The Chixoy Dam is Development at Its Worst

Dear Mr. President:

We live in chaotic times, where the costs of fueling our energy-dependent global lifestyles are all too apparent, as evidenced by the human suffering and environmental dead zone resulting from BP’s oil spill last summer, and more recently, the unfolding horrors of nuclear disaster occurring in Japan.

Disasters such as these prompt feverish efforts to secure alterative energy sources, as illustrated by the recent increase in foreign funding and state-sponsored initiatives to build new hydroelectric dams, expand biofuel production, tap into natural gas deposits, efforts that local and regional energy needs, including the mining and processing Guatemala’s many precious minerals.

Sadly, Guatemala’s historical efforts to develop their natural resources offers the world profound lessons, illustrating the horrific human costs that can occur when development is imposed without fundamental respect for the rights to life and livelihood. The Chixoy Dam, for example, is known throughout the world as an illustration of development at it’s worst: where internationally-financed construction occurred in ways that sustained state-sponsored terror, massacre, and genocide.

As you know, Mr. President, Chixoy Dam construction was financed by the World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank, and their loans were the primary source of foreign aid to a nation ruled by a military dictatorship engaged in systematic state-sponsored destruction of Mayan peoples, a fact demonstrated in Memory of Silence, The Report from the Commission for Historical Clarification. In the 1970s and 80s, millions of dollars were transferred to Guatemala’s electrical utility, INDE, to acquire land for the hydroelectric works, reservoir, and other development infrastructure; to craft resettlement and compensation plans; to acquire replacement land and build resettlement villages; and to issue compensatory payments and services. My audit of development project records published in 2005, the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study, demonstrated that funds were misappropriated and contractual obligations were never met, resulting in the failure to secure legal title and safely move and appropriately compensate affected communities.

What were the consequences of these failures?  It bears repeating: Chixoy Dam construction occurred without securing legal title to the land. Involuntary resettlement took place at gunpoint. When the reservoir waters rose in January 1983, ten communities in the Chixoy River Basin had been destroyed by massacre, including the village of Río Negro. Survivors were hunted in the surrounding hills, and forcibly resettled at gunpoint. In the few instances where compensatory agreements had been made, the signed Actas disappeared when leaders of those communities were assassinated. While resettlement villages were eventually built, the original development plans were discarded and a militarized guarded compound was built in its place.  Compensatory efforts at the time, and in later years, were grossly inadequate to meet the basic needs of displaced communities, let alone provide redress for the full extent of lost land, property, communal resources, livelihoods and lives.

The lessons from this story? For development to succeed in its goals of sustaining governments and their economies, it must first and foremost sustain local peoples and their environments. Mr. President, as you well know, the role of government in such efforts is to insure respect for the fundamental human rights of all its citizens, including the fundamental rights to life and livelihood. And, when such rights are abused, it is your obligation to insure that your citizens are able to exercise their right to reparation and meaningful remedy.

It is these points which prompted me to write to you on 14 March 2011, to applaud your Administration’s efforts to come to terms with Guatemala’s recent history of human rights abuse, as evidenced by your support for and your administration’s participation in a negotiation process involving the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank, INDE, and COCAHICH (the representative for the 33 Chixoy dam-affected communities). The resulting “Reparations Plan for the damages and negative impacts suffered by the communities affected by the construction of the Chixoy Dam” signed by your representative in the Organization of American States-facilitated negotiation on 10 April 2010 is truly an historic precedent.

I also wrote to express my deep concern that your commitment to a sustainable future appears to be wavering, as evidenced by protracted delay over this past year in issuing the executive order that allows your government to use Congressionally-allocated funds to implement this plan.

My concern was shared by some 16 signatories, people who are hugely familiar with the truth and reconciliation process in Guatemala, such as Ms. Marcie Mersky, the Former Chief of MINUGUA’s Transition Unit in Guatemala and the Former Coordinator of Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission. Dr. Alain Breton, the French ethnologist who has since the 1970s documented the traditional way of life for the Maya A’chi residents of the Rio Negro and Chixoy River Valleys. And, Dr. William L. Partridge, a Senior Advisor for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and Former World Bank Unit Chief for Environment and Social Development. Dr. Partridge conducted the independent audit of the Chixoy project in 1982 and 1983, identifying for the InterAmerican Development Bank numerous violations and shortcomings in the social program work.

Signatories also included some of the most esteemed environmental and social science experts in the world, people whose life’s work helped establish the social and environmental safeguards used to guide international development. Dr. Michael Cernea, the former World Bank Senior Adviser for Social Policies helped established the Bank’s guidelines for resettlement to prevent impoverishment, and reviewed the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study, as did Dr. Thayer Scudder, the key architect of reparation plans for World Bank-funded hydrodevelopment in Africa and Southeast Asia and a former Commissioner on the World Commission on Dams. Dr. Robert Goodland, the former World Bank Group Environmental Adviser who helped establish the Bank’s environmental impact assessment framework, was the initial consultant hire to assess the environmental impacts of the project in 1973.

Why this open letter? Mr. President, last week some 500 members of the 33 affected communities traveled to Guatemala City to protest the lack of action in implementing the agreed upon plan. Your spokesperson announced that you would meet with community representatives on March 23, 2011. Media coverage was sparse and largely critical of “radicals” who demanded reparation. Most alarming are press reports that suggest your administration’s position on implementing the Chixoy Dam Reparations Agreement has changed.

Mr. President, in signing the governmental decree to implement the “Reparations Plan for the damages and negative impacts suffered by the communities affected by the construction of the Chixoy Dam” you will send an important signal to the world, and most importantly to your people. In implementing this plan – with its social, political, and economic projects, mechanisms, and processes – you will help bring about meaningful remedy that respects fundamental rights and restores human dignity.

Very sincerely,

Center for Political Ecology
Santa Cruz, California, USA

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Look for her latest book from Left Coast Press, Life and Death Matters: Human Rights, Environment, and Social Justice, to be released in July 2009.  She can be reached at: bjohnston@igc.org.







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Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.  

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