Standing in the Way of Extractivism: Guatemalan Community Activists Resist Meg-Dams

The arrest of community activist Blanca Guitz Pop in Coban, Guatemala on April 27, 2017. Photo by Jeff Abbott.

Blanca Guitz Pop gave a thumbs up as she stood, handcuffed, next to her brother, Rolando Guitz Pop, outside of the courthouse in Coban, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala on April 27. The two siblings were flanked by members of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, as they stood in the shade to escape the hot humid day. Minutes before, the two had presented before a judge their first declarations on charges of threats and aggravated assault.

“All the accusations are false,” said Blanca Guitz Pop. “I know that [because we are] defending our rights; they have accused me of being a thief.”

Both Blanca and her brother are community leaders from the Q’eqchi Maya community of Monte Olivo. Since 2009, they have led the movement in their community’s movement against the construction of the Santa Rita dam, which, if constructed, threatens to displace local residents.

Following their declaration, the judge released both Rolando and Blanca to house arrest on a $5,000 quetzales, or roughly $660 US dollars, bail. This does not mean that the charges are dropped, but rather they await the findings of a pending investigation by the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office (MP).

But according to lawyers, the MP has already acted in poor faith in regard to the case. They point to the fact that the charges, and the subsequent arrest of Blanca and Rolando on April 21, all came as a surprise to the lawyers and the defendants.

“Rolando and Blanca were brought to the MP to give a statement [to remove other charges],” said Santiago Choc, one of the lawyers for the two defendants. “But to our surprise they were arrested after they made their statements. We had no idea that there were arrest warrants against them, and we were told that there were none. The district attorney acted in bad faith.”

The criminal charges brought against the two community leaders reflect the wider campaign against activists that organize against mega-projects across Guatemala. According to their lawyers, the criminalization represents another means used by the company to divide the community.

“The company [building the dam] is trying to divide the community,” said Choc. “They arrive in the pretext of giving the community work, and as a result there are people that are in agreement with the project, and those that resist the project. Because of this, the case is very delicate.”

The hamlet of Monte Olivo sits some distance down a dirt road winding through the jungle, far from the main highway between Coban and Chisec, Alta Verapaz. The quiet community of campesinos primarily grows maize, beans, and cardamom, which is for export. Yet the community’s land is threated by the flooding that would be created by the construction of the Santa Rita dam.

Since 2009, the communities along the Dolores river have protested the construction of the 24-megawatt Santa Rita dam.

The project has received investments through several European Development banks. And as the Guardian points out, once completed, the dam will qualify to provide carbon credits that can be traded under the European Union’s emission’s trading system.

In 2015, the New York-based Real Infrastructure Capital Partners invested $15 million dollars into the Santa Rita project.

The project was awarded Green Energy certification through the United Nations and the Colombian Institute for Technical Standards and Certification in January 2014, and was graded on the requirements issued in UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to these world bodies, the project met the clean energy requirements established through the 1997 Kyoto talks.

However, the construction of the dam has been marked by human rights violations, violent evictions, and most recently the criminalization of the two leaders.

In 2013, a private security guard shot and killed David Eduardo Pacay Maas and Hageo Isaac Guitz, 11 and 13, who were reportedly playing in a field near the site of the dam.

The following year, in August 2014, Monte Olivo was one of three hamlets violently evicted by the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC) to make way for the construction of the dam. In mid-August of that year, thousands of police were deployed to evict the residents from their land.

Community members hid in the hills above the community as the police burned fields, homes, and personal belongings. The terror felt by residents brought back the horror of the years of Guatemala’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict.

These tragic memories were raised once again during the later eviction of the community of Samococh, when police executed three residents: Sebastian Rax, Oscar Chen Quej and Luciano Can Jucub.

Following the evictions, residents slowly returned to rebuild their houses and their lives.

Guatemala is undergoing a massive expansion of energy generation, a move which is supported by international development banks and the United States government. The calls for integration of the infrastructures of Central America date back to the 1980s, but were unable to advance due to armed conflicts.

The name of the regional integration project may have changed over the last two decades, but the plan has remained the same. In 2002, the calls for integration came through Plan Puebla-Panama, which sought to integrate Mexico and Central America, from Puebla to Panama. The plan was wrought by corruption and problems.

It was renamed Plan Mesoamerica in 2006, and was slowly implemented through the construction of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System, and the establishment a regional energy market. In this plan, countries such as Guatemala are designated as regional energy producers, and are set to export energy to the other countries on the system.

These plans have been reiterated by both the Inter-American Development Bank and Washington, which have called for the doubling of energy production in Guatemala by 2024. This expansion is based on the construction of many medium-sized hydro-electric projects across the country. Today Guatemala exports energy to Central America and Mexico.

Back in Alta Verapaz, the protest of residents has delayed the construction of the Santa Rita dam. The leaders from Monte Olivo have stated that they will continue to maintain the resistance in spite of state’s oppression and the criminalization campaign against anti-dam activists.

“I tell my friends and young women to keep defending, even if they criminalize and imprison us,” said Guitz Pop. “We do not have to be afraid, and we must continue to [protect what] God gave us. Because without water we die; the same happens if there is no food. I ask the companeras to strengthen the defense of the territory even if they do to them what they did with me – being imprisoned for six days unjustly. But it strengthens me, and I will continue to fight.”

Rony Morales contributed to this report

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, the North American Congress on Latin America, and The Progressive. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo