By Lisa Rankin

Guatemala City, Guatemala

From April 6 to 9, I had the opportunity to participate in the Caravan for Dignity, Community Resistance and the Liberation of the Political Prisoners of Huehuetenango. We traveled to Northern Huehuetenango, from Santa Eulalia, to Santa Cruz Barillas to Ixquisis. These communities have all been affected by a number of hydroelectric dam projects, and as a result have numerous community leaders currently in jail or with arrest warrants, on false charges. The mission of the Caravan was so see and hear the struggles of communities in resistance to these projects, to gain a greater understanding of the context in the region, and the potential for local, national and international solidarity. The organizers of the caravan, the Departmental Assembly of the People of Huehuetenango (ADH), are long time partners of Breaking the Silence, a relationship built during the community consultations regarding mining in Huehuetenango.

In the days leading up to the Caravan, there were important shifts in the local context. 3 videos of masked individuals claiming to be leaders of a new armed resistance forming in the region, the Campesino Armed Forces (FAC), were made public before and during the caravan. These individuals claimed to be from the community of Ixquisis and said that they were taking up an armed struggle against the hydroelectric companies. Analysis of the videos demonstrated that the videos were not made by people from the Ixquisis area, and were possibly produced by the company themselves, looking for further militarization of the communities. The Guatemalan Convergence for Human Rights, a coalition of over 50 human rights organizations in the country,  quickly denounced the videos stating concern for human rights in the area of Ixquisis and demanding that the Public Prosecutor’s office investigate the existence of the FAC. These videos, however, created a discussion on the national level about the violence and criminality of communities in Northern Huehuetenango; Community members were described as violent criminals in the extreme right-wing media in Guatemala, and the territory of Ixquisis was presented as outside of the law.

The Caravan for Dignity

Our first stop on the caravan was the community of Santa Eulalia, home of political prisoners Rigoberto Juarez and Domingo Baltazar, who have been in jail since March 24, 2015. Both Juarez and Baltazar are well-known community leaders, who formed part of the Pluri-national Government. On the day of their arrest, they had traveled to Guatemala City to denounce threats and verbal abuse against them by the local mayor. The community leaders had been in resistance to the company Hidro San Luis.

Santa Eulalia was also the home of ancestral authority Daniel “Maya” Pedro, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2013. He was a community leader and founder of the local radio station, Snuq Jolom Konob. He was also an outspoken opponent to hydroelectric dam projects in the region, and many believe his murder was connected to his involvement in the resistance to megaprojects in the area. His murder have not been brought to justice. To learn more about the life and work of Daniel “Maya” Pedro, you can read this article in Cultural Survival (in English).  Referring to the unsolved murder and the cases of the political prisoners, coordinator of the ADH, Ruben Herrera stated, “We are not criminals. We are not conflictive. They are the criminals…We must continue the struggle for [Daniel Pedro and the political prisoners].”

The following day, the Caravan traveled to the community of Santa Cruz Barillas, site of the proposed Hidro Santa Cruz hydroelectric dam, owned by Spanish company Hidralia. The community was celebrating 3 years of resistance to hydroelectric projects, taking time to remember their own political prisoners: Saul Mendez and Rogelio Velasquez who were released in January after spending almost 3 years in preventative detention, and being found not guilty of all charges.  Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo , and Francisco Juan have been in jail since February 26, 2015, and Ermitaño López has been in jail since June 2 , 2015. All are from Santa Cruz Barillas, and have participated in the resistance to the hydroelectric dam project. During the celebrating, one of the community members stated, “Here it’s not one, it’s not two…the majority oppose Hidro Santa Cruz. As long as there are people, there will be resistance.”  There have been reports of up to another 100 arrest warrants being issued for community leaders and members of the resistance. This tactic is often used to create a level of fear from participation in community organizing, and arrest warrants can be used as a threat for many years.

Despite a community consultation in June 2007, which overwhelmingly rejected large scale resource exploitation projects in their municipality, the company began the first steps in constructing the site in 2010. With their entrance into the community, in addition to criminalization against human rights defenders and community leaders, came threats, violence and murders to those who voiced their opposition. Some community members then took direct action, vandalizing machinery located at the site. The company was forced to leave, and has not returned, despite the continued criminalization of leaders with no charges against them.

While in Barillas, we had the opportunity to visit the proposed site of the dam- a waterfall at the end of a river, Kam’balam, which passes through the town. We were led through the brush to the waterfall, about 30 meters high. The river has been used over the past number of years as a deposit for refuse from homes in the town, and is now contaminated. This was stated as one of the arguments for the company’s use of the river- no one can use the water anymore anyway. However, after three years of struggle to protect the river, there is hope that local authorities will take the initiative to protect the river from further contamination.

