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Guatemala’s indigenous water protectors organize to challenge hydroelectric projects

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 10:49
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(Before It's News)

by Jeff Abbott

Women carried inverted water containers to symbolize the loss of access to the water of the river during a march in Guatemala City on Oct. 17. (WNV/)

Women from along the Cahabón River demonstrate in Guatemala City on October 17 by holding inverted water containers to symbolize the privatization of their water. (Prensa Comunitaria/Nelton Rivera)

Thousands of indigenous Q’eqchi, Achí and Pomcomchí Mayas took part in a series of protests on October 17 against hydroelectric projects along the Cahabón River in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz. The simultaneous protests, which took place in Guatemala City and the municipality of San Pedro Carcha, aimed to force the government’s hand over a delayed consultation on the project in Santa María Cahabón.

“[The company] entered [our community] without advising anyone,” said Bernado Caal Xol, one of the organizers of the movement against the hydro project. “We filed this complaint in order that they inform us, and consult us about the project.”

Nearly 200 men, women and children traveled to the city to march through the streets to demand that the courts respect the community’s right to consultation prior to the construction of the hydroelectric projects along the Cahabón River. During the march in Guatemala City to the Constitutional Court, women carried inverted water containers to symbolize the loss of access to the water of the river.

Alta Verapaz is a place of natural beauty. Vast rivers, jungles and cave systems stretch across the rolling terrain of the territory. Here the lush forests still conceal the rare quetzal, the small green bird that is the national symbol of Guatemala. This natural beauty has brought eco-tourists, as well as adventure and energy companies interested in exploiting the vast water resources for hydro energy.

In 2014, the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mining identified Alta Verapaz as one of the departments with the highest potentials for energy generation. There are 15 projects along the Cahabón River. Yet these plans have brought the companies and state government into conflict with the indigenous populations of the department.

The Guatemala-based company Oxec S.A. owns the hydroelectric dams Oxec and Oxec II, with investments from Energy Resources Capital Corp, which is based in Panama. Oxec S.A. is owned by the powerful Bosch Gutiérrez family and is being built by the Spanish company Grupo Cobra, which is owned by Florentino Pérez, the president of Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid. The project has already generated negative environmental impacts. The photos that have made it out of the construction site show a scarred earth.

The project has also brought social discontent to quiet rural communities, especially as residents have seen their water sources privatized and their access to the banks of the river limited by the company. But according to Caal, these immediate impacts foreshadow greater impacts in the future.

“There are two parts to our concerns. The first is with the damage that is occurring to the river; in time the river will dry up and the communities that live along the banks of the river will be left without water,” Caal said. His second concern is the cultural damage. According to the Popol Wuj, the holy book of the Kiche, he continued, “the river is sacred; it is untouchable for us.”

Residents along the river have also seen their access to the river limited by the construction project. “Now no one can enter to swim, to fish and to collect water where they are installing the project because they are installing security fences,” Caal said. “This has a psychological impact. Before, one could go down to the river to bathe, collect water and wash clothing. But now there are well armed private security officers along the river.”

Cahabón River. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Cahabón River. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

In response, organizers have mobilized the 29,000 residents of the 195 communities that rely on the river as a source of fresh water, fishing and their culture through sharing information on the project and the effects that it will have on them. They have successfully reached nearly all residents through their campaign.

“They just arrived and took the river without informing anyone,” Caal said. “We’re informing the people about who the company is, and for how long the company will have rights to the river.”

These tactics have led a majority of the population to oppose the project. The few communities that are in favor of it are receiving support and gifts from the company.

Primarily the community organizers have utilized legal means to challenge the construction of the Oxec projects. Organizing around the consultation is the basis of the community mobilization. Caal and the others from the Cahabón worked tirelessly to inform the residents through community meetings prior to the vote in the consultation.

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization protects the rights of indigenous communities to consultation prior to the construction of projects within their territories. Guatemala became a signatory of the convention in 1997. Indigenous communities have held over 85 consultations since 2005 over extractive projects, with residents overwhelmingly rejecting any project within their territory. Despite this, the companies and Guatemalan government rarely respect the opinions of residents, and push through the projects by any means possible.

Their first major victory came in April 2016 when the Guatemalan Supreme Court sided with the Q’eqchi’ residents and suspended the company’s licenses over the company’s failure to consult residents prior to construction.

A consultation was then planned for July 31, 2016, but just days before it was to begin, the company filed a legal action against the planned vote to block it. The appeal followed the murder of two people in one of the communities. The company argued that under these conditions there could not be a proper consultation. As a result, the appeal delayed the consultation from occurring, pending a decision from the Guatemalan courts.

The community responded by calling for holding the consultation anyway, as a show of good faith. But the state interceded by deploying the Guatemalan National Police and military police to guarantee that the consultation would not occur.

Energy privatization and regional integration

The expansion of energy generation in Guatemala is part of a project that has been envisioned for the region for decades. Regional integration was first conceived in the mid-1970s, when the governments of Central America, along with Spain, began talks of integration.

The end of fighting across the region in the 1990s permitted the beginning of the realization of this plan. Energy production and distribution were privatized as part of the Peace Accords. Companies such as Duke Energy, Unión Fenosa from Spain, and ENEL from Italy, quickly purchased production plants.

According to Salvadoran researcher Antonio Sandá Mera, following the privatization of energy in Guatemala and El Salvador in 1998, the governments of the region committed to the construction of the Regional Energy Market. These new efforts facilitated the construction of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System, which would facilitate the transferring of energy via high-tension lines across the region.

This initiative was strengthened through regional integration projects such as Plan Puebla-Panama, which was proposed by Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2001. The plan sought to integrate key sectors of infrastructure, including energy grids, highways, telecommunication and tourism routes across the region. The plan was later renamed Plan Mesoamerica following the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004.

The Guatemala Ministry of Energy and Mining, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank, reaffirmed in early 2016 the goal of doubling energy production by 2025. This expansion seeks to utilize Guatemala’s vast water sources and geothermic activity to generate energy.

The expansion of energy generation is promoted as a means of ending energy poverty across Guatemala. But these projects do little to relieve the excessively high cost of energy, and further contribute to the emergence of new social conflicts.

These previous attempts at regional energy integration were also marked by extreme violence and human rights violations. The most well documented case is the massacres that made way for the construction of the Chixoy dam in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala.

Between 1982-1984 the Guatemalan military massacred 600 people Achí in communities along the Negro River in order to make way for the construction of the Chixoy dam. The military justified the massacres by accusing the indigenous campesinos as being part of the guerrilla movement. The project also displaced 3,200 people directly, and 6,000 indirectly, and flooded villages and sacred sites.

Modern human rights violations

The modern expansion of energy generation is marked by extreme cases of human rights violations. Research published in October 2016 by Antonio Rodríguez-Carmona and Elena De Luis Romero highlight the consistent violations in the expansion of energy generation in Guatemala.

According to researchers, these projects have violated the rights of the residents to prior consultation, their right to their territory, and have continued the discrimination against indigenous communities. Furthermore, the companies and the municipal governments have failed to provide information to the communities about the projects.

Their report also highlights the forced disappearance of 20-year-old Q’eqchi’ Maya, Ovidio Xol Chub, in November 2014. Xol Chub was in the process of negotiating the sale of his land in the community of Xicacao when he disappeared. As of 2016, the Guatemalan Public Ministry has failed to investigate the disappearance.

Furthermore, companies have denied the existence of indigenous communities as a means of denying the communities of their constitutional right of prior consultation. As an example, the Environmental and Social Disclosure for the construction of two hydroelectric projects in the communities of San Mateo Ixtatan and San Andres in the department of Huehuetenango highlight the manipulation of impact reports to avoid consulting the communities.

“The vast majority of the residents of the project area are Ladinos — Spanish-speaking Guatemalans who do not follow an indigenous lifestyle,” the report reads. “The project area communities do include some members of the Q’anjab’al and Chuj indigenous language groups and these people are clustered in certain communities; however, there are no communities in the project area of influence that are monolingual or composed exclusively of any ethnic group.”

But the reality of San Mateo Ixtatan is that it is nearly 97 percent indigenous according to 2002 census data from the Guatemalan government.

The memory of the massacres during the 36-year-long internal armed conflict influences the movement against the modern expansion of energy generation across the northern border with Mexico, which is a region slated for development. In fact, the community of Santa María Cahabón was the site of brutal massacres carried out by the Guatemalan military during the 1980s. According to Caal, the military carried out executions and then the soldiers utilized the rivers currents to carry the bodies away.

“They were clearing the area for projects like these,” Caal explained. “These plans have existed since before today. But during the 1980s the company was called Chulac.”

The Chulac hydroelectric mega-dam was one of three large-scale World Bank funded energy developments in Guatemala. The Guatemalan National Institute of Energy and World Bank intended to build the dam on the Cahabón River, but the project was eventually abandoned due to poor rock conditions for construction, and other factors.

Organizing other communities along the river

The movement in the communities of Cahabón has inspired the neighboring municipalities to stand up to the expansion of hydro projects along the river. The leaders of the movement have sought to work with their neighbors to challenge all projects along the river.

There are currently five hydro projects in San Pedro Carcha, which are also being built by the Cobra Group. Similar to the situation in Cahabón, the residents of Carcha have seen a similar privatization of their access to the waters of the Cahabón River. This has led them to begin organizing with their neighboring municipalities.

“What we are doing in Cahabón is now arriving to Carcha,” Caal said. “The residents of Carcha are now organizing against the projects.”

Leaders have also sought to build a larger network through the founding of a Maya Q’eqchi’ council in Alta Verapaz that will represent the interests of the Q’eqchi’ communities throughout the region. Movement leaders have constantly shared information with the other communities in order to inform them on the project. Residents have especially responded to the campaign to organize against the projects due to the affects they have already seen on their access to the river.

Thousands of residents of San Pedro Carcha marched on October 17 as residents of Santa María Cahabón marched through Guatemala City. They declared that they would stand in solidarity with their brothers in the nearby municipality.

“We support our fellow comrades from Cahabón, who gathered in front of the Constitutional Court demanding to resolve definitively that community consultations on megaprojects are carried out,” the leaders declared during the march. These two neighboring municipalities seek to link their struggles and challenge the expansion of hydro projects along their river.

In September 2016, members of the Community Development Councils of San Pedro issued a demand to the municipal mayor to suspend the projects along the river.

“We express our indignation for the deception that the Q’eqchi’ families have suffered during the process of the acquisition of the land mediated by the pressure, intimidation of the property owners, and the alterations of the environment, and the destruction of the river.”

In their declaration, the community leaders demanded that the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mining, the company, and the other government agencies provide more information on the investments for the construction of the project.

The movement has faced backlash from companies that are constructing the project. In October 2016, a flier appeared across the region looking to smear Caal and left-wing congressman Amlicar Pop. These fliers appeared a month after Caal and the other members of the resistance in Cahabón began to organize in Carcha. The fliers, which contained Caal’s Facebook profile photo, stated that Caal was not desired in the area and accused him of crimes.

“This was done by the companies that are building the projects,” Caal said. But despite the campaign of misinformation, he and the other leaders are committed to continuing their struggle.

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