Visitors to San Pedro La Laguna typically arrive by water taxi at docks that are shared with fishing boats and tour guides.  Just up the hill a couple of blocks is a long bright banner strung between buildings announcing the plastics’ ban rolled out three years ago.  San Pedro is a small town of 13,000 residents, a fishing village really, which has grabbed international headlines for leading the region in efforts to remove plastic waste from a beautiful volcanic lake, known as Lago de Atitlan.

It may surprise some to learn that the Lake Atitlan hosts visitors from around the world.  Eleven picturesque villages offer a warm welcome, as well as a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of its mostly Mayan residents.  Among them, the town of San Pedro stands out for its efforts to clean up the lake by adopting strict bans against plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam containers, beginning in 2016.

At the center of this effort is San Pedro’s Mayor, Mauricio Mendez, who is attracting international attention for his leadership in environmental protection. Mendez is rightfully proud of his community and describes the effort in this way:  “San Pedro La Laguna is one of the pioneers in environmental matters on a national level.  We have become, as the locals say, the ‘tip of the spear’ in planet preservation.”  Mendez left the village for Guatemala City to study architecture and credits his parents for giving him the opportunity to attend University of San Carols in Guatemala City.  As an architect, he decided to return home to improve the village and surroundings of San Pedro.

Officials from as far away as Germany and China now come to Guatemala and Lake Atitlan to study implementation of the plastics’ ban, but Mendez doesn’t let it get to his head.  “We are doing our jobs. We cannot lose our heads for press – it is only a minute of fame and fame kills, you have to be clear that your feet are on the ground.”  Any praise from Mendez is for the people of San Pedro La Laguna. “We could have created a lot of laws and local norms but then the people wouldn’t have accepted it.  Instead, we went door to door to convince our residents to help us rescue the lake, to rescue the planet.  Also we went from classroom to classroom, from school to school, and kept talking about our planet’s conservation.” Nearby villages are now considering similar bans, including Santa Lucía Atitlan, and one of the public universities.

The next project Mayor Mendez is working on is reduction of gas powered vehicles and conversion to LED lighting.  “We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 50 percent.  Most of the street lights are LED and we are the only municipality that has decarbonized vehicles.”  Earlier this year, the City helped residents convert to LED light bulbs in their homes.  “For example, if their electric bill is $100 quetzals, we change the light bulbs and the bill drops to $50 quetzals.  That means there will be $50 quetzals to buy 50 eggs so that the kids can eat better; and that improves their ability to concentrate in school.”  The Mayor says that the LED project is not only an effort to improve the environment and save electricity, it is an integrated project that is intended to create a better quality of life for residents of San Pedro.

In just three years, the ban on plastics has cleaned up this small village which now serves as a model for others near and far.  Today, visitors who walk by stores and restaurants in San Pedro see few bags, plastic or otherwise.  In fact, there is very little garbage in the streets or near the shore, which is not always the case in the other villages that ring Lake Atitlan.

Bill Griffith practices land use, real estate and municipal law at Larkin Hoffman.  He represents Mall of America and the City of Columbus, Minnesota, as well as other owners, managers and developers of real estate.  He has a special interest in sustainable solutions to land use and development challenges.