From Erik Woodward
Friends and Family:
Before construction on the Chixoy dam began in 1974, 33 communities lived on the banks of the Chixoy River where the reservoir of the dam today lies. For the Maya Achi people living along the river, which is situated along the border between the departamentos of Baja Verapaz and El Quiché in northwest Guatemala, the river provided a prosperous livelihood. Fish were abundant, the water was clean enough to drink, and fertile land around the river was ideal for growing corn, beans, and squash.
Today the Chixoy dam is renowned as Guatemala’s largest and most productive hydroelectric dam, generating 15% of all of Guatemala’s current energy production. Despite its grandeur, the conflict and repression that shrouds the history of the Chixoy dam demands a discussion about what development actually is, who it benefits, and the price we pay for it.
In the early 1970s the government of Guatemala adopted a new national economic development plan known as the Franja Transversal del Norte (FTN). This initiative aimed to promote economic development through the expansion and liberalization of the marketplace, fostering an export oriented economy that focused on the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, petroleum, and precious metals. But before the government could auction mining and timber concessions to foreign companies domestic infrastructure had to be improved. New highways were built across the country connecting rural mines, wells, and forests to ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Likewise, new hydroelectric dams were constructed to ensure that mining companies had a reliable source of electricity—access to an abundance of cheap electricity was the fulcrum on which the entire FTN balanced. Furthermore hydroelectric dams were viewed as a particularly advantageous source of energy as their construction required foreign investment in Guatemala as well, which was the primary aim of the FTN itself.
It was within this context that the Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (National Electrification Institute, commonly known by its acronym INDE) was given with the responsibility of increasing the country´s domestic energy production potential. INDE selected a location near the community of Rio Negro along the Chixoy River in Baja Verapaz as the ideal location for a new dam, and the government subsequently applied for US$47 million in loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for its construction. Without ever informing local communities about the dam or obtaining the necessary legal land titles from the Achi people who lived there, INDE began construction on the Chixoy dam in 1974.
The Achi people remained settled along the banks of the river as construction of the dam progressed into the late1970s. As information about the dam became available to them, divisions emerged within the communities regarding what action would be taken. While some opted to organize against the construction of the dam, others saw construction as inevitable and preferred to engage in negotiations with INDE to arrange a reparations and relocation deal.
At the same time the internal-armed conflict between the military and leftist guerrilla groups intensified in the neighboring department of El Quiché, with the military’s tactics centering around a genocidal scorched earth campaign. In response the guerrilla movement expanded into neighboring areas, including Rabinal. The guerrillas specifically attempted to tap into the already existing organizing structure against the construction of the Chixoy dam, viewing the politicized Achi population as a potential revolutionary base. Under this pretext the Guerrilla Army for the Poor, known by its Spanish acronym EGP, arrived in Rio Negro in 1978 to recruit locals into its armed revolutionary movement.
The arguments of the EGP largely fell on deaf ears in Rio Negro. As construction of the Chixoy dam had already become a reality, many community leaders favored to negotiate directly with INDE. However the EGP´s presence in the area did greatly influence the actions of another nearby group: the Guatemalan military. Aware of the EGP presence in Rio Negro and aiming to reduce their influence, the military forcibly recruited men from the nearby community of Xoxoc to join civil patrol groups, known as Patrullos de Autodefensa Civil (PAC), who were charged with patrolling Rio Negro and expelling any guerrilla influence.
The PAC from Xoxoc arrived in Rio Negro on a regular basis, intimidating and harassing the local Achi people. They demanded to know who the EGP fighters were and furthermore the names of those who gave them food and shelter. The army received little information from these visits, as the guerrillas’ presence in the area was limited and the Achi people furthermore held little trust in the PACs who had been harassing their communities.
