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June 2014

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES ACT TO PROTECT RIGHTS

Conflicts have been escalating around hydroelectric projects in Guatemala.

By Christin Sandberg

            Huehuetenango in northern Guatemala became the scene of a popular uprising in May when a group of 150 people, armed and covered by balaclavas, went into the installations of a multinational hydroelectric project in the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán and destroyed parts of the machinery and property. This is the latest incident after years of growing social conflicts related to mining and hydroelectric activities in different parts of Guatemala. No group has claimed responsibility for this action thus far.

            Early morning on May 5 the mass media started reporting about a “mob” that had entered into the area of the hydroelectric corporation, Promoción y Desarrollos Hídricos S.A. (PDH), and caused destruction in a village within the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango. In one of the first accounts of the conflict published by the national newspaper Prensa Libre, two individuals known as community leaders were mentioned as responsible for the actions without any source of information provided. It seemed the so-called official version of the conflict was based exclusively on information from workers and representatives of the corporation itself.

            In the region of Huehuetenango, there have been several incidents during the past two years in relation to criminalization, persecution, and military repression of social protests against different energy and hydroelectric megaprojects.

            In San Mateo Ixtatán, the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment have approved the construction of three hydroelectric projects, Pojom I and II and San Andrés.

            On May, 8, the local Mayan people, through the Council of the Mayan People (known as CPO), held a press-conference together with the Archbishop Álvaro Ramazzini, and a local Mayor.

            CPO accused the government of being responsible for the recent events by not enforcing into practice ILO Convention 169 and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both protecting and respecting the indigenous people’s collective rights to their territories.

            “We are united as Mayan communities. We are all experiencing the same invasion to our ancestral territories and will not leave our Mayan friends in the cold,” said the CPO’s Lolita Chávez.

            The local Mayan communities supported by other Mayan communities from across the country have engaged in continuous efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the many conflicts in the country. However, they also recognize the growing desperation and frustration among the population.

            “We have done everything within our power in order to reach a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict,” said Huehuetenango resident Rigoberto Juárez during the press-conference.

            Juárez referred to the initiatives taken by community leaders in order to establish a dialogue with President Otto Pérez Molina and other government officials aimed at finding a solution and to put an end to the regional unrest caused by these megaprojects.

            “We want an end to violence, but we also know that the population is very disappointed and upset with the government not taking into consideration the united rejection by the local population as demonstrated in a referendum in 2009,” Juárez added.

            While a vast majority of the indigenous communities in San Mateo Ixtatán have said ‘no’ and rejected any future mining projects in their territory, the government has since issued permits for the construction of two hydroelectric projects without any previous consultation with the affected communities, as mandated by national and international law.

            The CPO’s Chávez pointed out during the press conference that the indigenous communities have acted peacefully and democratically through collective participation in order to build up and strengthen the community organization and resistance in defending their ancestral territories and way of life. Furthermore, the CPO has filed eight appeals in national courts all claiming violations of the indigenous communities’ collective rights, including the right to free, prior and informed consent.

            In addition to the appeals filed in national courts, the CPO filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in September 2013, alleging that the country’s mining law was approved without their prior consultation as required under both national constitution and international law. They have not yet received an answer. 

            In Huehuetenango, a first negotiation was held in September 2013 in which community leaders, local authorities, representatives from the government and two witnesses of honor, Archbishop Ramazzini and a representative from the United Nations, sat down at the negotiating table.

            In another round of negotiations in December 2013 where representatives of the corporation and local authorities participated, an agreement was reached stating that the activities of the hydroelectric project would have to cease until a solution was reached to the ongoing situation.

            Nevertheless, what is happening in the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán today is not an isolated event, but one of many similar conflicts in indigenous people’s territories and communities all over the country.

            A recent study made by The Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) and the non-governmental organization Ibis shows that 78% of the Guatemalan municipalities with high concentration of mining licenses have reported social conflicts.

            By comparing data of all municipalities in 2010, the study outlines that of the 230 municipalities with no mining licenses approved, 90% had no reported conflicts; whereas 78% of the 101 municipalities with licenses consisted of most conflicts related to environmental degradation, such as water pollution and deforestation, while the lack of trust in governmental institutions was also a contributing factor. The government has consistently supported and enforced foreign investments in territories rich in minerals and water while not taking into consideration and respecting the opinion of the Mayan people who have lives – and likely will live – in these regions for generations.

            The Ministry of Energy and Mines, on April, 25 2014, mapped out eight conflicts related to multinational hydroelectric projects, not counting the most recent events in San Mateo Ixtatán.

            “We ask the international community to support the Mayan people of Guatemala in our fight for dignity and our lives,” said Chávez. – Third World Network Features.

-ends-

The above article is reproduced from Upside Down World, 22 May 2014.

When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network Features and (if applicable) the cooperating magazine or agency involved in the article, and give the byline. Please send us cuttings. And if reproduced on the internet, please send the web link where the article appears to twnet@po.jaring.my.

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