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Lago de Tota: Mirror of the Cosmos
Colombia’s largest lake, Lago de Tota, occupies an area of some 6000 hectares and is located at an altitude of 3,015 metres above sea level. It is ‘home’ to 168 bird species, ten of which are indigenous and seven (critically) endangered. The ancient Muisca people found the lake to be the mirror of the cosmos, while the current population also consider it vitally important. Over twenty-two thousand people live around the lake, and largely depend on it for a living. Furthermore, 350,000 people depend on the lake as a source of water.
The problems facing Lago de Tota largely consist of a direct conflict of economic interests on one hand and the best interests of the lake on the other. The development of trout farms in the lake and tourism and onion farming on its shores have caused both damage to Lago de Tota and environmental pollution. Several initiatives have therefore been launched to keep Lago de Tota healthy, in which area a number of PUM missions also provided vital input. What kind of initiatives have been launched? What role did PUM play in these? And what more could be done?
The largest polluters of the lake are its trout farms. These seven farms harvest an average of 5,000 kg of fish per week, while they also dump excrement and other waste in the lake. The small NGO known as Fundación Montecito endeavours to make the firms operating around the lakeside more aware of the importance of environmentally friendly business practices. With the assistance of a PUM expert, Fundación Montecito succeeded in organising talks between influential national and international parties in 2015, which proved the first step towards tightening the regulations applicable to the trout farmers operating in the lake.
As from 2018, the fish cages that the farmers use have to be fitted with collection trays, which retain both any uneaten feed and the fish excrement. It is interesting to note, however, that only one type of collection tray is permitted; that of a particular supplier. The trays in question cost almost 2,500 dollars each, which amounts to a quite substantial investment for a fish farm comprising seventy cages. The trout farms in the area had already held meetings with one another on the subject of sustainability. One of the owners was almost driven to tears the first time that he emptied waste from his collection trays; it had mounted up to almost 400 kg in the space of a week. And he only had four cages! This really impressed upon him the how much environmental pollution would have occurred, had the collection trays not been fitted.
One fellow trout farmer received PUM assistance with a view to improving water quality. The PUM expert issued recommendations regarding the use of systems, hoses and motors with which to pump the excess feed and excrement out of the collection trays. They also jointly considered the possibilities of implementing a suitable composting system. As a result, the farm in question now processes some 75% of its waste, which is turned into compost for use on a neighbouring onion farm.
The fertile soil surrounding Lago de Tota, the ready availability of water and the relatively short distance to the capital, Bogotá (which has a vast fruit and vegetable market), have rendered the land in this area highly popular for spring onion cultivation. It is estimated that no fewer than 7,400 onion growers cultivate a total area of some 2,400 hectares there. In fact, this region is responsible for the cultivation of around 70% of the onions that the country consumes.
However, no one has been appointed to enforce the rules applicable. People therefore start operating without any business plan, while also making use of chemical pesticides and chicken manure. Given the high yield they can achieve, these farmers have no interest in growing crops other than spring onions. This practice can lead to diseased soil and mould, and therefore the increased use of chemical pesticide. The latter are already responsible for large areas of algal growth on the lake.
Although the introduction of more sustainable practices in the onion cultivation sector would have a substantial positive impact on the lake, it would nevertheless require greater efforts on the part of the Colombian government, in the form regulatory and control systems in particular.