Inside the Chixoy Dam Reparations Deal

The Government of Guatemala has finalized a legally-binding commitment to repair the human rights damages associated with forced displacement, violence, and related abuses accompanying the construction and operation of the internationally-financed Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. This historic action provides the legal means and financial commitment to launch the first-ever formal reparation mechanism that explicitly addresses the varied injuries and immense impoverishment resulting from internationally financed hydroelectric dam development.

On October 14, 2014, President Otto Perez and the Coordinating Committee of Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala (COCAHICH) reached an agreement on implementation of the content of the 2010 Reparations Plan for communities affected by the Chixoy Dam. More than $154.5 million (USD) in individual compensation, social infrastructure, and economic development projects for communities affected by the dam will be funded through this agreement.

To insure the legal means to fully implement the Chixoy Reparation Plan, on November 6, 2014, the Government of Guatemala published the signatory commitment of every Minister of Government to prioritize funding and implementation. Gubernatorial acurdo 378-2014 became law on November 7, 2014. Each year for the next 15 years, Chixoy Reparation will be a line item in the national budget, with the allocation of funds achieved through a negotiation involving representatives of the affected communities, the Presidential Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH), and Guatemala’s congress.

With this agreement the Government of Guatemala has formally acknowledged and apologized for their violations of fundamental human rights – both during the construction of the Chixoy Dam and in subsequent years.

Why does an internationally-financed government sponsored hydroenergy development project require reparations?

Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the country was ruled by military dictatorships engaged in a brutally bloody civil war, construction of the Chixoy Dam, hydroelectric generation plant and transmission grid allowed implementation of a energy template first developed and financed by the World Bank. The development project was financed with loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, Venezuela and other international sources.

An independent audit of Chixoy development records conducted in 2003-05 determined that despite contractual obligations in loan contracts, financiers approved designs, funds were released, and construction begun without…

* notifying the local population;

* legal acquisition of title to all land supporting the construction works, the dam, the hydroelectric generation facility, the reservoir, or the farms needed to support resettled communities;

* a comprehensive census of all people whose lives and livelihoods would be adversely affected by the project;

* a viable plan to assess and provide full compensation, resettlement and alternative livelihoods for to restore and improve the lives of affected communities, the majority of whom are indigenous Mayan peoples who hold communal title to their ancestral lands.

Recognizing that these serious problems demand immediate attention international financiers included in subsequent loan contracts and side agreements the requirement that the Government of Guatemala must legally secure land titles and prepare, submit, and implement a demonstrably viable resettlement and social reconstruction plan.

Financiers did not insure that resettlement financing was actually used for its intended effect.

It was not until dam construction was largely completed that a resettlement program was established; an equitable approach was never achieved.

Some families who would soon find themselves “knee-deep in water” acquiesced to relocation terms as the dam was being built, moved, and found extreme differences between promises and their new reality of poor quality housing and small allotments of infertile land. Unable to survive many returned to their old communities, refusing to leave again without fair and just compensation for their losses.

Their experience demonstrated the bankrupt nature of Guatemalan developers relocation “plan” which absolutely failed in its promise to provide equivalent land, fully compensate property losses, build new homes, and support and sustain economic development, education, and health infrastructure that would not only restore but improve life and livelihoods. Citizen complaints and protests ensued. A growing number of affected communities refused to move and attempted to negotiate more equitable terms. In a number of instances resettlement negotiations were conducted with the armed presence of the military, and tensions further escalated. Communities had their records of resettlement promises and land documents seized and their leaders killed. The Guatemalan Army declared resettlement-resistant communities subversive, forcibly evicted residents of other villages in the area from original village sites, and later, from their emergency housing.

When construction was complete and the reservoir waters rose in January 1983, ten communities in the Chixoy River Basin had been destroyed by massacre. In Rio Negro alone, some 444 of the 791 original inhabitants had been killed. Survivors were hunted in the surrounding hills, and forcibly resettled at gunpoint in guarded concentration camps built with development funding, with designs provided by the United States military to control the civilian population.

Violent incidents associated with the Chixoy Dam construction and forced evictions were reported in national and international press. Shortly after the first massacre occurred in the project area, the March 4, 1980 Rio Negro massacre, a formal complaint describing the incident and its relationship to dam construction was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and in 1981 the event was included in the Court’s preliminary and final country report on Guatemala. (In fact, despite knowledge of violence and forced displacement connected to construction of the Chixoy Dam, the World Bank and IDB subsequently continued disbursements for the dam’s construction, repairs and other operations until the early 1990’s).

