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Indigenous Communities Seek Autonomous Development Projects in Guatemala

Guatemalan Indigenous peoples are seeking autonomous development projects as alternatives to mega hydroelectric projects.

The fourth meeting of Latin America Network Against Dams and For Rivers was held in Colonia el Naranjo, Guatemala in October 2005. (Photo: Glen Switkes / International Rivers)

As Guatemala faces its greatest political crisis since the 1980s, behind the scenes, plans for the United States’ Alliance for Prosperity continue to move along. The plan, which was modeled after Plan Colombia, would provide the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the “northern triangle” of Central America – with an additional $1 billion aid package, on top of existing aid plans, to spur further investment in the region. The expansion of hydroelectric construction projects and the further integration of electric grids are central to the plan, yet these projects threaten indigenous communities’ land rights.

Hydroelectric dams have been presented as renewable, “green” sources of energy, with little to no impact on the environment. But environmental impact reports consistently overlook the deep social and cultural effects of the projects, especially for indigenous Mayan communities.

According to a 2012 report by the Guatemalan Wholesale Market Administration, Guatemala produces 2.3 gigawatts of energy every year, but consumes only 1.8 gigawatts. The remainder is exported through SIEPAC, a regional energy transportation network that sends power to other Central American countries, Mexico and – reportedly – the United States. Yet despite this energy surplus, many regions across Guatemala still lack access to electricity or any other social services.

Guatemala’s hydroelectric industry has expanded rapidly in the last six years, and it is still growing, with more than 300 hydroelectric projects in progress. In the past, expansion of infrastructure in Guatemala was based on a nationalist model of development. But in the era of neoliberalism, multinational companies have taken the lead on the expansion of projects across the region. Multinational companies from Spain, Honduras and Israel privately fund today’s hydroelectric projects.

The widespread construction of hydroelectric dams has renewed conflicts between transnational corporations – allied with the Guatemalan government – and indigenous Mayan communities, echoing the violence of the past.

“They may no longer kill us with bullets, but they are still killing us and taking our natural resources.”

Many of these communities, in regions such as Huehuetenango, El Quiche and Alta Verapaz, were targeted in the Guatemalan military’s genocidal campaign in the 1980s. Then, it was common for the military to be deployed against indigenous communities who stood in the way of infrastructure development projects. For example, from 1981 to 1983, the military murdered over 500 indigenous Q’eqchis to make way for the World Bank-sponsored Chixoy dam project.

“The war never ended,” a member of the community of 31 de Mayo, who declined to be named, told Truthout. “The peace accord was their thing, something to give the appearance of peace. They may no longer kill us with bullets, but they are still killing us and taking our natural resources.”

When the massacres were revealed, the World Bank condemned the murders and stated that similar violence would never be permitted alongside their projects. But today indigenous communities resisting the construction of projects that are certified and sponsored by the World Bank, the United Nations and the United States once again face violence for their resistance.

The 1996 peace accords opened up new space for the Maya, Xinca and Garifuna peoples of Guatemala to practice their traditional forms of social organization and begin constructing their own forms of autonomy. For the first time, Guatemala was recognized as a plural-national state, with several distinct cultures, languages and social structures. In 1997, Guatemala became a signatory of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and elements recognizing the rights of indigenous people were included within the Guatemalan Constitution.

But the expansion of the hydroelectric projects, and the accompanying violence, has continued, reflecting the division that remains in Guatemala nearly 20 years after the signing of the peace accords. As a woman associated with the indigenous rights organization Waqib Kej stated: “There are two sides to the Guatemalan reality. There is the side of business and the government, and there is the side of the indigenous communities, those affected by the megaprojects.”

Evictions and Dispossession for Private Accumulation

The expansion of Guatemala’s hydroelectric industry has had disastrous effects on the country’s indigenous people. The 24-megawatt Santa Rita dam under construction on the Icobay River exemplifies the problem.

