Guatemala: Has the IDB Learned From Its Past?


Walking past the Washington DC headquarters of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), you will see posters advertising the new exhibit in their cultural center; Guatemala: Past and Future in honor of the upcoming annual meeting to be held in Guatemala City next month. Complete with interactive digital renderings of the pre-Columbian city of Tikal, the exhibit was created in a "tribute to the Mayan Nation."

The display opened on February 7th and was "conceived with an optimistic view toward the future while learning lessons from the past." I am curious what lessons the IDB has learned from the last thirty years and the role the Bank played in failed "development" projects, forced displacement and deaths of Mayan farmers.

It started when an energy crisis in the mid-1970´s left the Guatemalan government desperate for alternatives. With U.S. $72 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, the government made plans to build a 100 meter dam on the Chixoy River, very near to where the Rio Negro community was located. The people were told just months in advance that they would lose all their land and they would need to relocate.

The community was outraged and resisted leaving their homes. In the repressive climate in Guatemala at the time, the peaceful resistance was met with violence from the military government. Labeled as "subversives" the community was victim to four separate massacres, in all claiming the lives of more than 400 men, women and children of Rio Negro. In 1985, the banks granted another loan of $44 million after receiving reports of the violence that took place and the lack of investigation on the part of the Guatemalan government.

Now the total cost of the Chixoy dam is over $1.2 billion. It will have to be shut down in less than 20 years due to erosion because it was built without adequate environmental impact studies. The dam has been called one of the biggest financial disasters in Guatemalan history, but that is no consolation to the hundreds of people who lost their families so that it could be built. To this day, neither the IDB nor the World Bank has paid any reparations to the victims.

It seems that the Guatemalan government did not learn its lesson from the disaster of the Chixoy dam. There are plans underway for another dam on the Chixoy River and if built according to plan, the Xalalá dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Guatemala. The construction of this dam could destroy the land of 6,000 to 8,000 Maya-Qeqchi farmers. Already the community has been intimidated and terrorized by members of the INDE, Guatemala National Institute for Electrical Development. Every effort the affected communities and social organizations have made to access information about the proposed plans has been denied by the Guatemalan government.

There is something you can do in the face of this hypocrisy. With an estimated $500 million price tag, the Guatemalan government is likely to look for outside assistance to help fund the proposed Xalalá dam. We can act now to make sure the IDB does not support yet another misguided megaproject in Guatemala.

Below is a letter to the president of the Inter-American Development Bank adapted from one by Rights Action, a human rights organization with an office in Guatemala. Feel free to adapt it as your own, to discourage the IDB from supporting the project.


Philippe Dewez
Guatemala Country Representative
Edificio Géminis 10
12 Calle 1-25, Zona 10, Nivel 19
Guatemala, Guatemala
Fax: 011 (502) 2335-3319

Luis Alberto Moreno
Inter American Development Bank
1300 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20577
Fax: (202) 623-3096

Dear President Moreno:

I write to express my concern about the violent and repressive conditions in
the area where planned construction of the Xalalá Dam would take place.

The area has been subject to growing violence, while the justice system has
done nothing in prosecuting those responsible for the violence despite the
existence of ample evidence.

The local Mayor’s office has been subject to constant attacks including
attempted kidnapping, attempts to burn the municipal government building,
threats, surveillance by armed men, physical attacks on municipal workers,
libelous disinformation, and others. Workers for the Catholic Church Social
Ministry team have been subject to similar threats as have many of the
social organizations in the region.

The deterioration of the human rights situation in the area and the destabilization of those agencies charged with protecting residents has created a situation in which it is impossible to guarantee the fundamental human rights of people who would be displaced and negatively impacted by the construction of the Xalalá dam.

The killing of an INDE employee in October 2006 and the defamation campaign against community leaders of villages affected by the dam that followed this tragic
event illustrate the dangers that have arisen from the growing tension in the region.

The Xalalá dam cannot proceed without first guaranteeing that a functional
justice system exists that is capable of stopping the actions of violent actors in the area and that there is a functional presence of human rights agencies capable of verifying the respect for the full range of rights of affected communities. This would provide the proper environment for a full and open consultation with local communities to judge whether the project has the necessary local support.

Without these conditions, any involvement from the Inter American Development Bank or assistance to private investors in relation to the project would make the Bank responsible for human rights violations that are likely to occur if the project continues in the same fashion.