Our planet is full of them: Ecosystems, whose diversity and unique composition allow us to experience the greatest wonders of nature. One of the ecosystems that have attracted wide attention is Laguna Bacalar, a large, turquoise-colored lagoon on the road of Quintana Roo in Mexico. The secret of Laguna Bacalar is the unique bacteria settling in the system, providing oxygen to the lake and the surrounding biological system. While researchers try to understand how it particularly functions, the local community of Bacalar tries to save the waters from their destruction: Because very slowly, agriculture, pollution, and tourism are pulling out the motor of the seven-colored lagoon.
Home to the oldest microorganisms on the planet
The Laguna Bacalar gained its magnificent color and crystal clear waters from one of the oldest microorganisms ever found on this planet. Before animals or humans have started to inhabit the earth, micro-bacteria were the dominant living species. This bacteria has the ability to photosynthesize with sunlight. Shimmering in a Blue-greenish light, the algae lives underneath a cover of calcium to protect itself from the sun and other influences. The sedimentary structures serve as biofilm protecting and nurturing the living microorganisms in the water. Interestingly, the high level of saline prevents animals and plants from expanding in the lagoon. Laguna Bacalar indeed is home to only little fish and plants.
Nowadays, the lagoon in Mexico provides regions, landscapes, and the nearby population with fresh water, and it nurtures natural habitats for flora and fauna. Researchers from across the globe are trying to uncover the secrets of its natural system and improve the understanding of biological and chemical processes happening.
However, the local population is less concerned with the characteristics of the stromatolites, than with the urgent matter to save the lagoon from overarching pollution. In fact, the lagoon is slowly losing its wonderful colors.
What has been causing the lagoon to lose colors?
Over the years, the lagoon and its preservation have become endangered. The lake is losing its natural colors and the water becomes less and less clear with each month passing by. A local initiative, the Agua Clara Foundation, frequently measures the number of E-coli bacteria and checks the lake for water quality. The results are alarming: The pollution with bacteria and toxic substances has been rising to new heights recently.
There are several reasons why Laguna Bacalar is in trouble. The main factors are the sewage and drain systems in the region seeping pollutants into soil and groundwater. Its pollutants are pesticides from agriculture and trash as well as dirty sewage from the surrounding population and tourist industry. The lack of central sewage and storm drainage systems has caused lower oxygen levels in the lake. Plants, microbiomes, and bacteria started growing, which ultimately affects its purity and clarity.
How Agua Clara Foundation is trying to save the lagoon
Nicole Oberg, Project Manager at Agua Clara Bacalar, explains to TWN: “Reckless human pollution, through damaging agricultural practices and negligent sewage treatment, is threatening to destroy Bacalar and the wonderful Laguna of Seven Colours. The stromatolites are extremely fragile, living things that exist here because of the unique composition of the water. As the water becomes contaminated, the future for the stromatolites becomes ever more precarious. We have reached a tipping point. Without change, these communities of ancient organisms will soon, be gone forever.”
But the trouble in Bacalar is not just about the ancient organisms. What affects the small microbiomes has the same, if not even more tremendous effects on the local population.
To safeguard the local communities the Foundation Agua Clara Bacalar has started to denounce pollution to the local government since 2016. The foundation also monitors agricultural industries northern of the lagoon. In May 2020, wildfires have reigned the region and as a direct consequence, the seven colors of Laguna Bacalar have turned into a brown broth. Following a series of heavy rains and torments, today the lagoon cannot be recognized anymore.
The time left to preserve Laguna Bacalar is running out. The expected consequences on public health, biodiversity, and tourism are devastating.
SilentPollution3-web2019 from mauricio on Vimeo.
Is there a political solution ahead?
The situation in Bacalar is mostly an economic and political matter. The imbalance of interests between the agricultural industry, the tourist industry, and the local population has caused controversies and conflicts in the peaceful villages. What has been missing so far, is the willingness of the government, the local community, and the landowners to join forces. While everyone agrees on the necessity to preserve the environment, the goals and suggestions on how to improve the situation vary between each interest group.
The economic prosperity that tourism brings to the municipality is one of the reasons for the government to remain too passive. However, only if the necessary laws and regulations are implemented by the local government, the lagoon has a chance to survive. The situation is paradoxical: What is attracting people to come to Bacalar – the colors, serenity, and its magical story, is harmed by the arrival of tourists.
Recently, the government tried to bring stakeholders to install a sewage system and a waste management system. However, only a little of the area surrounding the lagoon has been covered by a central system so far. The director of Ecology of the City of Bacalar, Romel Cano argues that almost 100 percent of the 160 hoteliers and restaurants have been connected to a drainage system, but difficulties remain with the households who simply cannot afford to adjust the system.
How the lagoon could be saved
Aguas Claras Foundation is advocating for more profound change. They believe, only by educating the local population, tourists, and other stakeholders, change can be achieved. With information campaigns, educative seminars, school visits, and research fora the volunteers raise awareness among locals, and visitors. Furthermore, the organization is trying to convince the government to include the legal obligation to establish an appropriate way of waste management and a sewage system for investors. An additional goal of the local community is to prohibit the use of pesticides by the surrounding agricultural industries.
What can we tourists do?
The local communities work on educating tourists on how to manage their waste, to not use cosmetics or anti-mosquito treatment potentially harmful to waters. There is a discussion to prohibit swimming in the waters or alternatively restrict the areas of access for tourists to supervised parts.
If you are interested in visiting the villages around Bacalar and experience the blue lagoon yourself, keep in mind how you travel. There is an enormous difference between luxury mass tourism and ecotourism. Do not hesitate to engage with the community and Aguas Claras Foundation and ask, what you can do or should not do in the lagoon. In the end, you will not only experience the most beautiful lagoon in Mexico, but you will also help to preserve it.
A video promotion by local musician V&D to preserve the nature of Bacalar
What can you do right now?
Make your donation to Agua Clara [www.aguaclarabacalar.org].
And stay in touch through their social networks: Facebook: / Aguaclarabacalar; Twitter: @aguaclaraqroo; Instagram: @aguaclarabacalar.
Interested in other travel experiences in Mexico? Read about a village of Zapatista rebels.