Persistent efforts by massacre survivors to seek accountability led to one of the first international investigations of a massacre site in Guatemala, exhuming in 1993 the remains of 107 Maya Achi children and 70 women outside the rural village. In 1994, Rio Negro’s survivors formed The Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence of the Verapaces, Maya Achi (ADIVIMA) to encourage exhumations of other massacre sites in the surrounding communities and the prosecution of those responsible. International investigation of the events leading up to the massacre exposed further the linkages between internationally financed development, militarism and massacre. Their work generated evidence that was central to the adoption of the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords and subsequent passage of the 1998 Law of National Reconciliation, which recognizes the reparation rights of victims. The Rio Negro massacre was later cited by a UN-sponsored commission as an exemplary case of genocide, part of a brooder pattern of state-sponsored violence against its citizens.

Institutional accountability mechanisms offered no relief

For the indigenous communities that stood in the way of this internationally-financed hydrodevelopment project, development generated a truly ulcerating disaster. Following the launch of a civil society report on the Rio Negro community experience, the World Bank explored remaining obligations in the Chixoy region. A three-week mission of staff sent to Guatemala identified problems with local implementation of the social program and brokered with the new Government a very modest plan to assist some of the dam-affected population through the acquisition of additional farmland. This agreement was flawed in its reliance on an inadequate and incomplete census of the dam-affected community, in its failure to recognize the suffering and assist widows and surviving children of the massacred, and in the institutional failure to provide the oversight that to insure that this ‘band-aid’ of an agreement actually stopped the bleeding.

In 1998 Guatemala implemented a World Bank-designed and funded plan to privatize the electrical distribution grid, an action that generated sufficient funds to allow World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans to be repaid, with interest, in full. Repayment of the loans resulted in the closure of the Chixoy dam resettlement office and the loss of a local complaint mechanism. Seeking some sort of means to achieve remedy, affected community members attempted to file a claim with the World Bank’s primary accountability mechanism, the Inspection Panel. Their petition was rejected as the World Bank no longer had any investment in the Chixoy Dam and related transmission of electricity.

In August 1999, Rio Negro massacre survivor Carlos Chen shared his experiences of the Chixoy dam development through a World Commission on Dams (WCD) regional consultation. Chen, an indigenous Maya-Achi, described how 400 members of his community were massacred because of their opposition to the construction of the Chixoy dam. Among the victims were his wife and children. After the WCD consultation, Chen and other Mayan community representatives began an outreach campaign to identify more fully dam-affected communities and develop the capacity to pursue their right to reparation and remedy. Rio Negro massacre survivors contacted and held community meetings with upstream, adjacent and displaced communities throughout the Chixoy dam region, including villages where massacres had taken place. As outreach expanded, it became clear that many, many villages had been affected adversely by dam construction and hydro-management, and suffered greatly from the lack of compensation or remedial attention.

The WCD consultation prompted a “Reparations and Right to Remedy” review of development cases with specific focus on human rights abuse and the existence and functional capacity of government and IFI institutional mechanisms to provide redress. The Chixoy Case was one of several hydrodevelopment projects explored in depth, and detailed reparation recommendations from this review found their way into the WCD’s final report.

In 2003, men and women from villages across Baja Verapaz, Alta Verapaz and Quiche met to form an assembly of dam-affected communities, which comprised an elected leadership and the goal of pursuing just compensation and reparation. This meeting, hosted by Rio Negro survivors living in the resettlement villages of Pacux, Rabinal and Baja Verapaz, took place to discuss a plan for documenting community concerns and developing a formal strategy to pursue reparations, and the gathering produced an Acta (an official document) which confirmed the intent to pursue reparations, the establishment of a representative group – the Comunidades Afectadas por la Represa Chixoy (now known as COCAHICH – Coordinator of the Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy dam), and agreements to conduct evidentiary analysis an participatory research to clarify history and related consequential damages and develop a reparation action plan.

Key elements of the reparation action plan:

1. Establish and conduct an independent review of the evidentiary record: what were the legal requirements existing at the time the project was planned and the dam built? What commitments were made with regard to identifying and addressing social and environmental concerns? What was actually done? Furthermore, what were the social and environmental consequences of the failures, omissions and outright violations of national and international law?

2. Develop the political will in Guatemala, within the financial institutions that funded the development and within the broader international community, to both acknowledge the consequential damages of Chixoy dam development and then do something about it.

3. Encourage the establishment of a reparations negotiation process that includes representatives of the responsible parties and the dam-affected communities, and facilitate the meaningful involvement of affected communities in this process.

4. Move the focus in reparations from a simple notion of compensation for loss of property (appropriate compensation = replacement values) to a ‘sustainable way of life’ compensation principle. Such a shift acknowledges that affected people are not just individuals whose titled property lies submerged beneath the reservoir, but families, communities and distinct cultural groups, such as the indigenous Maya Achi, Quiche and other cultural groups, whose lives, livelihoods and ways of life were damaged by the construction and operation of the Chixoy dam.

Documentation of the extent of development-related problems led to civil protests in 2004 when indigenous communities occupied the dam site (still legally titled as communal lands). The protest was peacefully resolved with the Government agreement to establish a reparation negotiation process.

In March 2005, the scientific peer-reviewed study on the legacy of the dam was completed, including a fully-supported chronological account of facts and events going back as far as 1950 and an accounting of present community needs, and presented by COCAHICH to government officials in Guatemala, and to the banks in Washington, DC. Also that year, communities retained US law firm Holland & Knight, as pro-bono advisors to COCAHICH. With legal counsel supporting their presence at the negotiating table, and armed with a strong study documenting damages from construction of the dam, development disaster victims were finally in the position of having authoritative voice in airing their complaints and seeking meaningful remedy.

Meetings commenced in 2006, a process involving dam-affected communities, the Government of Guatemala, facilitators from the Organization of American States InterAmerican Human Rights Commission, and representatives of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. The negotiation process included a review of the evidentiary record (with the 2005 Chixoy Legacy Issues Study accepted as the most recent of three core statements of damage) and generated a formal declaration of damages signed by all parties.

In 2010, a multi-million dollar reparations plan to remedy the many injuries acknowledged in the statement of damaged was finalized and signed by negotiation representatives. The plan promised land-grant, monetary compensation in families and communities, paved roads and construction of health centers and schools, and other items. Terms also called for development assistance, social and cultural support, and environmental restoration of the river basin.

The record of massacre, forced disappearances, and other human rights violations that accompanied the development of Guatemala’s Chixoy dam was also addressed in the Inter-American Human Rights Court case of Rio Negro massacres v. the Government of Guatemala (2012), where hydroelectric development of the Chixoy river basin is specifically mentioned as the background event that led to the Rio Negro massacres. Hydrodevelopment is also recognized as an inhibiting factor to achieving full reparation, as members of the Rio Negro community cannot perform their funeral rituals because some disappeared villagers have yet to be identified; construction of the dam and its reservoir has destroyed indigenous sacred sites; and, inundation physically and permanently hinders the return of the Rio Negro communities to their ancestral lands. The Court also found that living conditions in the resettlement community have not allowed the inhabitants to resume traditional economic activities; basic health, education, electricity and water needs have not been fully met; and these conditions have caused the disintegration of the social structure and cultural and spiritual life of the community. Observing that the massacres of the community of Rio Negro took place within a systematic context of grave and massive human rights violations, the Court found that in addition to historical damages “the surviving victims of the Rio Negro massacres experience deep suffering and pain… which fell within a state policy of “scorched earth” intended to fully destroy the community.” (IAHRC, 2012).

Implementing reparation agreements

Signed agreements are meaningless without the political will to implement. Guatemala’s administration dropped the issue after the Verification Commission completed its work and an agreement of damages and plan for remedy was signed in 2010.

The history of violence and massacres accompanying Chixoy Dam development received international media attention in spring 2013, with the highly publicized genocide trial of former dictator General Rios Montt and the related questions: Who financed these crimes against humanity? Who profited? And what remaining obligations exist to provide meaningful redress to victims and their families? At the height of the genocide, the sole source of funding for the military Government was achieved through internationally-financed hydro-development.

Concern for the unaddressed legacy issues of Guatemala’s civil war, and specific concern for the failure to achieve reparation in the Chixoy Dam case drew renewed political attention in the US to these issues. That spring, following a series of meetings with representatives of affected communities, World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank staff, civil society advocates, and input from independent experts such as myself, documentary evidence was submitted to the US Senate demonstrating institutional failures to attend to the recommendations of internal and external compliance mechanisms and, thus, an unmet obligation with regards to continuing human rights abuse.