The Guatemalan-based company Hydro Electrical Santa Rita S.A., owned by the elite López-Roesch family, first proposed the Santa Rita hydro project in 2009. The powerful and influential cement company Cementos Progreso, owned by the Guatemalan Novella family, is reported to also have interests in the project.

However, the project’s owners are now facing accusations of substantial human rights violations, including the deaths of community members resisting construction of the dam.

Despite these allegations, the Santa Rita dam has received the blessings of international bodies. In January 2014, the United Nations and the Colombian Institute for Technical Standards and Certification granted the Santa Rita dam green energy certification, based on the requirements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to the certification, the dam met all the clean development requirements established during the Kyoto talks in 1997.

But as is common in Guatemala, the impacted indigenous communities were not given a voice in planning the project. This exclusion sparked the initial conflict over the project and led to the violent eviction of indigenous communities that lived there for generations.

The communities along the River Dolores, one of the headwaters of the Icobay River, have resisted the project since it was first announced. They are concerned that the project will lead to the destruction of their land and forests. But this resistance has led to violence against the community.

August 14, 2015, marked the one-year anniversary of the violent eviction of the Q’eqchi Mayan residents of the Monte Olivo and Samococh communities to make way for the Santa Rita dam. The communities commemorated the eviction with music and theatre performances, but the painful memories of the year before underlay the festive atmosphere.

“It has been one year since we had to flee to the mountains, leaving our houses open to the riot police,” recalled David Chen, a resident of Monte Olivo. “But today we have returned to our homes. We are going to continue to exercise our right to demonstrate and to defend our land and territory.”

”Whenever they implement one of these megaprojects, they do not consult the populations that are affected.”

In Monte Olivo, the state used its full force against the community. On August 14, 2014, 600 police units were deployed to evict a community of a few hundred families along the River Dolores. Residents fled to the hills above their community, just as they had done during the bloody internal armed conflict. But for many, the parallels to the internal armed conflict went beyond merely hiding in the hills; police and military illegally burned fields, homes and belongings, just as they had done during the war.

“The police are not legally supposed to burn the houses, the crops etc.,” said Juan Roberto Buzoc Che, a Q’eqchi Maya who works with the Mayan Association for Community Service and Development (ASOMADIC). “But here they did.”

“I was pregnant when we had to flee to the mountain when the police came to invade our community,” one resident, who requested anonymity, told Truthout. “When we returned two days later from the mountain, our house was completely destroyed, and the police threw all our things all over the place, and robbed many items. My house was violated; this is the repression that we suffered at the hands of the government.”

In the following days, two other communities, 9 de Febrero and Samococh, both faced similar violent evictions to make way for the dam. These communities were driven out by 1,600 police units, and 22 community leaders were detained.

But the tragedy of the eviction didn’t stop there.

During the eviction of Samococh, police shot and killed three men, Sebastian Rax, Oscar Chen Quej and Luciano Can Jucub. Both Rax and Can Jucub were fathers and leaders in the community, and Chen Quej was a young member of the community. The killings have been declared extrajudicial executions, and 19 officers who participated in the eviction were eventually arrested.

Activists and community members have also claimed that the police tactics changed between the beginning of the evictions and the second day. They charge that there was an infiltration by the military during the eviction.

“There was an infiltration by military in police uniforms during the second day of the eviction,” Buzoc Che told Truthout. “This infiltration wasn’t just by any soldier; it was the soldiers that were trained in terror.”

According to Buzoc Che, this is just another example of how the constitution and the peace accords are violated by the unification of the police and military during operations. But it is difficult to confirm this charge of infiltration.

The three men killed in Samococh are only the latest victims of this conflict over the Santa Rita dam. The community has accused the company of the murder of four youths by people on the company’s payroll, and the 2013 murder of two boys, David Eduardo Pacay Maas and Hageo Isaac Guitz, 11 and 13, respectively, who were playing in a field near the construction site near Monte Olivo on the day they were shot and killed by an associate of the project. There was never an investigation into the murders.

