GUATEMALA: Planned mega-dam caused killing of two indigenous children and rights violations of thousands more

[26 March 2015] - A planned mega-dam in Guatemala, whose carbon credits will be tradable under the EU’s emissions trading system, has been linked to grave human rights abuses, including the killing of six indigenous people, two of them children.

Several European development banks and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) have provided funds for the $250m (£170m) Santa Rita dam.

But human rights groups back claims from the Mayan community that they were never consulted about the hydro project, which will forcibly displace thousands of people to generate 25MW of energy, mostly for export to neighbouring countries.

The issue has become a focus of indigenous protest in Guatemala – which has led to a march on the capital and severe political repression.

“At the moment our community is living under the same conditions as they did during the war,” Maximo Ba Tiul, a spokesman for the Peoples’ Council of Tezulutlán told the Guardian. “Our civilian population is once again being terrorised by armed thugs.”

Around 200,000 Mayans died or were “disappeared” during the civil war of the early 1980s, leading to the conviction of the country’s former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in 2013 on genocide charges.

Augusto Sandino Ponce, the son of a local landowner who community leaders allege worked as a contractor to Montt’s junta during the civil war, is at the centre of new accusations of human rights violations. Last April Ponce and his bodyguards allegedly opened fire on a Mayan community ceremony in which families asked the Earth for permission to plant their crops. One local man, Victor Juc, was killed and several were injured. Ponce reportedly claims he was acting in self defence.

The incident took place two months after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) clean development mechanism (CDM) executive board registered the plant, allowing its future carbon allowances to be traded on the EU’s emissions trading system.


In a letter to the UNFCCC’s CDM executive board, the People’s Council of Tezulutlán outlined a litany of human rights abuses in the region, including kidnappings, evictions, house burnings, attacks by men wielding machetes and guns, and the arrest of community leaders.

The council also says that an environmental impact assessment for the dam suggests that it would create a 40ft-high wall, flooding local communities and depriving them of access to water, food, transport and recreation.

In approving projects, the CDM board pursues a narrow remit focused on emissions reductions. The reign of terror in the Alta Verapaz region, falls outside it – as did similar events in Honduras.

The situation in Guatemala deteriorated further last August, when 1,500 police were sent into the Q’eqchi’ communities of Cobán, Chisec and Raxruhá, partly to evict residents of Monte Olivo for dam construction work. Community representatives say that police fired tear-gas at villagers who had set up a peaceful blockade, and proceeded to occupy the area.

Locals allege that officers stole animals, food, property and money from peoples’ homes, forcing families to take refuge in the mountains. Three indigenous peoplewere killed in Semococh, a nearby town during the operation, according to the People’s Council of Tezulutlán.

“When a government criminalises opposition to such projects, it creates an atmosphere where this kind of violence against protesters – including extra-judicial killings – is more or less legitimised,” Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green MEP, told the Guardian.

Perhaps the most shocking incident took place on 23 August 2013, when two children were killed by an allegedly drunken Santa Rita hydroelectricity company worker looking for David Chen, a community leader in the Monte Olivo region.

Chen was meeting with the rapporteur of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights at the time. When the worker could not find him, he is said to have lined up two of Chen’s nephews, David Stuart Pacay Maaz, 11 and Haggai Isaac Guitz Maaz, 13, and killed them with a single bullet to one child’s head that continued through the throat of the other. The killer has since been killed himself.

The annual report of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights implicitly blamed the approval of the dam project for the killings.

“These allegations are well-documented and it is outrageous that the UN’s CDM can register such projects that are clearly violating the human rights of indigenous peoples,” said Hautala, a member of the European Parliament’s development committee. “There has been a great lack of respect of the legal rights of people who want to express their well-reasoned resistance to this mega-dam.”

A spokesman for the IFC told the Guardian that the project had only been green-lighted for funding on the understanding it was a popular “run-of-river” project that would increase access to local, affordable electricity. Currently “the project is on hold, as the fund manager discusses further with the local communities,” the spokesman said. “Without strong local support, the project will not proceed.”

Eva Filzmoser, the director of Carbon Market Watch said: “We want the CDM board to take responsibility and establish a grievance and redress mechanism for local communities to appeal, ask for problematic decisions to be rescinded and gain redress. We will be pushing for this at the Paris climate summit to apply to all forms of climate finance in the future.”

Efforts to reform the CDM were boosted last month, when 18 countries signed a “Geneva declaration” calling for human rights norms to be integrated into UNFCCC climate decisions.

“We cannot overlook the injustice faced by the poorest and most vulnerable people, who are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change,” the declaration says. “In a transition to a low-carbon economy, we want to ensure that no one is left behind. We will promote and respect human rights in our climate actions.”

Signatory countries to the declaration include France, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Uruguay and Peru.


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