The following day, the last day of the Caravan, we traveled to the micro-region of Ixquisis, located only 15 minutes from the border with Mexico. Travel to the community is arduous, with winding dirt roads into the hills of Huehuetanango. The visit to Ixquisis was one of the main focuses of the Caravan; the struggle and resistance of the remote local community has been met with violence as another company, Promocion de Desarollo Hidrico (PDH S.A.), has set up and begun construction of a number of hydroelectric dams. The area receives little to no governmental support, but is now connected to the proposed national highway, the Franja Transversal del Norte, a highway looking to connect the Western Highlands and Mexico to Lake Izabal on the Atlantic Coast of the country. The intention of the State is to  connect existing mega-projects (i.e. electricity from hydroelectric dams for mining and African palm production) and create more accessible shipping corridors in the country, as well as facilitate the construction of new projects, such as the hydroelectric dams in Ixquisis. Community members stated they have been “marginalized by capitalist ideologies” and “marginalized and forgotten by the government” in the process. Much of the Northern Transversal Highway cuts through indigenous territory and protected areas.

Earlier that day, a paid press release was printed in El Periodico in Guatemala City of local authorities from Ixquisis expressing their support for the project and their lack of support for the Caravan. Upon arrival to the community, leaders clearly stated that they had not signed such a document.

The community members expressed concern for the deviation of rivers- at least two rivers will be used for the dam. They expressed their concern for paramilitaries acting in the region in support of the companies, and that those who oppose the projects receive threats and intimidation.

The mirco-region of Ixquisis was also heavily affected during the internal armed conflict, with a high presence of military officials in the region due to strategic and economic importance. One community member stated, “Today isn’t 1980. We need justice.” Today, there is clear military presence in the community- since 2013 the local military base has been located beside the company’s offices. This is a common trend; military bases have been set up to protect the Marlin Mine in San Miguel Ixtauacan, San Marcos, the Escobal mine in San Rafael las Flores, Santa Rosa and there are ongoing attempts to open a military base at the El Tambor mine in San José del Golfo y San Pedro Ayampuc.

As in many of the communities where megaprojects look to enter, they have promised community development projects to communities. As the people of Ixquisis are currently without electricity this has been one of the main promises, much like in Rio Negro, which neighbours the Chixoy dam. As with Rio Negro, which  only just received electricity through their own initiative over 35 years after the construction of the dam, there is not much hope in Ixquisis. The Promocion Desarollo Hidrico is not an electricity distributor, it only generates electricity and  does not have the capability to provide electricity for the community- a fact they have tried to keep in the dark.

Leaving the community of Ixquisis, the need for further follow-up on this case became apparent. The community is very rural, with no electricity and losing its main water sources. A ride to municipal capital, San Mateo Ixtatan, costs q1500 or about $250. This physical distance has been used to the advantage of the company; it’s easier to ignore human rights abuses occurring so far from the national or departmental capital. However, the message was clear: there are human rights abuses occurring in the mirco-region of Ixquisis in relation to the imposition of hydroelectric dam projects in the area. Now, there is a need to pressure governmental authorities both in Guatemala and abroad to address these abuses.

The Big Picture

These are  not issues unique to Northern Huehuetenango. Throughout Guatemalan, rivers are being diverted for monoculture production of sugarcane and African palm, hydroelectric dams and contaminated by mines and agricultural activity. This week, the March for Water in Guatemala will culminate in the capital on April 22 after 11 days of walking from different points throughout the country. Small farmers and community organizations throughout the country are demanding the protection of natural resources, and a stop to the criminalization of human rights and environmental defenders who stand up to the invasion of national and transnational companies. The March for Water makes it abundantly clear- all of Guatemala must stand up to the contamination and theft of water resources, from Rio Negro to Ixquisis.

Canadian is not exempt from implication in these conflicts. The energy produced by the hydroelectric dams will power megaprojects like Canadian Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine and other agro-export companies and mega-projects around the country. What energy is left will be sold to other countries. This development model has been strongly pushed by the Canadian government for many years, and has proved financially beneficial for Canadian companies.

In March, human rights defender and environmental defender Berta Caceres was murdered for her participation in COPINH (Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras) and the organization’s resistance to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. She was a world renowned activist, who had been receiving death threats for a number of years, but with an increase in recent months due to opposition to the Agua Zarca project. Her family implicates the Honduran government, and the financiers for the project.  The Canadian government, while expressing concern for the murder of Ms. Caceres, continues to maintain its relationship with the Honduran government despite over 100 activists killed since the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras. A letter to the Canadian government by over 50 Canadian organizations after the murder of Ms. Caceres states, “Canadian authorities pushed for a new mining law and signed a free trade agreement with Honduras to benefit Canadian investors.”

Despite being touted as “green energy”, communities in resistance in Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and all over the world are resisting the imposition of these projects for the environmental destruction they cause, affecting communities’ way of life, their agricultural production, transportation and community cohesion.  As Breaking the Silence, we must continue our solidarity with communities who struggle to define what “development” means in their communities. We have heard from the community of Ixquisis- they majority of community members do not support a hydroelectric project in their territory. we must we continue to join the call of communities from around the word to demand our government to.protect the rights of communities and  human rights leaders over the demands of companies.