Ixcan, Guatemala says NO to Xalala Dam

Guatemala is a beautiful country, known for its mountainous terrain, rich in shades of green year-round. Sparkling lakes and smoking volcanoes, crumbled ancient ruins and colorful pueblos scatter the landscape. The people here are rich in family and traditional culture, but under the soil lies something more important to certain international interests. These interests are willing to ignore and sweep aside all that is beautiful about Guatemala, including its people, to dig up the earth for a drop of oil or a piece of gold.

The communities and countries of the world are making great social, political and structural changes which are a product of neo-liberal globalization. The municipality of Ixcan is no exception. Located in the Quiche Department of northern Guatemala, on the border of Mexico, lies a vast countryside filled with coconut trees, banana trees, rushing rivers and the Mayan indigenous communities (mostly returned refugees who fled to Mexico during the civil war) who are mostly subsistence farmers, growing corn and beans. The Ixcan consists of 176 pueblos (about 75,000 people) that mostly live without electricity or running water.

On April 20, 2007, these communities held a Consulta Popular (popular referendum) on two themes: (1) the construction of hydroelectric dams on the rivers of the Ixcan, namely the Xalala Dam and (2) the permission to explore and exploit oil in the Ixcan. Out of the 19,911 people who voted, age 7 and older, 91% voted NO on both themes.

Consulta Popular: The Government Asks the People

A Consulta is a mechanism in which the authorities ask the people their opinion about important themes that directly relate to their lives, such as changes in laws, huge mega-projects or the exploitation of natural resources where they live. Within indigenous Mayan communities, the
Consulta is a traditional way in which to make decisions. The consensus process and the principles of unity are utilized to make decisions about projects which, as a result, will directly affect or benefit their communities. Many local Consultas have been held concerning development projects such as dams and mining projects in Rio Hondo (dam), Sipacapa (gold mining), Todos Santos (mining) and many others throughout Guatemala.

The results of the consulta determine the position the municipal director will take regarding the plans for these projects in the Ixcan. On April 20th, every person signed the referendum which will be sent to the capital and presented to Congress. The government then has the power to either listen to the demands of the people or ignore them. Unfortunately, the government of Guatemala has a reputation of corruption and impunity and therefore it is unlikely that the consulta will hold much power against the pressures of international development.

Rights of the People to Defend their Land

In order to open its doors to private enterprises, the Guatemalan government has had to change constitutional laws which facilitate the taxation of natural resources. For example, the Law of Hidrocarburos was changed reducing the amount of taxes paid by private corporations to the
Guatemalan government from 6% to 1%.

The right of the people to be consulted before a project has begun is recognized in every level of the Guatemalan government. Article 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala states a “right to life.” In the Ixcan, where the vast majority of people are peasant farmers, land and
water is life. Articles 66, 67 and 68 are laws that specifically protect the land of indigenous communities.

Convention (no.169) of the International Labor Organization is an international agreement which protects the rights of indigenous communities and tribes. It was ratified by the State of Guatemala in 1997 and states that “governments should respect and protect the property
rights and possession of lands that are traditionally occupied by indigenous people.” Furthermore, “governments should recognize the special importance that these communities have in relation to their land and territories.” It also states that “governments must consult the affected communities before authorizing any program that plans to exploit the natural resources in their territories.”

Hydroelectric Dams and Xalala

The World Commission of Dams publicly announced in 2000 that “the construction of dams is generally justified if they generate electricity, control the flow of water, minimize water that is a risk to the public or divert water from a city.” In the case of the Xalala Dam, the only function is to generate electricity.

The Xalala Dam is in the planning stages for the Ixcan on the Chixoy River. 18 communities (2,328 people) will be displaced and fertile land will be swallowed by an artificial lake. There is no way of calculating the number of communities who will be indirectly affected by the dam, but
certainly, life will change for those who live downstream. Their source of water will be drastically reduced which will in affect reduce the quality of life.

The (Guatemalan) National Institute of Electrification (INDE), along with other international interests, justifies the creation of the Xalala Dam. Their reasons include: (1) to generate cheap and clean electricity, (2) to save oil, (3) to be a self-sufficient nation, (4) to generate millions of dollars by selling the electricity, and (5) to provide electricity and development to rural communities. The INDE has also stated in other declarations that the electricity generated by the Xalala Dam will be sold to neighboring countries and will not serve to provide light to the
communities of the Ixcan.

The electricity generated from the Xalala Dam is destined to be sold to the Electric Networks of System Interconnection of the Countries of Central America (SIEPAC). This system was created to generate and sell electricity between countries and is part of the Plan Puebla Panama. This
multi-billion dollar development plan will ultimately privatize land, water and public services which will be controlled by foreign interests.

The World Commission of Dams has also indicated that, concerning the construction of huge dams, there are more negative than positive impacts and other alternatives should primarily be considered. Moreover, that “the free consent and opinion of the indigenous communities” is also an important factor.

Of these negative impacts, the most severe is displacement of communities who are forced to move and live up on the hillsides surrounding a new lake. This not only leaves the population in a worsened state of poverty, but the environment also suffers as a consequence. They communities have no option but to cut down more trees to plant food which causes soil
erosion and adds to the destruction of ecosystems.

