‘The authorities say they want to consult us. But they never listen.”
The speaker is Omar Geronimo, an activist from the Nuevo Día Ch’orti Indigenous Association, based in the region around Chiquimula in the east of Guatemala.
Omar is a member of the Ch’ orti Mayan people, who have lived and worked in this region for hundreds of years.
Their way of life is being threatened by the construction of several large hydro-electric dams on the Rio Grande in the municipalities of Camotán and Jocotan.
As in many parts of Guatemala, the new projects involve a very different model of development from the one traditionally followed by the Mayan communities.
The Nuevo Día Association was formed in 2003, when the Mayan communities around Chiquimulawere badly affected by the collapse of the local coffee plantations that left them without livelihoods.
Now Nuevo Día represents the interests of the 3000 Mayan families whose lives are likely to be adversely affected by the new dam project.
The Ch’orti say that their rights have never been respected, either by the local authorities or the central government, who claim that they have no legal entitlement to the land their villages and farms occupy.
“In fact, the Ch’orti people bought the land they are living on in 1878,” says Omar. “We paid the central government and the local mayors to own the land. This right has never been acknowleged by the authorities.”
The Ch’orti Mayans own the land communally. Many families grow maize, beans and other subsistence crops on the land, and fear that not only will they receive no compensation if the building of the dam goes ahead, but that they will be forcibly thrown off their properties.
According to Omar, the consultations on this and other large-scale projects offered by the authorities have not led to the local communities’ opinions being taken into consideration.
“Instead, the meetings organized by the authorities have been used not only to weaken the communities but to identify our leaders, who then face harassment.”
Violence has been on the increase since the project was first mooted in 2010. According to Peace Brigades International, an organization which accompanies several of the Mayan groups, there were more than 800 attacks on human rights workers in Guatemala as a whole in 2014, 25% more than in the previous year.
Chickens to Renewable Energy
The consortium involved in several of the hydro-electric projects in the east of Guatemala is Jonbo S.A, part of the Corporación Multi-inversiones. In turn, Corporacion Multi-Inversiones is part of the empire of one of the richest families in Central America, the Bosch-Gutierrez clan.
The family first made its fortune with the Pollo Campero chicken fast food stores but has since branched out into many different areas, including construction and renewable energy projects.
According to the corporation’s website: “The generation of electric power using renewable energy resources is an activity that benefits everyone, not only creates jobs and generates progress, but also drives economic growth and social development while protecting the environment.”
Power generation from renewable sources and free from contamination is a key pillar for the long term sustainability of the electricity sector: “We are powering development without harming the environment”.
They and the central government’s ministry of energy claim that these renewable energy projects will lessen the country’s dependency on imported oil, which has often led to electricity shortages in the past.
The company claims that it has bought all the necessary land for the projects, and does not recognize the right of the indigenous inhaibtants to be regarded as a separate entity.
But according to Omar, this model of development ignores several factors which are vital to the Mayan peoples.
On the one hand, he stresses the Cho’ti people’s relationship to the land and rivers is as much a spiritual as an economic one. “Rivers represent life and spiritual rather than usable energy. If you cut the river in two with a dam, that energy is lost.”
He and Nuevo Día also claim that the new project will do little to alleviate the poverty of the Mayans. “They are only promising 200 jobs for two years. But those jobs are for skilled engineers, not the local Mayan population.”
Nuevo Día further questions exactly who the increased electrical capacity from the dams will benefit. Part of the scheme involved exporting energy to Mexico and other Central American countries, whilst some 40% of Guatemalans still have no electrical power.
Corruption and protests
Beyond this, Mayan activists also fear that the cost of the construction of the huge dams in their region is inflated due to widespread corruption official corruption, details of which are emerging almost daily.
Since April 2015, the vice-president, the ministers of the interior, the environment and energy and mines have all been forced to resign because of alleged involvement in corruption scandals. Also under arrest are the heads of the National Social Security Institute and the Central Bank, accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks for contracts.
Many of those officials now facing prosecution are close friends of President Otto Perez Molina, and there are persistent allegations that he too has been involved in many of the corrupt practices.
The president enjoys immunity against prosecution whilst in power, but thousands of Guatemalans have been protesting in the capital and other cities every Saturday, calling for his immunity to be rescinded so that he can face impeachment proceedings.
Nuevo Día is taking part in the protests, and like many other grassroots organizations, they are calling for President Otto Pérez Molina to be stripped of this immunity so that he can to face the courts as soon as possible.
At the same time, they are asking for the postponement of the presidential and legislative elections due to take place in September 2015.
This postponement, they argue, would give civil society the chance to organize more effectively and choose representatives who would more closely reflect their priorities than the main traditional parties do.
“We want to be able to elect politicians who actually listen to us for once,” concludes Omar.