Guatemala: Popular resistance to Xalala Dam finds international law on its side

Source: The Dominion

COPAL’AA, GUATEMALA-In a remote village bordering the Chixoy River in northern Guatemala, scores of people gather outside a wooden meeting hall. Mayan men, women and children face a video camera to demonstrate their resistance against the construction of the Xalala Dam, a mega-project promoted by the Guatemalan government which would flood an estimated minimum of 18 Indigenous villages and drastically affect many more.

The message, in the words of community activist Elena Hernández*, is clear: “I want to tell the businesses, the rich from other countries, the transnational corporations to respect our lands. We, the women, will defend our land.”

This resistance hasn’t gone unnoticed. In November, nine international corporations failed to bid on the hydroelectric project, despite estimates that the dam would generate annual profits totaling between US$100 million and US$150 million, according to Guatemala’s National Institute of Electrification (INDE).

Instead of an offer, Brazilian business conglomerate Odebrecht directed a letter to the Guatemalan government detailing its reluctance to invest. Luiz Sergio de O Ferreira, Odebrecht’s representative in Guatemala, stated in the letter that the corporation would not participate in the project due to the central government’s failure to manage local community opposition, as well as the change in the company’s financial liquidity, caused by the global economic situation.

One hundred forty-four communities in the Ixcán region of Guatemala – legally guaranteed the right to consultation processes – voted on the proposed Xalala dam and oil exploration in the area. Of the 21,155 participants, 89.7 per cent rejected the project, according to official data. Photo: Edwin Canil

For Mayan communities fighting for their right to control the natural resources on their land, the bidding failure was considered an achievement.

Nevertheless, the government retains its unyielding stance that the dam will be constructed, with or without immediate investment from international companies.

If it were built, Xalala would be the second-largest hydroelectric dam in the country, producing an estimated 181 megawatts of energy annually.

According to government calculations, with this energy Guatemala could forgo the use of nearly 2.1 million barrels of petroleum derivatives, avoid the annual emission of 240 tons of contaminated substances and eliminate the 100-megawatt energy deficit currently facing the county.

These statistics led the INDE to define the project as “economically viable, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable.”

If the project were to go ahead, most of the energy would likely be used to fuel more resource extraction, like mining, and be sold for export.

But according to community leader Jeremiaz Chuy*, the project is neither clean nor economical: "[The dam] is not clean because it stagnates water and kills aquatic life, contaminates water sources that people live off of and floods large extensions of forest where many animals live," he says. "And it’s not cheap when you take into account all the fertile lands and food sources that are lost. If the government calculated all of this, as well as the cost of fairly relocating all the affected families, they would find it a very expensive project."

Many of the villages that form the Association of Communities for Development and in Defense of Territory and National Resources (ACODET), are accessible only by canoe or via long, muddy jungle paths. Their inhabitants harvest corn and beans, as well as some specialty crops like coffee and cardamom on small plots of land, which they work as a family. Some of the communities are located directly adjacent to the river, which allows them to transport their crops, catch fish for their families and have regular access to clean water.

Even though the government hasn’t provided many of these communities with roads, electricity, running water or schools, it certainly hasn’t lost sight of them. The government of Alvaro Colom, like that of his predecessors, is more than aware of the economic possibilities of the region.

National and international eyes have long been focused on the oil reserves under the soil, the electricity-producing potential of the Chixoy River and the rich terrain, which could be used for producing crops for biofuels.

Today, there is a complex negotiation at work between the government and the economic elite to exploit these resources. But according to the communities in resistance, these plans don’t consider the Maya people’s plight.

Throughout Guatemala there is a growing movement to propose alternatives to mega-projects, like community- or municipality-run, small-scale hydroelectric dams to meet local energy needs.

Nonetheless, mega-dams are being promoted as the panacea that will supply regional needs, the needs of a rapidly growing mining- and resource-extraction industry, and make Guatemala a net exporter of energy as part of Plan Mesoamerica, formerly known as the Puebla-Panama Plan.

Worries about the effects of energy mega-projects led 144 communities in the Ixcán region to hold a community referendum in April 2007. The referendum was about the proposed Xalala Dam and oil exploration in the area.