Early in the morning of February 4th, 1982 the market place in Xoxoc burnt to the ground. To this day it is still unclear who bears the responsibility for the act, however the military was quick to place the blame with the EGP guerrillas from Rio Negro. By criminalizing the EGP in Rio Negro, and by extension the entire community for supporting the EGP presence in their village, the government justified the use of extreme force in a counterattack against Rio Negro. This served not only to rid the area of the supposed anti-government leftist forces, but more importantly would remove an organized population demanding due reparations for the theft of their land and livelihoods under the shadow of the Chixoy dam.
The army and PAC responded quickly and brutally. Just over a month after the burning of the market place, on March 12th, 1982 70 men were massacred in Rio Negro for their alleged ties with the EGP. Another month later, on March 13th 1982 the PAC returned to Rio Negro and demanded to meet with the men of the community. When the men did not appear (the army had already massacred the entire male population of the community a month earlier), army found justification in an additional massacre targeting the women and children. The military and PAC then proceeded to rape, torture, and massacre 70 women and 107 children.
The massacres at Rio Negro were not coincidental, nor were they were the actions of rogue military commanders as Rios Montt today claims. Internal Guatemalan military documents recovered by the National Security Archive in Washington DC instructed local military commanders to massacre entire populations of strategically significant villages (these documents were approved and signed by Rios Montt himself). As the entire economic development strategy of the FTN depended on the electricity that would be conducted by the Chixoy Dam, it is clear that the government had ulterior strategic motives beyond the defense of national security in mind when waging warfare on the Achi people. Further evidence is seen in the way in which warfare was fought—local EGP leaders were not targeted, instead an entire population was massacred. The massacres at Rio Negro were domestically and internationally justified by the threat of communism, however internally they were seen as necessary to ensure the construction of the Chixoy dam—or the price to be paid for economic development under the FTN.
Furthermore, by displacing the Achi people from the soon to be flooded reservoir created by the Chixoy dam, the government eliminated the need to hold serious relocation talks. In effect the government saved millions of dollars by massacring the people of Rio Negro in place of paying them due reparations.
Survivors of the Rio Negro massacres were forced to live for at least two years in the surrounding forests, hiding from the Xoxoc PAC that continued to search for them. In 1984 the government of Lucas Garcia announced a false truce via loudspeakers in helicopters flying over internally displaced persons camps hidden in the forests. Upon their decent from the forests, many more were tortured and murdered. The few survivors were relocated to a military garrison converted into reparations housing, and the government’s debts were deemed paid.
Today, nearly 31 years after the massacres of Rio Negro, the Achi people continue their struggle for just reparations. Deprived of legal resources in Guatemala where a culture of impunity still reigns. ADIVIMA, a Rabinal based organization that we accompany, brought a case against the state of Guatemala at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In October 2012, the Costa Rican based court released its ruling on the case, and found:
In response, on January 2nd 2013 the Guatemalan government approved Acuerdo Gubernamental 370-12, which limited the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to events which took place only after the Guatemalan State officially ratified it in 1987. The act caused domestic and international outrage, and on January 11th the government, in shame, retracted it. However the intentions of the government to evade responsibility for its previous actions are clear.
With the help of ADIVIMA the Achi people continue their fight for due reparations. With the Inter-American Court of Human Rights now on their side, hopefully the near future will bring success to their decades long struggle.
The history of the Chixoy Dam forces each of us to consider what economic development really is, who it benefits, and the costs associated with it. Unfortunately this story is not unique to Rabinal or even Guatemala, as even mega-development projects come at the expense of oppressed communities in the United States.
The conclusion of this letter also sees the conclusion of my time in Rabinal, but not my time in Guatemala. My next update will come from the Ixcan jungles, located only a few hours upriver from Rabinal on the same Chixoy River that featured in this story. In the Ixcan I will be working with communities organizing against the construction of the Xalala dam on the banks of the Chixoy, where we hope that history will not repeat itself.
As always, please keep me updated on how all of you are doing back in the States. I miss all of you and even a quick ¨hello¨ really does make my day!
Until next time,