Guatemala dam will bring money, misery
Sunday, June 8, 2008
04:00 PDT Las Margaritas Copón, Guatemala — Alejandro Che Paau’s home is slated to be under water by 2013.
Paau was born in this Maya-Q’eqchi jungle village of 300 people perched above the verdant banks of the Chixoy and Copón rivers in northern Guatemala. Fields of cardamom and corn surround several dozen palm-thatched homes, which are accessible only by boat or foot.
But the junction of these two jade-colored rivers, a 20-minute descent from Paau’s home, is also the proposed site for the nation’s second-largest hydroelectric project – the Xalalá Dam. His village is one of 18 communities that would become a 3-square-mile reservoir.
In Guatemala, a country where roughly 2 percent of the population owns 70 percent of productive farmland, according to the Harvard International Review, most subsistence farmers like Paau can only dream of fertile floodplains and fish-filled rivers of Las Margaritas Copón. Not surprisingly, the 25-year-old farmer has no plans of giving up his land.
“My grandfather was born on this land and my children will be born on this land,” he said.
Since bidding began last year for the estimated $400 million, 181-megawatt dam project, at least five companies from Taiwan, Spain, Colombia, Brazil and the United States have tendered offers. Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, the world’s second richest man after American Warren Buffett, has also indicated interest before a July deadline to halt all bids.
Luring foreign investors
The Xalalá Dam is one of several energy projects proposed by Guatemala’s National Electrification Institute, or INDE, to attract foreign companies to invest in renewable energy. It is expected to increase the national energy reserve by 10 percent, generate annual profits of between $100 million and $150 million, and bring affordable energy to more than 2 million people while saving 4 million barrels of oil annually. Eighty percent of the dam’s shares would be foreign-owned. Foreign and national companies would divide revenues for the first 30 years, after which INDE would collect all profits.
The U.S. company interested in the project, AES Corp. of Arlington, Va., is currently building another Central American dam in La Amistad National Park, a World Heritage Site shared by Panama and Costa Rica. The Panamanian government faces legal charges in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for signing a contract with AES that denied the Ngobe people who inhabit the land, the right to “free, prior, and informed consent” regarding decisions about their land and future, a right recognized by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
36 villages to be flooded
AES officials did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about its interest in the Xalalá Dam.
But INDE spokesman Fredy Lopez said the dam project is a great opportunity for Guatemala to reduce its dependence on oil and imported energy.
“Using clean technology, this hydroelectric (dam) will increase Guatemala’s productivity and the peoples’ access to electricity,” he said.
But the dam is also expected to flood the homes of 2,338 people along 26 miles of the Chixoy River and 10 miles of the Copón, affecting 36 villages. The government has yet to announce a compensation package. And for the time being, INDE will make no public statement about resettlement plans, according to Lopez.
In April 2007, affected communities held a referendum on whether to allow the construction of large-scale hydroelectric projects such as Xalalá and oil exploration on their lands – a right granted to them by the Guatemalan Constitution and municipal law. Of 21,155 voters, 89.7 percent said no.
But Guatemala’s highest legal body, the Constitutional Court, has said since that results are not legally binding if the issue is deemed to be of national interest.
Paau hopes the referendum will be respected eventually, citing its legal basis in Guatemala’s Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which gives indigenous populations the right to decide “their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use.”
“If the government doesn’t respect the referendum, it is violating our rights,” said Paau.
To be sure, local apprehension runs deep.
In 1982, security forces massacred 177 women and children in Rio Negro, a village along a southern stretch of the Chixoy River 30 miles south of Las Margaritas Copón, to build the nation’s largest hydroelectric dam. At the time, the Maya community strongly opposed the 300-megawatt Chixoy Dam.
Three massacres followed in 1982 in which 444 of Rio Negros 791 residents were killed, according to the Guatemala Truth Commission. The Chixoy Dam, largely financed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, eventually inundated Rio Negro and more than 3,000 acres of crops. Security forces forced survivors into a militarized village four hours away.
Long wait for recompense
Today, Rio Negro survivors are still fighting for reparations, living on small, arid plots eight hours away by bus from farmland provided by the government. And even though INDE’s resettlement plan also promised them free electricity and potable water, many cannot afford their utility bills or the bus fare needed to work their crops.
INDE maintains that resettlement obligations have been fulfilled, and that since privatization of utility companies in 1998, it is no longer responsible for providing electricity to the relocated community or responding to reparation complaints.
Although Las Margaritas Copón residents have yet to be approached by INDE officials, Paau fears the Xalalá project would leave his community with the same problems as Rio Negro. “We know this dam is not being built for us,” he said.
Aviva Imhof, campaigns director of International Rivers, a Berkeley-based nonprofit group, says the government should not proceed with the dam project until it honors past resettlement promises.
“The government should do a comprehensive assessment of all the options for meeting the country’s energy needs, and should pay reparations to communities affected by the Chixoy Dam, before making any decision to proceed with the Xalalá project,” she said.
Emiliano Panjoj, mayor of Santa Maria TzejÀ, a small village that voted overwhelmingly no in the 2007 referendum, says his community would be better served by small-scale ecotourism projects, a new high school and an improved health clinic.
“It’s not that we’re against development,” he said. “We just want it to be our own kind of development.”
Meanwhile, Paau is eager for any new information that might decide the future of his village.
“The newspapers say this area is uninhabited, that there are only a few families that would have to be relocated,” said Paau. “But there are thousands of us. For the government, these rivers mean money. For us, the rivers are our life.”
E-mail Hilly McGahan at email@example.com.