. New hydroelectric dam will provide electricity
for Guatemala's second largest city..
. .while nearby indigenous communities are left
in the dark
. Project revives long-standing campesino
grievances over land rights
The Ixil triangle in the highland department of
Quiche, is one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country.
Indigenous villages in the area suffered some of the worst massacres
committed during Guatemala's 36 year long civil war, and live in
conditions of extreme poverty with no electricity, no access to potable
water and a lack of basic services such as schools and health centers.
When work began on a large hydroelectric dam in late 2006, local villages
hoped they would finally have access to an affordable electricity service.
However, they were soon disappointed when it became known that the new dam
would supply Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, while the
Ixil triangle remains in the dark. The fact that the dam is being built on
land that has been at the center of an acrimonious dispute between
campesino villages and a wealthy land-owning family, has also stirred up
long-standing grievances within the Ixil community.
Powerful Interest Groups and a Century-Old Land
The Xacbal hydroelectric dam was the brainchild of
the Arenas Menes family, owners of the coffee producing farm known as
La Perla , in the municipality of San Gaspar Chajul, in the
highland department of Quiche.
As a result of declining coffee prices and a lack of
adequate infrastructure, necessary to transport the farm's agricultural
produce to urban areas, the Arenas Menes family realized that agriculture
had ceased to be a profitable business.
However, with a growing demand for electric energy
threatening to outstrip the available supply by 2008, alternative energy
had become a lucrative business and in 2001, the Arenas Menes family
carried out an environmental impact study necessary for the construction
of a hydroelectric dam next to the Xalbal River.
However, the owners of La Perla soon realized
that a century-old land dispute with nearby campesino villages
would be a major obstacle for the project to go ahead and decided to sell
part of the farm to Hidro Xacbal, S.A., in 2004.
Hidro Xacbal is part of the Honduran Terra
conglomerate, which has a vast portfolio of multi-million dollar
investments in oil, telecommunications, infrastructure, real estate and
services. Second generation Palestinian immigrant, Fredy Nasser, owner of
the Terra conglomerate, is one of the most powerful businessmen in
The total cost of the dam, due to be completed by 2010,
will total US$227 million and the project will be financed by a pool of
local and international banks. But even though part of La Perla
was sold off and the dam is now managed by a Hidro Xacbal,
neighboring Ixil villages still demand that the conflict over of the
boundaries of La Perla be resolved.
In May this year, the National Coordinator of Indigenous
and Campesino Organizations (CONIC), issued the following statement: "The
dam is being built on land that was stolen from our communities. The mayor
of Chajul, Manuel Asicona, made a deal with Hidro Xacbal behind our backs.
The company is trying to bribe people by giving them land but the land
where the dam is being built was stolen from our ancestors," which shows
that this unresolved land dispute is still a highly contentious
Communities Demand Their Share of the Benefits.
Most villages in San Gaspar Chajul live in extreme poverty
and lack potable water and electricity. The closest electric generator is
located in the municipality of Sacapulas, around 50km away, and the
service provided is poor, highly overpriced and does not cover any of the
Ixil villages beyond the town of Chajul.
The civil society umbrella group Mesa Regional Ixil,
which brings together 36 indigenous organizations, believes it is ironic
that the electricity produced by the Xacbal hydroelectric dam will be
transported all the way to the department of Quetzaltenango, when the
villages surrounding the dam lack this basic service.
Indigenous leaders have asked Hidro Xacbal to build a
generator in Chajul so that all the villages in the Ixil triangle have
access to affordable electricity. However, Hidro Xacbal have refused,
arguing that it would not be financially viable for the company to provide
electricity for dozens of remote villages dotted all over the Ixil
Hidro Xacbal CEO, Erwin Hernandez, told CAR :
"Although we cannot provide electricity for all the villages in the Ixil
triangle, what we can do is set up a small generator that will
supply electricity to around ten villages close to the dam. It will be a
great opportunity for progress to take off."
