Take a trip to Lake Amatitlan near Guatemala City & you’d be forgiven for thinking upon first sight that its almost radioactive green colour must be due to some sort of volcanic phenomenon. Upon closer inspection, however, the lake reveals itself to be a grotesquely polluted green sludge that washes up on the shores with oil, chemicals, rubbish, faeces and you-probably-don’t-want-to-know what else.
14 municipalities share the lake but, in a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, none of them assume the responsibility to look after it properly. Consequently, around 2.25 million pounds of rubbish are deposited into the lake each year, together with huge quantities of sediments and waste from nearby communities and factories. The lake loses about a meter of depth each year, now down to less than 18 meters deep from its original 33 depth of meters. It is estimated that within 25 years Lake Amatitlan will be no more than a swamp, in what is sure to be one of Guatemala’s worst environmental disasters in history.
Enter the Guatemalan government to save the day! Well, not quite. Last month it was announced that AMSA, the institution responsible for “caring” for the lake”, together with the ludicrous but always entertaining Vice-President Roxanna Baldetti, have decided to invest in a multi-million dollar project which will supposedly clean the lake within 10 months and that is so shady it could almost pass for something straight out of House of Cards, if it wasn’t for the sheer incompetence of it all.
The plan? Dump 93,000 litres of a mysterious “magic formula” fabricated by an even more mysterious company into the lake and basically wait and see what happens. The cost? Q137 million.
Apart from the utter ridiculousness of the idea, there are several other reasons that make this so-called “plan” (calling it that is a bit of an insult to the word) even more sketchy.
Firstly, it seems that no-one knows what is actually in this magical formula, including the very same government officials who thought it would be a good idea to spend so much money on it. When the Director of the mysterious company who produces it was questioned about the formula’s contents he invoked a Colonel Sanders-style defence, stating that couldn’t possibly reveal his company’s secret recipe. Then the Director of AMSA, Edvin Ramos, was quizzed about the formula. He first said he “couldn’t remember” what is was made of, but later confessed that it was 99.5% water with the rest being made up of ethanol, sulphur, hydrogen peroxide and a mixture of “organic compounds”. Alan Franco, the Guatemalan representative for the chemical company, went on to add that these organic compounds included lemon tea and pine needles.
Nonetheless, the product´s own label reads that it causes irritation to the eyes, that it is harmful if ingested and that, when handled, the user should wear full-body plastic overalls, goggles, a mask, rubber gloves and wellington boots. Sounds like just the thing you want to be dumping into a lake by the thousands of litres. Which is perhaps why journalists also discovered that its label, in addition to the previous warnings, also carries a notice telling users “not to dump residues into water.” When these journalists questioned Ramos about this, he replied that he wasn´t sure why the label said that but that “perhaps it is referring to the fact that we should´t throw the label into the lake.” We’re so glad he cleared that one up for us.
Next up is the dodgy Israeli company, M Tarcic Engineering Ltd, that has been paid all this money to provide and apply this magic formula. After some investigations it was found that the company has no website; no record to be found anywhere of its previous experience managing similar projects elsewhere (perhaps not too surprising since you’d have to be pretty special to approve a project like this); its physical address in Guatemala is registered to an automobile workshop where the only reference that journalists found of Tarcic was a sticker of the company’s logo that had been whacked onto the building (the automobile company didn’t know anything about Tarcic when questioned); and its registered telephone number is actually the number of a lawyer’s office with known links to Partido Patriota. It was later revealed that, in 2013, the Ministry of Health of Israel published an official warning to its population advising them not to use Tarcic’s products as they contain toxic substances that are hazardous to health.
Finally, there’s the absolute shambles that is the (complete lack of) proper due process. According to the Director of San Carlos University´s Biology Department, Rosalito Barrios, there was no environmental impact assessment; the product has no Sanitary Registration (supposedly required by law); it doesn´t have a Safety Data Sheet (also required by law); there is basic information lacking about the technical and scientific effects of the formula as well as a general lack of clarity over the objectives and strategy of the project as a whole. The Asociación Ecológica y Turística del Lago de Amatitlán (AETLA) went as far to say that the project´s strategy will be about as effective at cleaning the lake as aspirin would be at curing Ebola.
Added to this, scientists have claimed that, given the rather basic contents that make up the “magic formula”, there is simply no way that it should have cost as much as it did. As a result, the organisation Acción Ciudadana has just launched pre-trial proceedings against Roxana Baldetti over what they claim is blatant corruption and abuse of her authority and influence as Vice-President in her pressuring of AMSA to contract Tarcic for the project.
The project has turned into such a fiasco that the President himself was forced to step in and reassure the public that it is in fact a “serious process” and is not just a scheme for “stealing money,” a claim which sounds about as convincing as when you’re told by a pyramid seller that this really is a profitable investment and is definitely not just a Ponzi scheme.
Still, the ever chirpy Roxana Baldetti seems to be confident that the plan will work (although, granted, she doesn´t really have much choice in the matter given that the project is now underway and she was the one who oversaw the contract). She recently invited any naysayers to join her after her term has finished later this year to eat some mojarra frita straight out of Lake Amatitlan. We think we’ll give the offer a miss, but it will sure make for some entertaining TV.