"The Chixoy Dam Destroyed Our Lives"

Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)

April 26, 2004

The words of Carlos Chen, an indigenous Maya-Achí, provoked cries of outrage and horror from the steamy, packed auditorium as he told how 400 members of his community were massacred because of their opposition to the construction of the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. Among the victims were his wife and children.Carlos Chen delivered his chilling testimony in August 1999 in São Paulo, Brazil, before the World Commission on Dams (WCD) — an independent, non-enforcing commission established by the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in response to the growing opposition to large dams. The WCD had a two-year mandate to revise the past performance of dams and to develop international guidelines for the planning of future dam projects. Chen’s message to the WCD was clear: “We want reparations…for what we lost because of the dam.”

In 1978 the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) funded the construction of Chixoy, a hydro-dam in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. “The government took their money to build the dam,” said Chen, “and used it to kill my people.” This energy development initiative became intertwined with civil war, severe human rights abuses, and continuing problems and instability for the affected communities. The 100 meter high Chixoy Dam that flooded 1,400 hectares of land was built with grossly inadequate attention to the rights, needs, and livelihood of 3,400 affected peoples — mostly Mayan — or to the effect that the loss of fertile agricultural land and the forcible displacement of indigenous families and communities might have on an already vulnerable population.

The WCD’s final report, published in 2000, concluded that dams are responsible for the physical displacement of 40 to 80 million worldwide, and that affected peoples have little or no meaningful participation in the planning or implementation of dam projects, including resettlement and rehabilitation. The WCD recommended that mechanisms be developed to address retroactive compensation and indemnification for peoples affected by existing dams as well as to restore ecosystems.

The Chixoy Dam epitomizes the worst aspects of large, internationally-funded dam projects, from lack of consultation of dam-affected communities to negligence on the part of project funders. In 1976, Guatemala’s National Institute of Electrification (INDE), the government agency charged with developing the project, notified communities just one year in advance that the dam would flood their homeland. The communities were therefore left with no choice but to negotiate a resettlement package. Yet the infertile lands and poorly built houses offered by the government failed to meet basic human needs or compensate affected people for the value of lost property.

When communities asserted their opinions and opposed forced relocation, a campaign of terror began. The Guatemalan government and local army officers accused the Rio Negro community of supporting guerrillas, and hundreds of people — mainly women and children — were massacred by government-backed paramilitaries as a result of their resolve to press for just resettlement terms. In 1982, INDE revoked people’s titles to their lands, the only legal documentation that gave them the right to compensation. Two months later, 92 people were machine gunned and burned to death in a village near the dam site, and the filling of the reservoir began. Some 500 people were massacred before the dam was even completed. In the years since, the people of Rio Negro have lived in conditions of poverty, violent repression, and psychological trauma.

The World Bank provided an additional to Guatemala for the Chixoy project in 1985, ignoring the murders that had been committed. Despite sending numerous missions to oversee the project, the World Bank remained silent on the massacres until 1996, when human rights groups pressured it to undertake an internal investigation.

When the World Bank carried out its investigation in 1996, it found that the massacres had indeed taken place, but it did not accept responsibility for them. The investigation concluded that massacre survivors were never adequately compensated and urged Guatemalan authorities to provide survivors with more land. However, by this time the power utility that had bought the dam was being privatized and claimed to have no money for land purchase. At that point, the World Bank obtained a commitment from Guatemala’s National Fund for Peace to purchase the land. The Bank now publicly states that “almost all relocated communities have reached the level they had in 1976 [when relocations began] or are about to reach it.”

To the Rio Negro community, the World Bank’s position of no remaining obligation denies the immense suffering of survivors during the years of violence and the subsequent years of deprivation and continuing terror. From the community’s point of view, the financial institutions, by funding the dam in partnership with the military, sustained the military presence and tacitly condoned the use of violence. Now that the project is completed, the people of Rio Negro feel that they do not enjoy anything close to their previous standard of living. Housing is substandard; inadequate replacement of land has produced widespread hunger; down-stream villages are flooded by dam releases occurring without warning; and the lack of a bridge or reliable boats has resulted in the loss of access to communal lands. The community still suffers from threats and other violent intimidation associated with the stigmatization of being “guerilla supporters.” In addition, the institution responsible for implementing resettlement and other compensatory agreements — INDE — has been privatized, replaced by new power companies that refuse to recognize prior agreements. Thus, the resettlement village has been threatened with the loss of their electricity for failure to pay utility bills and, with the loss of power, the loss of potable water. In short, people lack the means to enjoy their basic rights to food, water, health, and livelihood.

In its 1999 report, the U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, established through the 1994 Oslo Accords, cited the Rio Negro massacre as an example of genocide perpetrated against Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. When the case is mentioned in national and international contexts, the Rio Negro massacres are usually described as an example of genocide — one of the many violent events targeting Mayan communities that occurred with official sanction by the Guatemalan government during the country’s long civil war. What is rarely stated is that the Rio Negro massacre occurred in an area and at a time when Maya Achí communities were being forcibly displaced by construction of the World Bank and IDB-funded Chixoy Dam.

Currently, the Chixoy Dam-affected communities are working to document the various problems associated with development projects — environmental degradation, resource alienation, poverty, and malnutrition. Representatives from the communities have formed a coordinating committee to carry out this task, and additional assistance has been provided by an ad-hoc network of local, national, and international NGOs, including Rights Action Guatemala, Reform the World Bank-Italy, the Center for Political Ecology, and International Rivers Network.

Working together, the affected communities and network of NGOs have adopted a consensus to conduct a research plan, which includes an independent audit of development project documents, collaborative participatory field research on community history and socioeconomic conditions, and an assessment of the relative strengths and needs of affected communities. The community hopes that these efforts will encourage financial institutions and governments to take responsibility in the form of reparations and environmental restoration programs. Establishing legal and ethical precedents for reparations liabilities will help ensure that the mistakes made in the past are less likely to be repeated in the future.