In the case of Rio Negro, this community was violently displaced by the construction of the Chixoy Dam in 1982 during the military dictatorship of Rios Montt. More than 400 people were killed during a series of four massacres. Of those that survived, they were promised compensation by INDE and 25 years later they are still fighting for their money. 25 years later
they are still living without electricity.

Over $1.2 billion was put into the construction of the Chixoy Dam and it will be shut down in less than 20 years due to erosion. No environmental impact studies were ever done regarding this project and it is considered one of the biggest financial disasters in the history of Guatemala. The question is, will history repeat itself? Or will the Guatemalan government listen to the voice of the people?

Kimberly Kern (Austin, TX) is working as human rights accompanier for the Network in Solidarity for the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). She can be reached at kimika@riseup.net. Read other articles by Kimberly, or visit Kimberly's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. o. rana said on May 11th, 2007 at 9:26am #

    As ever, it seams that the rights of indienous people are under attack again. The destructive forces of capitalism seams to never understand anything else than their own greed for material wealth. But there are other values… If man is to survive we must learn from natives, to protect, not to destroy nature. I stronly believe it is imperative to the world society that we learn before it is too late. If nature goes down, we go down with it! The rights of native people to their land, way of life, and to decide upon their own future are secured in the UN Declaration of Human Rightc, HONOUR IT. OR

  2. Patrick said on May 11th, 2007 at 9:54am #

    uuuhhhh i dont get it!

  3. Mariel said on May 11th, 2007 at 4:40pm #

    As Guatemalan I get angry reading these kind of articles.
    First of all the World Commission of Dams is using the “or” in their statements – so generating electricity especially in a region where there is no power whatsoever should be reason enough…
    Second please have a look on the tools like consulta popular and research it a bit more. There have been very few “legal” consultas and the result is everytime the same 91% or more NO – why? Because interest groups with foreign money are making a good dime blocking and getting people to riots. There is nothing easier than corrupting these consultas with some money and incentives – there are kids at 7 year old voting – sometimes younger – 99% of voters can’t read or write – yes and no are usually simbols – often using Maya arts to reflect bad or good … the bad sign goes usually for the “yes”…

    I am sorry, but please “dissidents” and interest groups all over the world – start taking the chances of people in 3rd world countries serious. There is no other way than through educations and yes capital investments into infrastructure to bring people forward. People are starving hunger and don’t advance in generations – how can they expect better lives, if they are forced to vote “no” on progress – electricity…

  4. chris considine said on May 14th, 2007 at 10:23am #

    I am so grateful that the Guatemala has said NO to this project.
    They are taking a lesson from their Belizean neighbors after seeing that
    project built, and seeing their electricity bills go higher and higher.
    Of course the builder (Fortis) said this dam would ensure LOWER prices for all of the country, and in fact the profits of Fortis are hitting record highs on the backs of the Belizeans.
    In addition the Belizeans have lost one of the most significant ecological
    areas in all of Central America with the flooding from the dam. One of the most pristine areas for Scarlet Macaws was swallowed by the waters behind the dam, as well as a horrible increase in the hunting of all species in the entire area by the Chinese workers brought in to build it.

  5. godsman ellis said on May 16th, 2007 at 9:20pm #

    I would have had great encouragement if the UN had passed the Resolution on Indigenous Rights. The best to hope for in the face of the inevitable Plan Puebla Panama is a mitigation plan

  6. Kimberly Kern said on June 5th, 2007 at 11:06am #

    I am sorry this article makes you angry, but some of your comments have corrupted my point. I am not saying I’m against electricity for the people of the Ixcan. I think they deserve it as much as any other Guatemalan, but if we look to history to educate ourselves of the future, if this dam is built, it is highly unlikely that they will recieve elecricity or be able to afford it as an option.

    You say “a region where there is no power whatsoever”. This is not true. Many village centers have generators and many people have solar panels.

    Also, they did not use mayan symbols to vote in this consulta. Most communities raised hands together as a group and voted “si” or “no”. Some others had a secret ballot.

    I also think your comment about the literacy rate of the people in the Ixcan is offensive. One, where did you find the figure 99% illiteracy in the Ixcan. I serched for this figure and couldn’t find it, but in ,my experience living and working in the Ixcan, I faind it hard to believe this is true. Two, just because someone doesn’t know how to read or write does not make them stupid. They are mostly subsistance farmers. They don’t need to read to be able to realize that if their land and water is taken away, they can’t survive.

    But the significant point of this planned dam is the lack of transparancy of the project. The government and INDE are stating that the dam is planned to happen, but will give no information whatsoever as to who will be the contractors?, has environmental research been done in the proposed area?, will the displaced communities be compensated?, will INDE be held accountable for the transactions of money from the world lenders? These are questions that by law should be answered BEFORE any money is lent.

    If we had answers to these questions, we could make a better judgement whether this would, in fact, benefit the people of the Ixcan. None of these questions were asked regarding the Chixoy dam and it ended up a disaster, both for the people of Rio Negro and for the country as a whole who ended up paying back the money for the loans that members of INDE stole. In my opinion, the same is bound to happen with the Xalala dam.