The “sweet river” in the Izabal district connects Guatemala’s largest lake, the Lago Izabal, with the Atlantic Ocean.
Downstream, beyond the 590 square kilometre lake, there is a bottleneck at Fronteras and El Relleno, where the only bridge spans the Río Dulce. Further down the river it widens again to a small lake, el Golfete, before the most spectacular section begins: Here, the Río Dulce narrows and meanders through a canyon-like gorge, whose walls, up to 100 metres high, are covered with impenetrable tropical vegetation. The river and its tributaries are considered a natural paradise and a habitat for countless plant and animal species.
Among the most striking are mahogany and teak trees, as well as the seemingly omnipresent howler monkeys and toucans.
The people on the Río Dulce also live from and on the river, which is the only traffic artery crossing the region. No house or hotel that does not have its own jetty.
The Río Dulce region is a popular sailing area and a safe anchorage even during the hurricane season. The numerous marinas along the shores speak for themselves.
Despite the apparent idyll, existential conflicts characterise the everyday life of the majority of the population. Many of the small farming communities in the Izabal district are struggling to remain on the land they use. They feel that they are under pressure from the central government, which is pushing for the expansion of protected areas in order to increase tourism, as well as from the large landowners, who want to benefit from the bio-fuel boom by cultivating oil palms and are challenging the land rights of the mostly indigenous Q’eqchi Maya farmers.
One of many projects aiming at a sustainable improvement of the living conditions of the indigenous population is Ak’ Tenamit, which is located in the municipality of Tatín about 6km off Livingston. Literacy and training programmes, which are aimed primarily at girls and women in hundreds of villages in the catchment area, as well as health care and medical support are important elements of the self-governing “Help for Self-Help” project. The aim of the project is to improve the family’s income by offering education in sustainable tourism and handicrafts. The latter create a source of income especially for women.