The communities had demanded a public consultation in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, but the departmental and state authorities denied the request.

The communities have stated that they are not necessarily against development projects. Rather, they oppose the form that these projects take, including eviction from their ancestral land and other violations of their rights.

“It isn’t that [indigenous communities] are against the development,” Buzoc Che told Truthout. “The problem is that they are not in agreement with the form and the methodology of work. There are constitutional and international rights of indigenous communities that companies and the government must comply with. However, whenever they implement one of these megaprojects, they do not consult the populations that are affected. We feel affected by these projects. It is because of this that we resist. But the state uses the entire force of the state and the police against these communities.”

But there are alternatives to these projects of death and destruction.

Autonomy as an Alternative

In the remote central region of La Zona Reyna, between the Ixil Triangle and the Ixcan, small communities produce export crops such as cardamom, cacao and coffee, and cultivate subsistence crops on small fields called milpas. There is little state presence, and the only development projects are the construction of private mega-dams like the Santa Rita dam. However, a small-scale, community-led hydroelectric project has revolutionized life there, and offers an alternative to the destructive megaprojects.

Following the end of the war, former Communities of Populations in Resistance (CPR) arrived on the former fincas (farming estates) to build their new lives following decades of war. In 1998, the hamlets of San Antonio Nueva Esperanza, 31 de Mayo, San Marcos La Libertad, El Lidio and Te Sólo Nuevo de Marzo were founded by these former rebel communities.

“This idea came from the time in the mountains,” Regina, a member of the Community Association of the Sierras, told Truthout. “The idea of community energy in the schools for the children and the hospitals began there during the resistance.”

Soon after, the communities began to develop a community-based hydroelectric project, but it stalled due to a lack of funds. In 2008, the community organized the installation of a single turbine in the river Lidios, with assistance from the Norwegian Embassy. The project first began operating on May 5, 2012. It produces 1 megawatt of energy, enough to power nearly 400 homes.

“The big businesses only think about the profits, and never about the impacts that they bring.”

Energy prices skyrocketed after privatization in 1997, but the community-based hydro project allows the communities in La Zona Reyna to avoid the high prices. Whereas it is common for households to pay over 125 quetzales a month for power (about $16), the residents in La Zona Reyna pay 20 quetzales a month. And the money stays in the community instead of profiting a foreign company.

“For many years we have been without energy,” Regina said. “In La Zona Reyna, the energy that is produced is sent to other countries, such as Costa Rica and Mexico, but not for Guatemala. [The communities] think, ‘How is it that the energy leaves from here, and we stay without energy?’ Here we now have energy.”

“31 de Mayo is an example,” Regina added. “For the people, these projects show that they don’t only need the business for energy; communities too can administer their own resources. If they don’t administer their own resources, it is going to cause damage to the people.”

Initially, not every community in the region benefited from the project. So at the end of 2014, the communities decided to expand their energy production capacity. In December 2014, the communities started installing a second turbine. It began operating in January 2015. A third turbine in the community of La Taña began operating at the end of September 2015.

Today, the majority of houses in four of the six communities receive energy from the river. There are plans to provide the remaining community of La Gloria, a nearby community that was established years before the CPR communities arrived, with energy from another turbine in the near future.

The project has guaranteed that they communities are able to benefit from the natural resources that exist so close to their homes. It has also meant an improved standard of living, with one resident commenting, “You need to go to El Lidio; they have actual streetlights.”

These autonomous projects stand in stark contrast to the violence that accompanies the construction of megaprojects, especially the expansion of hydroelectric projects across the country.

“The big businesses only think about the profits, and never about the impacts that they bring,” Regina told Truthout. “They are giving us so many problems.”

She added, “Why do they have to evict us and destroy our communities when the solution is so easy?”

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