Ixcan, Guatemala says NO to Xalala Dam

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 20, 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. Eighteen 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.