National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Sarah Calhoun is learning about the lives of local fishermen, hoping to develop a system to monitor the fishery of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and help improve detection of potential toxins produced by cyanobacterial blooms. She hopes to help restore the lake to its former health and preserve traditional ecological knowledge through community engagement and partnership with students at la Universidad del Valle.
Almost three months ago during my first day out on the lake with the Panajachel fishermen, I first heard of the plant ‘tul’, scientifically known as Scirpus californicus. Even then, when my Spanish was in serious need of a tune up, I understood that tul had become the central topic of conversation, not realizing at first the cultural and ecological importance of this native plant.
In mid-March I came into contact with Bernardino, the current president of the fishing association in San Juan La Laguna. In 2005, after hurricane Stan destroyed the shoreline reed beds, their association was legally created and they began to call themselves ‘Chajil Ch’upup’, translated from local dialect Tz’utujil, meaning ‘guardian of the tul’.
Why tul (Scirpus californicus)?
- Primary habitat for various aquatic species (i.e. fish, snails, crabs, and waterfowl)
- Oxygenates the water
- Creates a natural barrier to soil erosion
- Absorbs nutrients that otherwise lead to lake eutrophication
- Functions as a natural filter in the aquifer against cyanobacteria
- Used for the production of cultural handicrafts as a source of income
The Chajil Ch’upup fishing association differs from the others around the lake as they also offer an eco-tourism component to aid in Lake Atitlan conservation. While they offer this service to bring awareness and funds to plant tul, it is an activity that is done with or without the tourists. After two large tropical storm events (Stan 2005 and Agatha 2010) struck the area, lake water began to rise at an unprecedented rate and shoreline habitat was destroyed. In San Juan La Laguna they continue to plant tul three times a year during the months of April and May to help repair the aquatic ecosystem, before the start of the rainy season. I was fortunate to have met with Bernardino in San Juan only weeks before the first planting event.
On April 13th we met at the dock in San Juan La Laguna just after sunrise to collect and prepare materials for the planting and set off in the traditional wooden kayaks to plant the first seeds of the season. The fishermen wait patiently to plant all the collected reeds until the first seed has been firmly planted and observed, a cultural ceremony of sorts. Afterwards each fisherman plants their share of tul in hopes that the rainy season will bring growth and productivity to the ecosystem to improve the quality of life of the Atitlan fishermen and their families.