Thursday, December 13, 2018
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Most vulnerable communities threatened by dam
Louisa Reynolds
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Ixil communities demand greater benefits from new hydroelectric dam.

The heart of the Guatemalan jungle, in the highland department of Quiche, is dotted with tiny indigenous villages. This area, known as the Ixil triangle, is one of the most beautiful but also one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country.

During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, this remote location became an ideal hiding place for many guerrilla groups and the scene of vicious skirmishes between the guerrilla forces and the army, with the indigenous population caught in the middle.

A stone cross by the Xalbal river bank, near the village of Chel, is a stark reminder of the Ixil triangle’s tragic past. Indigenous villages in the area suffered some of the worst massacres committed during the conflict — 263 massacres were committed against residents of Quiche as a result of the state’s brutal genocidal policy that came to be known as the “Scorched Earth” campaign during the first half of the 1980s.

In Chel, a few miles away from the Xalbal River, 96 people, including women and children, were rounded up in the local church, bludgeoned to death and thrown into the river.

Today, the Ixil people live in extreme poverty with no electricity, no access to potable water and lack basic services such as schools and health centers.

When work began on a large hydroelectric dam on the Xalbal River bank in the municipality of San Gaspar Chajul in late 2006, some 40 local villages hoped they would finally have access to an affordable electricity service.

Villages overlooked
However, they were soon disappointed when it became known that the new dam would supply Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city, while the Ixil triangle would remain in the dark.

For most villages in the area, the closest electrical generator is located in the municipality of Sacapulas, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, and the service provided is poor, highly overpriced and does not cover over 20 villages beyond the town of Chajul.

Mesa Regional Ixil, a civil society umbrella group that brings together 36 indigenous organizations, says it is ironic that the electricity produced by the Xacbal hydroelectric dam will be transported all the way to Quetzaltenango, when the villages surrounding the dam lack this basic service. “We’re not against the hydroelectric dam per se.

The service is needed. But it’s contradictory that we won’t feel the benefits,” says Ixil community leader Francisco Velasco Marroquín.

Indigenous leaders have asked Hidro Xacbal, the company that manages the hydroelectric dam, to build a generator in Chajul so that all the villages in the Ixil triangle have access to affordable electricity.

However, Hidro Xacbal has refused, arguing that it would not be financially viable for the company to provide electricity for dozens of remote villages dotted all over the Ixil triangle.

Hidro Xacbal CEO, Erwin Hernández, argues that the government and not a private corporation should be responsible for the provision of electricity in the Ixil triangle. A few years ago, the government launched a Rural Electrification Program that aimed to provide electricity for all villages in rural Guatemala.

However, progress has been slow and many indigenous areas have yet to see any benefits.

The fact that the dam is being built on land that has been at the center of an acrimonious dispute between campesino villages and a wealthy land-owning family, has also stirred up long-standing grievances within the Ixil community.

The hydroelectric dam was the brainchild of the Arenas Menes family, owners of the coffee producing farm known as La Perla, in San Gaspar Chajul.

With a growing demand for electric energy threatening to outstrip the available supply by 2008, hydroelectricity, considered an alternative, cleaner form but one that actually requires fuel to run became a lucrative business and in 2001, the Arenas Menes family carried out an environmental impact study necessary for the construction of a hydroelectric dam next to the Xacbal River.

Land dispute continues
Realizing that a century-old land dispute with nearby campesino villages would be a major obstacle for the project to go ahead, the owners of La Perla decided to sell part of the farm to Hidro Xacbal, SA, in 2004.

Nevertheless, neighboring Ixil villages still demand that the conflict over of the boundaries of La Perla be resolved.

In 1896, La Perla had an area of 990 hectares (2,445 acres) but over the years, the Arenas Menes family began to encroach on community-owned lands and according to the Presidential Commission for the Resolution of Land Disputes, the farm now has an extension of 2,790 hectares (6,891 acres).

This figure underestimates the true size of La Perla, which is closer to 5,850 hectares (14,500 acres), In contrast, the average family in the neighboring villages barely owns around 0.5 hectares (nearly 1.24 acres) of land.

According to the Guatemalan land registry, around 2,219 hectares (5,481 acres) of La Perla ought to belong to the Sotzil and Ilom villages. This means that the 405 indigenous families living in Ilom should own 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres) of land and 195 Sotzil families should own over 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

However, indigenous communities cannot even use the land that is rightfully theirs according to official records. In May this year, the National Coordinator of Indigenous and Campesino Organizations said: “The dam is being built on land that was stolen from our communities.

The company is trying to bribe people by giving them land but the land where the dam is being built was stolen from our ancestors,” which shows that this unresolved land dispute is still a highly contentious issue.

On June 15, the government invited Ixil leaders and Hidro Xacbal representatives to attend a meeting, hoping to reach a consensus between the two parties.

A week later, the government postponed the meeting “until further notice.” The Ixil people and their representatives now fear that their grievances will be simply forgotten yet again.

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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