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Threatened community confronts government
Rebeca Botello
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Riverside population rejects hydroelectric project in referendum.

"Do you want hydroelectric plants in Rio Hondo?" With this simple question the residents of this municipality in the eastern department of Zacapa, had the chance express their worry about the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Colorado River.

"We say no," said Delma Ardón, one of the residents, "because we already have precedents of contamination and water shortage with the Pasabien River. Before, the legislation did not allow us to have a consultation but now that they are giving us the chance to voice our opinion, this is what we think."

The Pasabien dam began operations in 2000 and since then, those who live downstream, have suffered from the poor water quality and shortages, and have been forced to purchase water from a Pepsi Cola plant.

Ardon thinks that it would be more viable to repair the old three-megawatt hydroelectric plant, that worked for 40 years in Rio Hondo, but was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

The project on the Colorado River — which currently supplies drinking and farming water to the Rio Hondo population — would be medium-sized, and would be able to generate 32 megawatts of electric energy through a dam with a height of 10 meters (32 feet) and a capacity for 1.2 million cubic meters (42.4 million cubic feet). The facilities would cover 13 hectares (32 acres) and the energy generated would be destined for sale in the region’s wholesale market.

Scarce participation

While Mayor Felipe Méndez said with satisfaction that "it is finally time that decisions are taken democratically in Guatemala," the business sector rejected the referendum for a lack of participation (29.3 percent) and insisted on the state property of the natural resources.

Of a total of 9,679 registered voters, 2,831 voted, of which 2,737 (96.3 percent) voted against the plant, while 74 voted in its favor. Thirty ballots were annulled.

In relation to the lack of voters, Patricio Paz, an official of the Municipal Planning Office, in charge of the information campaign about the consultation, said that "electoral participation in Guatemala has always been low. In addition, the electoral census has not yet been updated." He mentioned that migrant and deceased citizens have not even been removed from the registered voter’s list, so it would be impossible that 9,679 people would show up at the polls.

Still, according to the 2002 Municipal Code that was forged in the Peace Accords that were signed in 1996, this percentage of participation exceeds the 20 percent of votes that are legally required for a consultation to be valid in places without an indigenous majority. Among the 23,186 people living in Rio Hondo, only 240 are indigenous.

For many, the case of Rio Hondo, along with the consultation on mining which took place in June in Sipacapa in the western department of San Marcos, where 97 percent of the residents rejected mining projects in their municipality was an unprecedented step forward in the process of decentralizing the country. However, for others it has let loose a crisis of "ungovernability" that will scare off foreign investors, and made urgent a revision of the constitutionality of the consultations.

"It is a contradiction in terms that these communities are protesting high electricity costs and later reacting by impeding investments, denying the possibility of cheaper energy, condemning us to depend on hydrocarbons," said Luis Ortiz Peláez, the energy and mining minister.

Provisions guaranteed?

Before the fear of the population that the project will create shortages of drinking water, and other potential hazards, the company assured that the water supply will be guaranteed, and promised to invest US$52,000 annually in projects that will help the population as well as adding 100 new jobs. However, the municipality said that the study of the environmental impact of the business did not take into account the drop in the river caudal caused by Hurricane Mitch.

After the consultation, the companies Rio Hondo S.A. and Electro Oriente — which will construct another hydroelectric plant in the area — appeal to the justice to declare the consultation’s result not binding. "If necessary, we will take it to the Constitutional Court," said Mario Monterroso, a lawyer for Rio Hondo S.A.

The company claims that the water is property of the state and so the state must draw up the policy.

The municipality is standing firm on its autonomy and the decentralization of basic resources for the town’s residents.

For his part, Ortiz said that the consultation will be respected, because the companies want to abide by the law. "One has to take into account, however, that the state is in charge of the natural resources and we have the last word on that," he said. " The licenses will be issued in accord with what the state’s laws say."

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