Hernandez added that the government and not a private
corporation should be responsible for the provision of electricity in the
Ixil triangle. A few years ago, the government launched a "Rural
Electrification Program" that aimed to provide electricity for all
villages in rural Guatemala. However, progress has been slow and many
indigenous areas have yet to see any benefits.
Another point of contention between Hidro Xacbal and the
Ixil communities is the construction of a dirt track needed to transport
materials to and from the dam, which runs through a number of indigenous
villages. According to Ixil leaders, Hidro Xacbal has failed to stick to
the environmental impact study approved by the Ministry of the Environment
and Natural Resources (MARN) in April 2002, which features a 5km track
that does not run through indigenous villages.
Indigenous communities argue that they were not consulted
before the track was built and that Hidro Xacbal has failed to pay
adequate compensation for thir land.
According to community leaders, the families affected
received a paltry Q3,000 (US$390) compensation. However, Hidro Xacbal
claims that Ixil communities demanded Q5,000 (US$652) per square meter,
far above the price of the land, which the company was unable to meet.
According to Hidro Xacbal, between 350 and 400 families have been
adequately compensated according to the market value of their land.
The company is also eager to emphasize that thanks to the
new road the Ixil villages are finally overcoming their isolation and
points out that it donated US$.2.2 million donation to the municipality of
Chajul for a series of development projects including electricity for
schools and health centers.
However, indigenous leaders claim the municipal
authorities have not allowed them to inspect the town hall accounts to
find out how exactly the money has been spent and say their communities
have yet to benefit from the donation.
Manuel Asicona Rivera, mayor of Chajul has been accused
of corruption on several occasions during his time in office. However,
Asicona denies fraud allegations and claims his opponents are trying to
discredit him "for political motives".
The organizations grouped together under the Mesa
Regional Ixil, say they have been excluded from the community meetings
with Hidro Xacbal representatives, even though the central government
signed an agreement in 2006 acknowledging this civil society umbrella
group as a valid representative of the Ixil communities.
However, Hidro Xacbal insists that the road was built
with the approval of all village mayors in Chajul. Mayor Asicona Rivera,
who sides with the company, argues that municipalities are autonomous,
according to Guatemalan law, and that the municipality of Chajul is
therefore not bound to negotiate with the Mesa Regional Ixil despite the
agreement signed by the central government.
On June 15, this year, the government invited Ixil
leaders and Hidro Xacbal representatives to attend a meeting on June 15,
hoping to reach a consensus between the two parties.
However, on June 22, the government postponed the meeting
"until further notice." The Ixil people and their representatives now fear
that with an election looming in September, their grievances will be swept
under the carpet or simply forgotten.
A history of conflict and
In 1896, La Perla , a large coffee growing
farm, had an extension of 990 hectares . Over the years, the Arenas
Menes family, owners of La Perla , began to encroach on
community-owned lands and according to the Presidential Commission
for the Resolution of Land Disputes (CONTIERRA), the farm now has an
extension of 2,790 hectares .
However, official figures underestimate the true
size of La Perla . It 's true size is closer to 5,850
hectares , whereas the average family in the neighboring villages
barely owns around 0,5 hectares of land.
According to the Guatemalan land registry, around
2,219 hectares of La Perla ought to belong to the Sotzil
and Ilom villages. This means that the 405 indigenous families
living in Ilom should own 3.5 hectares of land and 195 Sotzil
families should own over 4.1 hectares . However, indigenous
communities cannot even use the land that is rightfully theirs
according to official records.
According to the Recuperation of Historic Memory
report (known as REMHI in Spanish and titled, Guatemala: Never
Again), during Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war, 263 massacres
were perpetrated against residents of Quiche, as a result of the
State's brutal genocidal policy that came to be known as the
"Scorched Earth" campaign, carried out mostly during the first half
of the 1980s. The villages of Chel and Ilom, a few miles away from
the Xacbal hydroelectric dam, suffered some of the worst massacres
committed during the war. In Chel alone, 96 people were killed.