Interview with Cristobal Osorio Sanchez
Human Rights Dialogue 2.11 (Spring 2004): Environmental Rights
April 26, 2004
Cristóbal Osorio Sánchez is a survivor of massacres perpetrated against the Maya-Achí community of Rio Negro in Guatemala, and one of the Chixoy Dam-affected people. He is president of the Peasant Association of the Community of Rio Negro Maya-Achí and sits on the board of the Association of Chixoy Dam Affected Communities. My interview with Don Cristóbal is presented not as a singular example of struggle and courage, but as representative of the many people who have lost their lands, homes, and livelihood as a result of internationally financed “development” projects; who have found little to no recourse in national courts; and who have articulated their complaints to the World Commission on Dams and other bodies. Don Cristóbal’s community is part of a growing international movement of dam-affected communities and NGOs that is demanding reparations from project financiers for the damage that has been inflicted.
I have met many times with Don Cristóbal in my capacity as Latin America outreach and community rights advocate for International Rivers Network, and together we collaborate on the struggle to obtain reparations for the communities affected by the Chixoy Dam. This interview reflects personal conversations and telephone interviews held in November and December of 2003.
AGUIRRE: Don Cristóbal, you were 19 years old when construction of the Chixoy Dam began. Tell us what you saw.
DON CRISTÓBAL: The dam was finished in 1983, but it all began in 1976 when government representatives arrived in our community and engineers began conducting studies. They visited areas along the river and measured how much land was going to be flooded.
When they came, we formed a committee to deal with the dam issues. Most of us did not speak Spanish, only Achí, and since I spoke some Spanish I was elected to that board. We were first told that we had to abandon our lands, and they offered us many things—good housing, good lands, a truck, boats, and a tractor. I am a witness to the unfulfilled promises.
All those promises were written up as an agreement and recorded in libros de acta de la comunidad (a book recording the minutes and the agreements made in community meetings and signed by all present). But later, INDE [Guatemala’s national electricity agency] sent a letter calling all the members of the board to meet with them in Guatemala City. We did not have the resources for such a trip so we sent only two representatives, the president and the secretary. They took with them the libros de acta. When they were on the road to Pueblo Viejo, the dam security guards kidnapped them, and they disappeared along with the book with the agreements. They took the lives of two of our people and took the book that contained all their promises. They knew it was going to be very difficult for us to make demands without any written agreement. It was all a lie.
We decided that we did not want to abandon our lands, our life, our resources, and our source of income. We had a military government and when we pressured too much they said we were guerrillas. We were born there, our ancestors are buried there, there is where we had our sacred sites, we had our fruit trees and fish, and that is where we made our life and we lived well.
AGUIRRE: Can you talk about the massacres of the Rio Negro community and how they were connected to the construction of the dam?
DON CRISTÓBAL : The massacres were directly associated with the construction of the dam. There were five massacres. In one, seven members of our community were called by dam security officials to meet in our village. When a negotiation agreement was not reached, they were killed right there. Another massacre occurred in Xocox, where men and women were killed. On March 13, 1982, the Army and paramilitaries came and massacred 107 children and 73 women. It all happened because we did not want to leave our land for the construction of the dam.
AGUIRRE: How has your life and your children’s lives changed, compared to that of your father?
DON CRISTÓBAL : The lives of my parents were such beautiful lives. My father was a farmer; he cultivated corn, chiles, tomatoes, beans, and more. Life was easier because they cultivated everything they needed; they did not have to buy food. They had good and extensive lands. He owned a piece of land that was flooded. They didn’t need a pharmacy because they had their own medicines. He also fished with nets, and had cattle and animals. He lived a good life.
He is 87 years old now. He used to walk by the river and had lots of friends and coordinated activities with other communities. Just a couple of months ago he told me that he is so sorry that the government did not think about how they were going to destroy our lives. He said that here in the resettlement of Pacux we are very confined. And he expressed sorrow for his grandchildren and great grandchildren. “They are the ones that are going to suffer even more,” he said. “We did not used to be sad.”
We can’t have chickens and other animals here in the resettlement. Before, every family’s house was 300 or 400 meters apart. Here we are all squashed together. It is going to be worse later—the children will grow up, there will be more people, and we will be poorer. That is what my father said.
AGUIRRE: After all that your community has gone through, tell us what you are doing now.
DON CRISTÓBAL : In view of the needs and suffering caused by the dam, we formed the Peasant Association of the Community of Rio Negro Maya-Achí to address the development of our community and to seek reparations for the damages caused by the dam. We made lots of connections with legal groups here in Guatemala, other peasant and human rights organizations, and with international groups. We know that we can’t do this alone.
Before, we did not know who was responsible for all that happened to us. We now know that those responsible are the ones who financed the construction of the dam. We are demanding that the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the government of Guatemala repair the damages. That is the objective of our organization. We demand that those banks send a commission to investigate the situation in our community, and personally assess our situation here in Pacux.
We are preparing a study of the damages caused by the dam. This is a tool that we can use to negotiate with the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the INDE, and the government of Guatemala.
AGUIRRE: Don Cristóbal, what do reparations mean for you?
DON CRISTÓBAL : Reparations allow us to get back our dignity—respect for our culture and our rights. Reparations mean we will be able to provide for our families and live well again, to develop projects to benefit the community, to increase capacity and intelligence of the people, to take advantage of things that are useful to all. For the people to be able to think, to feel good, to feel that there is a sense of future. To feel good about life.
Reparations mean documenting the massacres. To remember brings us peace, with the knowledge that we have not abandoned the people who were massacred. Every year we have ceremonies to remember the death and what happened so this won’t happen again. So our children won’t let this happen again.
AGUIRRE: Do you still go to Rio Negro, to the dam site?
DON CRISTÓBAL : We do. It is difficult because the security agents of the dam do not allow us through Pueblo Viejo. When we begin negotiating with the banks, we will bring up this issue. We are the owners of those lands and they do not allow us to enter through the area.
And this is a terrible problem. Our sacred sites were all flooded, especially Los Encuentros. We don’t have sacred sites to have our ceremonies any more. The only place we do our ceremonies is where our families were massacred up from the reservoir. That is the only sacred site.
AGUIRRE: How about the people who live below the dam site?
DON CRISTÓBAL : They are living in a dangerous situation because you don’t know when the dam gates are going to be opened and they are below the dam. Two years ago someone was swept away and died. A car was also swept away. When it rains a lot the level of the reservoir increases and it is dangerous. These people have also joined in the struggle for reparations. They also say that INDE made promises that it did not fulfill. Their situation is very critical.
AGUIRRE: What do you think will be the future of your children?
DON CRISTÓBAL : We are doing everything possible for them to have a better life. That is an objective of our organization. If we don’t work together we will never get back what we lost. I want my children to become educated. I want them to know what we have gone through. The dam caused us great damages. I don’t want my children to be like us, who are uneducated. Unfortunately because we are indigenous people, the ladinos [non-indigenous people] take advantage of us. Can you imagine all the lies and promises they made to us? What we wish is that our children do not have to go through that.