mayan towns, Atitlán was threatened by garbage and ill-treated sewage flowing into its waters. But San Pedro la Laguna’s ban, in October 2016, turned out to be a spark that has lit a nationwide movement. In less than two years, at least 10 municipalities have similarly banned plastic — Cantel, Acatenango and San Miguel Petapa are among the prominent ones. At least six others, such as Antigua, the colonial city that is this country’s biggest tourist attraction, are also debating regulations or bans. Contrast that with the world’s largest economy, the U.S., where Seattle became the first city to ban plastic straws and utensils only this July.

[This] is not a fashion phenomenon; [this] is survival instinct.

Marcela Gereda, environmental activist

The movement in this Central American nation isn’t part of some global campaign driven by international nonprofits, celebrities or documentaries — such as in the U.K., where it took a David Attenborough film to channel public anger against plastics. Guatemala’s battle is being led by traditional Mayan communities desperate to preserve their national habitat. The plastic industry is fighting back with lawsuits and counterarguments, but pulling punches, activists say, is no longer an option.

“[This] is not a fashion phenomenon; [this] is survival instinct,” says Marcela Gereda, an environmental activist pushing for a ban on plastics in Antigua.

At San Miguel Petapa’s town hall, Aleyra de Jesus García, the head of the environment office, has startling statistics at his fingertips. According to García, each household uses up to 20 plastic bags a day. Pushed by winds to sewers and washed out by the rains, much of this plastic ends up in the once-scenic Lake Amatitlán, now so polluted that no one dares to swim in its greenish waters.

That crisis isn’t unique to San Miguel Petapa, yet the country’s federal government is viewed as not doing enough to either regulate single-use plastics or to improve Guatemala’s capacity to manage its garbage. Speaking to reporters in March, the country’s environment minister, Alfonzo Alonso, said he wanted to resolve the crisis through a dialogue with entrepreneurs, and appeared reconciled to a future with plastics. “We cannot solve a 50-year-old problem in a single year,” he said.

Local governments and communities are stepping in to fill that void. Yes, they’re learning from the experiences of other countries, and from San Pedro. But there’s also a deeper calling driving this Mayan-led movement: San Pedro’s people, the city’s Mayan mayor Mauricio Méndez says, want to restore a link with Mother Earth.

And they’re showing signs of success. In San Pedro, tourist traffic is today three times what it was in October 2016 at the time of the ban, which, according to Méndez, has led to an 80 percent decrease in single-use plastics. That success and an understanding of the challenge that forced the ban mean most locals support the initiative, he says. “People understand that we have to protect our environment, and particularly the lake we all live on.”

Indeed, San Pedro’s streets look much cleaner than before the ban, and there’s also an economic benefit for vendors. Antonieta Velázquez, who runs a chicken retail store, for example, used to spend between $40 and $50 a month on plastic bags. Now, most customers bring their own bags or baskets. Some sellers wrap their merchandise with newspapers sheets or with dark-green maxan leaves, similar to banana leaves, just as it used to be before the expansion of plastics. Some customers bring a piece of cloth to wrap chicken in.

But not everyone’s happy. María Andrea (she wouldn’t share her last name) sells shaved ice seasoned with lemon and salt or with fruit syrups. She uses paper cups for the large portions but still uses foam cups for the small ones. Paper cups are twice as expensive as foam cups, and her budget is so tight that she cannot afford to fully switch to a biodegradable material. But she faces a $40 fine for using foam glasses. “I would like to stop using foam glasses, but I can’t,” she says. “If I increase the price of the shaved ice, kids will stop buying it.”

Mayor Méndez — who faces accusations of corruption over the unrelated construction of a sports complex — has tougher opponents than María Andrea. Soon after the ban, the Plastics Commission (Comisión Guatemalteca del Plástico), which consists of major plastic producers, petitioned Guatemala’s highest court for constitutional protection from the regulations. The commission argued that it is misuse of plastics, and not plastics themselves, that causes environmental damage.

The Constitutional Court sided with San Pedro’s municipality, but the commission is still exploring strategies to stop the spread of plastic bans across Guatemala. “Those bans have an economic impact. Thousands of jobs are at stake,” says Rolando Paíz, president of the Plastics Commission. Plastics constitute only 8 percent of Guatemala’s waste, and only a quarter of that comes from single-use plastics, he says. “If you think you’ve solved the problem by banning plastic bags, you’re wrong.”

Environmentalists and the city administrations agree than plastic bans aren’t enough. The ban is part of a larger environmental strategy that involves fighting illegal landfills and polluting businesses, says San Miguel Petapa’s García. The bans are also working as an educational strategy, says Gereda, the Antigua-based activist. The Plastics Commission told the court the ban in San Pedro curtails the freedom of its residents. But many of San Pedro’s residents have begun to segregate biodegradable garbage from nonbiodegradable waste — on their own — to facilitate recycling. The commission’s arguments aren’t working on them, but the desire to clean up Guatemala is.

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