In January 2014, the United States Congress passed compromise legislation on the annual budget. Buried within its’ 1500+ pages was specific and far-reaching language that clarifies US obligations and related policy with regards to public funds invested in foreign contexts, including investment in international financial institutions. Specifically, international financial institutions must ensure that a negotiated reparation agreement between the Government of Guatemala and communities affected by Chixoy Dam construction, forced displacements, and related violence is fully implemented.  What this meant, is that conditions were placed on new loans – no money unless the Guatemalan Government implements the 2010 Reparation Agreement.

Recognizing that reparation not only means providing material redress, but also insuring “never again” this law also directed US representatives at IFIs to vote against any loan, grant, strategy or policy that supports the construction of any large hydroelectric dam; and, to undertake independent outside evaluations of all of its lending to ensure that each institution “responds to the findings and recommendations of its accountability mechanisms by providing just compensation or other appropriate redress to individuals and communities that suffer violations of human rights.”

Implementation of US law disrupted the flow of money into Guatemala, essential funds that supported varied Government endeavor. With pressure from international governments and institutions, international press, nongovernmental organizations, Guatemalan civil society and the international human rights community – after three decades of struggle to demonstrate the depth and breadth of development-induced disaster in Guatemala, the political will to actually implement a reparations plan and negotiated agreement has finally been achieved.

And now a larger phase of work begins…

As noted by the World Bank Inspection Panel Report of 2013, the number of projects involving involuntary resettlement continues to rise, while at the same time, the number of resettlement action plans required via World Bank loan stipulations significantly declined.

In places like Guatemala, public-financed large dams and the related roads and transmission grounds set the stage for enclosure, privatization and extractive development in previously isolated regions rich in potential extractive energy and mineral wealth. The Chixoy Dam was first in a series of 22 dams first proposed by the World Bank in their country assessment conducted in the 1950s, and this template still serves to direct investment attention and energies.

These days, a new hydrodevelopment boom is underway in Guatemala, including a large internationally-financed dam upstream from the Chixoy and a number of small projects financed through private capital in partnership with international corporate entities. Hydrodevelopment fuels state-sanctioned extractive industry (especially gold, silver, nickel and other mining) on indigenous lands.

Guatemala’s Natural Resources Law recognizes indigenous rights, including the right to free and prior informed consent, and hundreds of indigenous community consultations have been held to implement free and prior informed consent requirements. Community votes to reject development have been ignored and this has precipitated a series of violent confrontations over the past decade where the State sends in troops to support private investment, targeted assassination of community leadership goes unpunished, and indigenous community leaders are declared terrorists for attempting to exercise their civil rights.

Guatemalan Government accepted the “never again” promise of the Peace Accords in 1994, a promise renewed in the Chixoy Reparation Agreement, and this is truly an historic milestone. Realization of this promise remains to be seen.

As for the other actors in this story, especially the World Bank whose development template served as a driving force and whose actions have been specifically called to account by US Congress, the Chixoy case demonstrates the need for meaningful involvement and strong oversight in all phases of development.

The World Bank is currently revising the social and environmental safeguard process, efforts to date that have been heavily criticized by civil society. This Chixoy case offers many relevant lessons to this revision process, not the least of which is the need for the Bank to clarify the human rights obligations of a financial institution created with a primary mandate to alleviate poverty and a governance structure of UN member nations.

There are moral and ethical obligations for an institution that invests in and receives profit from development, especially cases involving rights-abusive development. These obligations include addressing historical abuses and, in anticipation of future compliance issues, insuring a viable, truly independent accountability and reparations mechanism to investigate, monitor, insure compliance and provide, as US Congress called for in January 2014, “just compensation or other appropriate redress to individuals and communities that suffer violations of human rights.”

The Chixoy experience is not unique. The World Commission on Dams identified similar cases of rights-abusive development worldwide, yet reparation recommendations have been ignored. An independent, transparent review of legacy issue cases must occur. In their revision of safeguards, the World Bank should take this opportunity to propose and assist in the development of an international fund and truly independent accountability and reparations mechanism to address the ulcerating conditions resulting from human rights-abusive development. Assessing and addressing the human rights legacy of past and present development may, hopefully, reduce the need for future interventions.

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.  



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.