Hydroelectric dam project sparks violence in Guatemala
By Theo Bradford
On May 1, three community leaders in Santa Cruz Barillas, in Guatemala's Huehuetenango Department, were attacked by a group of gunmen allegedly due to their opposition to a dam planned for the local area. Andrés Francisco Miguel was killed in the attack, while his colleagues Paul Antonio Paul and Esteban Bernabé were seriously injured. All three men had refused to sell their land to the Spanish company Hydro Santa Cruz for the development of the "Cambalam" dam project.
In June 2007, 46,479 members of the community voted unequivocally against mining and hydroelectric projects within their municipality. Nevertheless, in 2009, Hydro Santa Cruz began exploring the area and promoting the Cambalam project. If it goes ahead, the dam will alter the course of the Q'anb'alam river, with significant social and environmental impacts. The local community - indigenous Q'anjobal Maya - use the river for bathing, recreation and as a sacred ceremonial site. They also depend on the river for their livelihoods as it supplies water to surrounding agricultural land.
Local people say Hydro Santa Cruz has launched an aggressive publicity campaign, threatening community members who refuse to sell their land and co-opting opposition leaders. The company has also taken legal action against them; in 2009, 10 locals with properties on the river banks were charged with incitement to violence, defamation and illegal detention. In response to the conflict, town officials held a meeting in which it was decided that the community would reject the dam project on its land. The company in turn filed a lawsuit against the town. The judge ruled in favour of the company, asserting that the community had no right to intervene in the dam's construction.
In June last year, the area came under heavy guard by security forces who began to refuse community members access to the river and nearby agricultural land. After several unsuccessful appeals to the authorities, locals tried to expel the security forces from the area. In response, the authorities issued 23 arrest warrants against community leaders. In spite of ongoing attempts by the community to negotiate with the company and the government, no dialogue has been established and the project looks set to proceed with or without local people's approval.
Civil unrest erupted earlier this month in response to the attack on the local opposition leaders Miguel, Paul and Bernabé. Thousands of people took to the streets, storming a military outpost and seizing weaponry. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency in the area, suspending civil liberties and authorising arrest and search warrants against leaders of the protests. Nine hundred members of the armed forces and police were deployed in the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, while 20 homes were searched and 17 people arrested. The state of emergency was lifted on May 18, but 120 armed policemen will remain in the area.
No arrest has been made in connection with the attack on Miguel and his colleagues - which the government has claimed was merely the result of a drunken brawl. Witnesses, on the other hand, claim that the car the gunmen were driving was similar to those used by Hydro Santa Cruz. The government has also denied that the state of emergency had anything to do with the dispute over the dam. President Otto Pérez Molina put the recent social conflict down to drug cartels, while Minister for the Interior Mauricio López Bonillo claimed the intervention was due to the situation becoming ‘ungovernable', adding: "This town has always been troublesome."
Concerns over human rights abuses
According to community leaders from Santa Cruz Barillas, "Allies of the company are handing in lists of activists, and the army is coming to take them away, just as the military did during the country's civil war. They are invading public buses, demanding ID cards in streets... The state of Guatemala continues to give concessions and licenses to foreign companies without taking into account the views and opinions of the local population that live in the area, violating convention 169 of the ILO and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
Alberto Brunori, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala, said he had been informed about recent human rights violations and threats in the area, and declared that at least nine of the arrests made under the state of emergency were illegal by international standards. Guatemalan NGOs UDEFEGUA (La Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos) and Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos (CIIDH) have both expressed concern about the abuse of the community's rights. "If the origin of the conflict is not addressed, and the company goes ahead with the dam in spite of community opposition, more violence is to be expected in the future," said Jorge Santos from CIIDH. The violence has also been condemned by indigenous rights group Cultural Survival and environmental NGO Friends of the Earth.
The case of Santa Cruz Barillas is not the first time that a hydroelectric project has caused problems in Guatemala. During the country's internal conflict of the 1980s and 90s, the construction of the World Bank-funded Chixoy dam resulted in the massacre of hundreds of the local Maya-Achi population when they refused to move to make way for the project. Some 3,500 community members were displaced, while a further 6,000 suffered loss of lands and livelihoods. Though there have recently been negotiations over reparations for damages, local community members have yet to receive any compensation.
Guatemala's government plans to build some 20 hydroelectric dams in the next 20 years in an effort to diversify the country's energy supply and decrease its dependence on oil imports. The Xalala dam, on the Chixoy River, just downstream from the Chixoy dam, is one of them. If the project goes ahead, more than 10,000 indigenous people will be affected. In 2007, a referendum organised by local communities yielded a resounding ‘no', with 90 percent voting against the dam. The government, however, refuses to recognise the vote as binding. The project's future remains uncertain as an auction in November 2008 failed to attract any investors due to community opposition and the global financial crisis.
President Pérez Molina has confirmed that the dam project in Santa Cruz Barillas will go ahead, but under the condition that the company must be environmentally and socially responsible. He also announced that the government will hold a roundtable discussion on how to avoid states of emergency in future situations of social conflict.
Theo Bradford is a postgraduate student at the Institute of the Americas and a volunteer with Central America Report.