In July of 2009, Hidro Santa Cruz filed a suit in the Barillas court against seven community leaders for acts of coercion, intimidation, illegal detention, and drug trafficking. Last year, community leaders were arrested, and later freed after demonstrating their innocence. There has been a series of legal confrontations since. This has been an internal drain for the community movement against the plant.
By creating what those in opposition to the dam consider political prisoners, the company has tried to stall the momentum of a community largely in solidarity. Simply put, it’s difficult to mobilize politically if you’re fighting for your own liberty and freedom from threats of incarceration.
Hermelinda, a community activist, tells us of this strategy. She herself was forced to leave her home, her husband and her three daughters for two months.
“There were community leaders who were persecuted and threatened. Right now there are twenty community leaders with warrants issued against them. The ones who were in jail had also been organizing their community. The company wanted to undo the social fabric, and the government supported them. But we aren’t delinquents, we simply are organizing to defend our land,” she said.
From a macroeconomic perspective, the confrontation between company and community is rooted in Guatemala’s growing need for energy. The infrastructure for power distribution is ageing and the population is increasing nationwide. Demand is increasing by approximately 5 percent per year and government research says that the total carrying capacity of the system, as it exists, will be reached by 2015. The government feels that it is urgent to continue the project which, they argue, could provide 10 percent of total national demand once completed.
The perspective of the government and private industry are difficult to reconcile with those of the affected community, particularly in a nation with such fragile legal structures. But the community is trying. They have a lawyer, Carlos Manuel Bezares, representing them. He was able to provide further background on the affair and the company involved.
Bezares tells us that the company, which first arrived as Hidralia-Ecoemer, has a series of legal and financial issues in Spain. Which is why, he surmises, the company is in a rush to move forward with the project. Local activists, however, consider this act to be illegal due to their consulta denying the company the right to build the dam.
The consulta was held in 2007 and is supported by international law, national Guatemalan law and Guatemalan municipal law. Still, in 2011 the company was granted legal authority to proceed by the national government. Bezares notes that this was a year in which there were many prosecutions against leaders who opposed the dam.
In August 2012, the company offered to pay one million Quetzales annually as compensation to the municipality in exchange for the ability to operate in the territory without local opposition. But many in the community do not want the change, nor the money.
Hermelinda tells us that in 2006, representatives of the company came to meet with the municipal council. They asked to tour the area where they would like to build the site. Hermelinda noted that they were very interested in knowing where particular mineral deposits lay.
“Here in Barillas,” Hermelinda continued, “there are two communities that have mineral reserves, in Puente Alto and Pueblo Viejo, and coincidentally, the construction for the hydroelectric dam is right next to them.”
She speculates that after the hydroelectric project, more megaprojects in the extraction industries will be on their way. She sees the dam as one step in the destruction of her community.
She feels that the buying up of land and the offer of the money were both strategies meant to divide the neighbors and get closer to the river. According to Hermelinda, when the company has been unsuccessful at buying land directly from the campesinos, they have taken to making offers through middlemen. This has sown deeper divisions in a community already in crisis.