Border Lake on the Border of Collapse – How Illegal Mining and Pollution Desecrated a Sacred Place

Lake Titicaca rests majestically on the border of Peru and Bolivia at an altitude of 3812 meters, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the beautiful Isla del Sol. Upon visiting the lake, it is not hard to understand why the Inca considered it sacred, proclaiming it the birthplace of the sun.

However, something fishy is going on at the popular tourist destination. Littering and untreated sewage water has contaminated the water, while illegal mining companies are dumping waste upstream from the lake. This has created toxic levels of lead and mercury and caused health problems for the 1.3 million people living near it, as well as the deaths of thousands of critically endangered frogs. A study from 2014 found copper, mercury, cadium and zinc at unhealthily high levels in the fish that is consumed by locals, but inhabitants of the lake say they have not been informed that eating the fish would harm their health.

Urbanization and population growth in areas close to the lake in both Bolivia and Peru, along with weak environmental laws and inadequate infrastructure, contribute additional pollution of the lake. On the shores of Lake Titicaca more than half of the population lack plumbing. In El Alto, one of Bolivia’s biggest cities and connected to the lake, new plumbing is at best years away, even with the aid of international funding. The lack of structured treatment of wastewater was compared to ‘’giving an aspirin to someone who has been shot’’ by Marco Ribera Arisbendi of the Environmental Defense Leauge in La Paz. The native Aymara who rely on Lake Titicaca for food and income say that “action must be taken before they, like the frogs, die off“. Seeing as Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is himself Aymara and leads the Pluronational State with emphasis on traditional Andean values and concepts of social organisation, one might expect him to be a strong advocate for the indigenous community. So what is being done?

Deputy Environment Minister Ruben Mendez said in 2015 that the Bolivian government plans to raise tens of millions of dollars to build waste treatment plants along Titicaca’s shores, but details about the plan were not provided. Since the lake lies on the border of Peru and Bolivia, with both countries contributing to, as well as suffering from, the pollution, cooperation seems needed to solve the problem.

In Peru, as Ollanta Humala was running for president in 2011, he promised to tackle contamination of the lake and create water sewage processing plants. The promise might be part of the explanation as to why he received 79% of the votes in the Lake Titicaca Region. The New York Post has previously reported that he did not follow up on his promises. However, after five years as president, Humala left office in 2016 with an agreement in place with Bolivian president Evo Morales about financing waste treatment plants and a joint interdiction of illegal mining.

As previously noted, weak environmental laws also contribute to the pollution. So in legal matters, what can further be done to rescue sacred places and precious nature from pollution and illegal mining companies? In New Zealand, an indigenous community managed to get the Whanganui river recognized as a person under the law, increasing its rights. Ecuador, frustrated by the exploitation of the Amazon and the Andes, has included “Rights of Nature” in their constitution, enabling people to sue on behalf of nature.

New Zealand’s and Ecuador’s solutions might be an inspiration for Bolivia and Peru’s problems at Lake Titicaca, but some efforts that actually have been made to tackle the problems have not worked out as leaders planned. In 2012 El Alto’s Mayor Edgar Patana Ticona acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing environmental standards in the city, as the monitoring of businesses was met by protests.

It seems a solution to the problem is not only blocked by lack of law or ideas, but also a lack of funding. Bolivia and Peru pledged in January 2016 to spend over $500 million to tackle the issue. However, details were unclear and earlier promises by politicians, dating back two decades, have so far gone unfulfilled. Peru’s current President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski announced earlier this year during a visit to Lake Titicaca that ten treatment plants will be built on rivers flowing in to the lake at a total cost of $437 million. There seems to be no lack of promises about funding and grand projects, but as the Aymara natives of Lake Titicaca noted, action must be taken before it is too late. Let us hope that the countries make their promises a reality before the sun sets over its proclaimed birthplace.

Hannes Berggren

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