The municipality of Santa María Cahabón, Alta Verapaz, ancestral territory of the Q'eqchi' peoples, is traversed by the Cahabón and Oxec Rivers. The water from these rivers and a dozen of streams have been historically used by 195 Q'eqchi' communities as a source of subsistence:
We live near the river. I have two brothers who like to fish and when they go fishing, they run them off with rocks and firearms. I think they are killing us, they are taking away our water because we are accustomed to going to the river to get our food, like snails. We are used to going to the river and now we cannot go to the river when we want to. We have to drink that water or buy water, but we have to go to town and it is 45 minutes away by foot. (female member of the Cahabón communities in Resistance)
In the last 20 years, Alta Verapaz is the department with the most hydroelectric plants in operation, however it is also where the greatest number of inhabitants (more than 60%) do not have electricity in their homes. This is the paradox of the poorest department in Guatemala, with a poverty index of 83.1% and 53.6% live in extreme poverty and electricity coverage at the lowest rate in the country (44.36%). These figures do not seem to match the promise that the development of hydroelectric megaprojects improves living conditions in communities:
They say that this is development, but this is not development – it is theft of resources. That is why we the 195 communities affected by the hydroelectric are upset. (member of of the Cahabón communities in Resistance)
Oxec means three wise men who came in Q'eqchi': Where the three hills come together is a sacred place where communities used to go to have ceremonies. Two of the hills were destroyed by the company. In Sepoc, the damage is something that no one forgives. (member of the Cahabón communities in Resistance)
What is happening today with the waters of Oxec is far from the wise ancestral ways of the indigenous peoples. The Oxec S.A Company is part of Energy Resource Capital Corporation (ERCC), which was granted an environmental license to build the dam with the same name. The license was granted by former Minister Erick Archila who is currently under investigation for money laundering and illicit association cases. He is a fugitive from the law in these cases. In November 2015 the “OXEC I” hydroelectric dam started working and the second plant started working in 2018.
In December 2015, Bernardo Caal, inhabitant of Cahabón, filed an injunction before the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) to suspend the work of the mine arguing that the license was granted without prior consent.
According to a member of the resistance, OXEC and the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) tried to use an agreement signed in 2012 between the company and a few inhabitants of eleven communities ¨directly affected¨ as prior consultation. In the agreement the communities promised to their unconditional support for OXEC, to abstain from involving themselves in organizations and communities in opposition to the hydroelectric dam. The company promised to bring infrastructure, economic support and jobs, but none of this happened. On the contrary, divisions among communities intensified:
We are not in agreement that the company continues to manipulate our brothers. With lies they are gaining the trust of people. Since 2012 they have offered large projects and they do not follow through. A few people benefit, but everyone else stays the same. For this reason, many people who signed, now do not believe in the company. (member of the Resistance)
The other side of the river
While the legal resources continued their course in Guatemala City, in May 2016 the communities of Cahabón asked the municipal Mayor to carry out a community consultation as stipulated in the Municipal Code. The Mayor authorized the consultation for 195 communities in the municipality. Everything was prepared for the communities to pronounce their opinions on the issue, but only two days before the consultation Oxec, S.A. filed an injunction which caused the Judge from the First Circuit Civil Court in Coban suspend the consultation.
The debate in Guatemala City continued
In February 2017, the suspension of activities of this hydroelectric project was ordered. The business sector rejected this judicial decision and started a public campaign calling for legal security for investment targeting the high courts and environmental authorities. On May 26, 2017 in the midst of numerous public statements demanding that the court guarantee the legal security for businesses and development in the country, the Constitutional Court (CC) finally handed down its decision admitting that indigenous communities were not consulted, but authorized the company to continue operations for one more year. However, communities in resistance consider that this decision contravenes the rights of communities: after they denied us the consultation based in Municipal Code, a verdict is handed down which recognized the violation of rights in Cahabón, but they give MEM one more year to carry out the consultation and they let the company continue to operate. This is against ILO Convention 169.
Amidst protests rejecting the court´s decision, the Labor Ministry presented a guide on how to carryout prior consent with indigenous peoples. This guide was also rejected by different indigenous organization.
The other side of the river II
Due to the suspension of the community consultation authorized by the Mayor, provoked by the injunction put forth by OXEC, the Santa María Cahabón communities decided to convoke a new consultation with the 195 villages in the municipality on August 27, 2017. The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) classified it as a parallel consultation lacking legal sustenance. However, the institutional rejection was insufficient to stop the consultation in which 26,537 people voted against the Oxec 1 and 2 projects and eleven people voted in favor. Nevertheless, the MEM continues preparing a new consultation that several communities reject: The MEM is going to carry out a consultation with the 11 communities, we have already conducted our own consultation, in accordance with our own principles and values as native peoples. They want to harm our struggle by manipulating people, saying that there is going to be another consultation, but we are going to make the consultation that we carried out be binding, backed by Convention 169.
The increase in threats and attacks against members of the resistance is worrisome since the consultation that took place on August 27: I received threats and insults via telephone. They tell me I should stop fighting and if not they are going to kill me. The companies reject our struggle. The company says that organizations are of no use – that the organizations are made of delinquents. We are not delinquents, we are human rights defenders and defenders of Mother Nature. They have fired shots at the COCODE of one community, another person´s door to their house was struck by machete, and they tried to set fire to another person´s home.
PBI was present at the community consultation on August 27. This was the start of our accompaniment to the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón.