Issue of January, 19, 2004
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To the Rescue of the Tacaná Volcano Watershed
By Diego Cevallos

Work has begun to rescue the watershed of a million-year-old volcano on the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Some 700,000 people, many of them descendants of the Maya, stand to benefit.

MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- The Tacaná volcano, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, is the heart of a watershed system that is almost a million years old, but is assailed by deforestation, erosion and other impacts of poverty -- problems that an innovative project seeks to reverse.

The plan, set in motion at the end of last year under an initiative of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is an integral approach for recovering the Suchiate, Coatán, Cahocán and Cosalpa river basins, all associated with the Tacaná volcano.

In this area, covering 1,360-square-km, marginalized populations coexist with the overexploitation of resources, intensive deforestation and soil erosion.

The Tacaná stands more than 4,000 meters above sea level and is estimated to be around one million years old. It was one of the mountains most venerated by the Maya, who used the water from its rivers. Human activity in the past century has led to the need today for changes that will ensure the area's healthy future.

Overwhelmed by poverty, the communities of the watershed, with many residents being descendents of the Maya, engage in intense and unregulated use of natural resources. Also contributing to the degradation are the sugar and vegetable oil industries, which have invested a great amount of capital in the area.

Integral management of watershed systems is essential to ensure safe water supplies, but this approach is not common in Latin America, which is why the Tacaná project could serve as an example for the entire region, Enrique Lahmann, IUCN director for Mesoamerica, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

The project, "Integrated Management of the Tacaná Volcano Watersheds", seeks to build new ties among the governments of Mexico and Guatemala, the communities and border towns, and non-governmental organizations, to promote a common approach to watershed use, said Lahmann.

The goal is to improve the quality of life of the local communities, home to 700,000 people, and ensure sustainable water usage for generations to come.

Water is scarce for many in Latin America. In Central America alone, with 36 million inhabitants, 58 percent of the rural population does not have access to potable water, according to studies by the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Tacaná project has generated high expectations. So much so that Liliana Toledo, coordinator of international cooperation at the Guatemalan Ministry of Environment, describes it as "an initiative that aims to define the new path that humanity should follow to ensure sustainable development."

According to Toledo, the initiative will "demonstrate ecosystem management in watershed systems and give people the power to establish a participatory, equitable and responsible use of water and natural resources."

In most watershed management plans worldwide, development and conservation strategies tend to be focused on specific points along rivers and water sources, and do not necessarily involve a range of authorities and citizen organizations.

But in the case of the Tacaná, actions are to cover the entire route of the rivers, until they meet the sea, and to include all people who are linked to the ecosystems.

It is an ambitious plan that is just getting underway, and "although we don't aim for a complete change in the region's quality of life, we want to mobilize all who are interested and make them participants in the same goals and objectives," Rocío Córdoba, IUCN wetlands coordinator for Mesoamerica, told Tierramérica.

Although the 18-million-dollar plan involves Mexico and Guatemala, "we are not yet calling it a binational project," said the IUCN official, but the aim is to achieve that status.

Meanwhile, the IUCN has convinced most of the municipalities, citizen groups and local government offices to work together on the Tacaná recovery projects.

For this year, the plan is focused on building alliances among the parties involved and on conducting an integral study of the watershed system.

In 2005, concrete initiatives will be launched that are to benefit poor communities, and in the third and fourth years of the project a broad range of actions will be deployed, including an effort towards Mexico and Guatemala's formal adoption of the initiative as binational.

The IUCN is promoting a global campaign to demonstrate the benefits of integral development of watershed systems. So far, beyond the Tacaná, there are five watersheds involved: in El Salvador, southern Africa, Southeast Asia and in the Mediterranean.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Jorge A. Grochembake in Guatemala contributed to this report.

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