Of the 21,155 participants, 89.7 per cent rejected the project, according to official data provided by then-municipal Mayor Marcos Ramirez.

Indigenous communities are legally guaranteed the right to consultation processes by the Guatemalan Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization. But the Constitutional Court of Guatemala recently declared that these consultas are “legal, but not binding.”

Activists aren’t so easily discouraged. “This time we are here not with bullets or machetes,” proclaims community activist Pablo Garcia*. “We are here with the laws we know can defend us.” This tactic represents an important step for a region that suffered from high levels of state-sponsored repression during Guatemala’s brutal armed conflict that resulted in the death of more than 200,000, primarily Indigenous, people.

The international community seems to agree. Recently the United Nations Committee to End Racism and Discrimination (CERD) directed a letter to President Colom asking for an official response to claims presented by a human rights group regarding three key cases dealing with natural resources in Guatemala, including the Xalala Dam.

In their letter, CERD likened the Guatemalan government’s lack of respect for the communities’ popular referendum and their promotion of harmful mega-projects in Indigenous regions to institutional racism.

The Xalala Dam project was conceived in the 1970s, during the 36-year armed conflict. In the early 1980s, the now-infamous Chixoy Dam was constructed with the backing of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In order to construct the Chixoy Dam, the Guatemalan army massacred 444 of the 791 Indigenous residents of the village of Río Negro. Survivors and their families have yet to receive any compensation for the damages inflicted by the state to clear the way for the Chixoy Dam.

To this day, affected towns have received little of the development promised to the region by the INDE and the principal funders when the project was getting off the ground. The residents of Río Negro were relocated to a town eight hours from their farmland and most are unable to pay for access to the water and electricity they were promised. Communities that would be affected by the proposed Xalala Dam fear a similar outcome.

In November, when community members denied land access to INDE engineers looking to conduct final geographic studies, INDE representatives returned in a low-flying helicopter. In a region that is heavily scarred by the armed conflict, this action provoked fear and frustration.

Further concern surfaced when President Colom announced in December that the military base located in the Ixcan’s municipal seat would be strengthened in order to recover territories that have been occupied by drug traffickers in the region.

Additionally, new military bases will be installed around the Northern Transversal Strip, where there are plans to put in a highway connecting Mexico with Guatemala’s Atlantic Coast.

According to Colom, “We are working so that Xalala will be constructed as Chixoy was. We have an offer for financing, and it will pay for itself.”

Community members worry that this statement indicates a remilitarization of the region. Colom’s statement also alludes to the possibility the dam will go forward as a public-private partnership.

It is expected that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will play a role in funding the Xalala Dam, which requires an initial investment of $350 to $400 million, according to Alberto Cohen, President of INDE.

As a promoter of Plan Mesoamerica-related projects and so-called clean energy alternatives, the IDB has openly stated its eagerness to fund hydroelectric initiatives in Guatemala.

Community leaders worry that government institutions will begin to divide the resistance by offering strings-attached development projects to the region. In a region where the 2008 United Nations Human Development Report indicated a poverty rate of 84.7 per cent, organizers worry that the people could easily be bought.

“We don’t need compensation. Our struggle, our organization, doesn’t have a price. The money that they could give us wouldn’t last forever. God willing, we will have the courage to not accept preconditioned development projects,” stated Hernandez.

Last December, the Guatemalan government contracted the National Electricity Commission of Mexico to begin carrying out feasibility studies for the dam. The future of the project is uncertain, but the resistance to this and other mega-projects is strong.

More than 30 other municipalities throughout Guatemala have exercised their right to territorial sovereignty and carried out referendums that reject various forms of resource extraction and energy projects on their lands.

“Article 169 of the ILO and the Universal Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples are two machetes we can use to defend our rights, but we have to know how to use them!" says Gonzalo Diaz* of the Catholic Church’s social branch. "Someone who doesn’t know how to use a machete ends up cutting himself.”

*Names have been altered upon request of interviewees.

Carrie Comer is currently working for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala and is based in Guatemala City.