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Permaculture in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, and Tourism

Posted on August, 17 2011

Lake Atitlan, as pictured above, is simply one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Situated in an ancient volcanic crater, several newer volcanoes surround the lake, and the dramatic scenery creates a magic that is felt in the air, in the water and in the heart. The lake, in the highlands of Guatemala, is historical and present day home of several groups of Mayans, who had lived sustainably in the area for thousands of years. However, Spanish colonization and appropriation of land has broken their sustainable indigenous culture, and brought disaster for the local people and local ecosystem.

The story of Lake Atitlan is a typical story of the incredibly misguided abuse and degradation of natural resources brought by the arrival of ‘civilization.’ With the rise of industrial affluence in Guatemala City, and the rise of Guatemala as a tourist destination, the fertile land around the lake was parceled up and sold to investors and rich vacationers, leaving local populations scraps of their original territory.

In recent years, the government has heavily subsidized chemical fertilizers, as much as 80 percent according to several sources, leading to extremely heavy use of fertilizers in the area. A large percentage of these products washes down into the lake, prompting almost constant algae blooms never seen before. At the same time, garbage and sewer drainage into the lake has polluted the water, bringing grime and disease into a previously crystalline and drinkable water source. Tourists and chalet dwellers can afford to filter the water, but the local Mayans are largely left to drink the polluted water.

In this context, the Meso-American Institute of Permaculture (IMAP) was founded in 2000 by an alliance of local Guatemalans and foreigners, to bring sustainable solutions to the local area and the Meso-American region. IMAP is an eco-center and educational institute located just outside of San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. The center’s unique expression of Permaculture is rooted in the local ecology and Mayan culture, and activities are planned taking into account the Mayan Cosmovision and calendar.

This circular meeting space features the 20 glyphs of the Mayan calendar.

Much of the center’s work takes place within the local communities. IMAP supports the local people in growing their own food, by sharing access to parcels of their land to people who otherwise would not have land to cultivate. Access is granted under two conditions: that production is organic, and that some of the seeds saved are donated back to IMAP’s seedbank. In this way, they ensure organic methods are being used, as well as maintaining the diversity and richness of their seed bank, which is distributed in local communities.

The project also helps respond to extreme situations in the area, including the construction of dry toilets and banana circles in refugee camps created by Tropical Storm Agatha in 2010. These projects have gained the trust of local communities, who are now organizing for IMAP to coordinate school garden projects in the districts schools.

The site itself is heavily planted with what IMAP calls Mayan Agro-Forestry systems, featuring a wide diversity of edible and medicinal plants. More common Permaculture techniques, such as banana circles and swales, are integrated into the forest gardens of local and foreign plants.


Local folklore tells that Maize, or corn, was a gift from the Gods to the Maya’s ancestors, and is revered as a sacred plant, as well as being the local subsistence crop. The Mayas associate the 4 colors of Maize with the 4 human races, and the four directions, as seen in the diagram below:



While Maize was a gift from the Gods, the Maya believe that Amaranth is the actual food of the Gods. Amaranth was another staple crop of the pre-Hispanic Maya, edible as grain, leaf, and flower. Spanish colonizers, seeing the importance of amaranth in the Mayan culture, burned all of the amaranth fields they found, almost wiping out the plant from cultivation. Even today, amaranth is hard to find, and not popularly grown. As a hardy and productive crop, amaranth can play an important role in increasing food security in poor communities, especially in Mexico and Central America, where it is indigenous. IMAP cultivates red and golden amaranth, as seen in the photos below.

IMAP’s programs support self-sufficiency and sustainable livelihoods in the local community. In the face of continued development and tourism, examples of alternatives are badly needed in the area, where non-tourism related livelihoods are hard to find.

IMAP has an on-site volunteer program, and contact information can be found here.

As witnesses to the dynamics of the tourism industry here, where the privilege of enjoying the remarkable peace and beauty of the place is dependent upon the continued practices of colonization of the local people, there remain ethical questions that we don’t have the answers to. What is our role in this context? How can we find balance in traveling without furthering the degradation of local social and environmental problems? Indeed, in helping to reverse such problems?

For anyone interested in knowing more, or in visiting Lake Atitlan, we hope these reflections help to instigate the reconciliation of these moral dilemmas, knowing that there are local organizations like IMAP that are working for justice and sustainability in the area. It’s possible to participate, get involved and support local initiative to build healthy communities from the ground up. Even as a visitor, you can be a part of the sustainable development in the region and help to maintain the natural splendor of the area.

Peace, Ryan y Leti


  • Letícia, dia Posted on May, 19 2013

    Muchas gracias por la información del sitio de web! lo vamos actualizar!! Saludos de bolivia!

  • Myriam, dia Posted on May, 18 2013

    The Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute IMAP has a new website! Check it out www-imapermacultura-wordpress-com

  • Leticia and Ryan, dia Posted on August, 24 2011

    Thanks Micki! We love you! Besos de El Salvador

  • Micki, dia Posted on August, 18 2011

    What a beautiful story, countering the sadness of the pollution and loss of indigenous land rights with the hopeful example of all IMAP is doing. It seems you got a profound understanding of the situation there in a relatively short time. And your photos, here and on FaceBook, are astonishingly beautiful! Keep up the good work!

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