After eight years of struggle, communities in Huehuetenango, Guatemala are celebrating a decision by Spanish company Ecoener-Hidralia to start shutting down its Hidro Santa-Cruz damming operations on the Q’am B’alam river near Santa Cruz Barillas.
The company’s announcement, made on December 29th, signals the end of a tragic legacy of political persecution and imprisonment, criminalisation of resistance, threats and the murder of social leaders. In a spectacular understatement, the company said its studies had concluded the project was “not viable” and noted it “has not acquired the acceptance of a significant part of the inhabitants of the territory in which it was intended to settle.”
First announced in 2009, the proposed 5 megawatt facility outraged local communities from the start. Exploitation of the river and its three waterfalls, which are considered sacred by the indigenous Q’anjob’al community, would have flooded some of Guatamala’s most biodiverse areas and caused huge disruption to the region. Its forests are home to the highest numbers of native plant species anywhere in the country and the region contains four watersheds providing water for over 200,000 people. A UNESCO study marked Barillas as being of the highest priority for conservation efforts.
The community had already held a referendum decisively rejecting the exploitation of Barillas’ natural resources by transnational companies in 2007. The government initially ignored this rising chorus of dissent however and gave its blessing to Hidro, which had financial backing from the World Bank. But when indigenous peoples began protesting they were met with extreme violence. Numerous people have been imprisoned, threatened and killed during the campaign, including two children shot dead in 2013 by a Hidro employee as he looked for a local organiser. A list of people killed is maintained at internationalrivers.org.
The aggressiveness of the hydro dam’s backers reached a high point in early 2012 with the murder of community leader Andrés Pedro Miguel, attributed to security officers hired by the multinational company. Legal authorities decided to leave this crime unpunished but the outrage of communities was then used as an excuse by the Guatemalan government, led by newly-installed president Otto Pérez Molina, to declare martial law. The entire town was surrounded by the army, and several campaigners were promptly arrested. A military presence would continue to be maintained throughout the years that followed as community leaders like Daniel Pedro Mateo, who was kidnapped and tortured, wound up dead while the company tried to get its way.
Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango and CEIBA member Basilio Tzoy, in an interview with Real World Radio, said: “As the people of Barillas we see this as a great victory. This is an important achievement towards the defence of the territory and the natural resources of the people, and it is a message for other companies in the country and the world.”
Tzoy believes that the “key factor” for this victory was the struggle of “the people through community consultations since 2007, and then with the support of different organisations and individuals who opposed the state of emergency in 2012 and advocated for the freedom of political prisoners.”
Tzoy also highlighted the importance of solidarity shown by regional and international organisations that acted to stop the advance of the project, for instance work by the the International Mission on Human Rights carried out in 2013 in the framework of the 5th Latin American Meeting of the Network of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers, Communities and Water (REDLAR).
Another important action, he said, was the delivery of over 23,000 signatures by Friends of the Earth Spain and Alianza por la Solidaridad to the Guatemalan ambassador in Spain, demanding the definitive withdrawal of the multinational from the country.
The struggle continues
In addition to celebrating this victory, the communities of Barillas have identified their next steps to strengthen solidarity with the q’anjob’al and chuj peoples of San Mateo Ixtatán municipality, who are facing down hydroelectric projects owned by Promoción y Desarrollo Hídricos (PDHSA). According to Tzoy, the leaders of these communities, who live in a heavily militarised territory, have seen “over 17 arrest warrants against them and over 50 legal complaints” for defending their territories.
With reference to the territories occupied by Hidro Santa Cruz, the activist said that starting next year, local organisations will meet to define how they will be recovered. Tzoy said that Guatemalan social movements have been meeting for over two months now, carrying out actions to demand the State acknowledge the right of indigenous peoples to their territories and to denounce the attacks and criminalisation of the struggles of their communities.
Speaking to “the people of Latin America and the world resisting neoliberalism,” Tzoy said: “The struggles take long and are hard, but the fruits can be reaped as long as we persevere.”