“The government has declared us terrorists, but we’re not the terrorists,” said Telma Cabrera, a Committee for Campesino Development representative. “When they (the government) responds to the demands of the people, they respond with violence. And what peace is there when the government responds with violence?”
The Q’eqchí Mayan communities along the River Dolores in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz have relied on the river’s waters for their fields, and their livelihoods for generations. But when the proposed construction of the Santa Rita dam down river threatened their land, the communities decided to resist the construction of the dam, and demand that the government of Guatemala respect their communities rights to their land and water; yet their resistance and defense of their land has been greatly challenged and dismantled by the Guatemalan state.
On the morning of August 14, well over 1,600 members of the Guatemalan National Police (PNC) and elements of the Guatemalan military arrived in the indigenous Q’eqchí communities along the Dolores River in Alta Verapaz to begin forcibly evicting the communities to make way for the construction of a hydro electrical project.
In the communities of Monte Olivio and 9th de February, police burned houses and destroyed the property of the families; an action that echoes back to the scorched earth polices of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. Hundreds of families were left internally displaced.
The evictions turned deadly in the local community of Semococh when the police shot and killed Luciano Can, 40, and Oscar Chen, 35, in confrontations during the eviction. A third man, Sebastian Rax, 22, was also shot by the PNC, and would later die in the hospital. Sixty others were injured, and 26 were arrested in the operation to evict the communities.
The Guatemalan Public Ministry has subsequently opened an investigation into the deaths of the three campesinos in Alta Verpaz.
During the evictions at Semococh, the National Police detained two community representatives from the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA). The campesino organization has led communities in challenging the energy policies of the Guatemalan government, an action that led the Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina to referred to the organization as “a social cancer that is expanding and impacts the economic interests of the country.”
“The government has declared us terrorists, but we’re not the terrorists,” said Telma Cabrera, a CODECA representative. “When they (the government) responds to the demands of the people, they respond with violence. And what peace is there when the government responds with violence?”
The Santa Rita dam was first proposed in 2009 by the Guatemalan based Hydro Electrical Santa Rita S.A Company, which is owned by the elite López Roesch family of Guatemala.
According to data from the United Nations green energy report released in January 2014, it is estimated to be able to produce roughly 100 gigawatts per year. Yet the communities believe that the production of energy from the Icbolay River will not benefit their communities.
“Since the privatization of Energuate in 1996, the prices have gone up, and the farmers cannot afford the energy,” said Leiria Teresa Vay Garcia of CODECA. “The campesinos will not benefit from the construction of the dam.”
The concerns of organizations such as CODECA are well founded. According to a 2012 report from Guatemalan Wholesale Market Administration, the Guatemala energy market only consumes roughly 75 percent of the energy that is produced in the country. The remainder is exported. Yet, many rural communities still lack access to the Guatemalan electric grid.
Furthermore, the Q’eqchí communities maintain that the Guatemalan government never consulted the communities on the use of their land – in violation of United Nations Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Guatemala signed in 2007.
“The government (of Otto Perez Molina) came in with a military project to ensure the implementation of an economic (neoliberal) model,” said Brenda Hernandez of United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights, a human rights organization that tracks violence against the defenders of human rights in Guatemala. “They are giving away the land of the indigenous peoples to multinational companies. And the communities are resisting, and are protesting against the implementation, because the government has not respected the Convention 169 of previously consulting the indigenous people.”
The communities demand that the government and the international community respect the rights of the community to their land and water, that they would be included in the conversations around the construction of the dam and how their land was to be used. But the community maintains that they were never consulted in the use of their land.
Yet despite the concerns of the community, the United Nation has approved the project. In January 2014, the Colombian Institute of Technical Standards and Certification approved the construction of the Santa Rita dam, based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ensuring that the dam met the required Clean Development Mechanism that were developed during the Kyoto talks; but the validation failed to take into account the voice of the affected communities.
The communities around the Dolores River have faced violence and intimidation for their resistance before. In August 2013, security forces in Monte Olivio shot and killed two Q’eqchí boys, David Eduardo Pacay Maas and Hageo Isaac Guitz, 11 and 13 respectively, who were playing in a field near the community. No one was ever arrested for the attack.
Popular Movements Rallies For Alta Verapaz
Civil society was quick to denounce the aggression against the indigenous communities. Between August 17-18, rallies and protests were held in solidarity with the Q’eqchí communities.
In Guatemala City, human rights organizations such as United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights, and Mayan rights organizations such as Waqib Quej and the Association of Mayan Lawyers, gathered in front of the Presidential palace to denounce the violence against the communities in resistance.
“This was a brutal action by the government of Guatemala carried out by the Civilian police force and elements of the police,” said Iduvina Hernández Batres, the executive director of the human rights organization Security in Democracy, adding that it was “an aggressive and illegal displacement of the communities of Monte Olivio and 9th de February for the interests of foreign companies.”
Security in Democracy was founded in 2000 by two Guatemalan journalists and was formed to investigate and to hold the post-peace agreement government responsible to the democratic ideals. The organization work has since expanded to include human rights defenders, and advocate for the communities of Guatemala.
“It isn’t just about the defense of territory,” added Hernández Batres. “It is the defense of our way of life.”
For many of the human rights defenders in Guatemala, the brutal evictions carried out by the National Police harken back to the era of the country’s civil war.
“This is a war,” said Hernandez. “But this is more than war. In war you have two armies facing each other. This is not the case. You have the army attacking civilian populations in their own territories; those who are defending their territories.“
The following day, representatives from the Kaqchikel Mayan branch of Guatemala’s Consejo del Pueblos Mayas (CPO) held a press conference in the department of Chimaltenango where they demanded an end to the aggression against communities, and called for the respect of indigenous lands.
“We are here today to show our solidarity with our brothers in Alta Verapaz,” said Nïm Sanik of CPO Kaqchikel Chimaltenago. “Their struggle is our struggle. It is the struggle for our lands and our culture.”
Since 2006 CPO has organized the Mayan peoples of Guatemala to work towards Mayan autonomy in a pluralistic state. For the Mayan groups, the violence and aggression against the communities of Alta Verapaz who defend for their lands, is the same as if it was violence against them.
“The aggression is against all of our people,” said Sanik. “That it is why it is important for us to have our voice heard.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights, social moments, and issues related to education, immigration, and land in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. He has written for the North American Congress on Latin America, Waginnonviolence.org, and In These Times. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo