When Hidralia Energia began to develop the dam project in 2009, the Q’anjob’al Maya community of Santa Cruz Barillas protested not only because they hadn’t been consulted, as is their right, but also out of concerns that the dam would affect the volume and flow of the river. The company has failed to inform locals of the dam’s potential effects, claiming on its website that it will have zero environmental impact. Any environmental impact studies (if even conducted) were never made public, nor social impacts assessed, despite these being key to validating a project on Indigenous Peoples’ land. The Guatemalan government has even approved the Cambalam I dam project to apply for UN-certified carbon credits with the Clean Development Mechanism.
A slippery slope
Though the project is considered small by industry standards, the community fears that it will be a gateway to larger, more destructive projects in the future, such as gold mining. This fear is not unfounded. Gold and silver veins run through much of northwest Guatemala, and the transnational industry has had toxic repercussions for the environment and Indigenous Peoples across the country. Only six months into office, the Molina administration has approved 68 new mining licenses. Another 734 are pending, along with another 47 hydroelectric licenses existing or in process. Virtually none of these licenses have been granted based on the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous People who have traditionally occupied these lands.
History of abuse
Hidralia Energia has a dubious history in Spain, where the company’s owners were charged with bribery and corruption surrounding the authorization of licenses for 16 dams. After three years of investigation, they began to dispose of their Spanish assets while initiating operations in Guatemala. Hidralia’s lack of transparency and combative business approach has fueled the community’s outrage: “Since the company arrived, they have been invoking fear in the community, intimidating us, and motivating us to sell our land,” said local leader Josepha Andres. The threats culminated on the night of May 1, when the company’s security guards shot three men, killing one and seriously wounding Pablo Antonio Pablo, who had been threatened by the company after refusing to sell his land.
To date, nine community leaders who were outspoken against the dam remain detained in Guatemala City’s central prison, more than 16 hours’ travel from their families (who cannot afford to visit them). Many more have fled the country to escape persecution. By declaring martial law in Barillas so soon after taking office, President Molina sent a message to the dozens of other communities in Guatemala organizing against foreign exploitation: the government’s new “iron-fist” policy is about protecting profit, not people.
We Are All Barillas
In partnership with community radio station Radio Snuq Jolom Konob, the Consejo del Pubelo Maya de Occidente (Western People's Council) , and other grassroots organizations, Cultural Survival is joining the fight to hold Hidralia Energia and the Guatemalan government accountable to their obligation to respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Let’s make sure that what happens in Barillas sets an example of respect for Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination and their right to say no to foreign exploitation.
- Cultural Survival Quarterly article "Defending Life First: The Struggle to Protect a River and Human Rights in Santa Cruz Barillas, Guatemala" by Danielle DeLuca
- Analysis by Plaza Publica: "Un Pueblo, el Estado y... una empresa" (Spanish only)
- Public statement by the Consejo del Pueblo Maya de Occidente in English and original Spanish
- Thank you statement by Consejo del Pueblo Maya de Occidente to Cultural Survival (Spanish)