On Trust, Justice and Restoring Dignity: The Long Path for Reparations in Guatemala

by Monti Aguirre

"History does not allow injustices to vanish just because we are unable to address them."  Colombian author William Ospina

The fight for justice made by the communities affected by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala has been going on for more than two decades. Their story is stupefying. At the time the dam was being built, horrendous persecution and even massacres of people in the dam region took place at the hands of the dictatorship. The indigenous Maya-Achí communities that lived on lands adjacent to the Chixoy (Negro) River where the dam was being built did not escape the hatred of the brutal regime. People lost the river, their land, fruit trees, animals, sacred sites, their dignity and, too many, their lives. Close to 6,000 people suffered ill effects from the dam, and at least 400 were murdered.

The survivors' resilience is admirable and humbling. For many years communities have organized, sought out national and international allies, protested, wrote letters, and met officials of the Guatemalan government, and project financiers at the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Community leaders sought remedy for wrongs doing committed against their loved ones as the dam was being planned, built and put into operation.

Paulina Osorio was born in a village flooded by Chixoy Dam. Her parents were murdered by Guatemalan paramilitaries when she was 9.
Paulina Osorio was born in a village flooded by Chixoy Dam. Her parents were murdered by Guatemalan paramilitaries when she was 9.
Erik Johnson
For a long time those responsible for building the dam and committing the atrocities did nothing. On a few occasions the World Bank, which at first tried to avoid responsibility by stating that their loan obligations had already been fulfilled, made quiet yet bold moves to encourage small economic development projects and land acquisition. But unfortunately these could not begin to address the conditions of entrenched poverty in affected communities. So the affected people formed the Coordinating Committee of Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (COCAHICH) to take their efforts to seek reparations and development to the next step.

NGOs like Rights Actions accompanied communities and helped to build their strength, one day at a time. Carlos Chen, a quiet yet driven community leader, took the people's case to the World Commission on Dams' public hearing in Brazil. The international community responded in support by faxing and emailing thousands of letters to the banks and government demanding that the peoples' needs be addressed. A representative of one of the banks once said that their fax machine was damaged by the thousands of faxes sent to them.

When affected peoples held a massive protest at the dam site in September 2004, this pressure resulted in an unprecedented agreement signed by government officials and communities to initiate a process to review the case. Shortly afterward, a backlash hit and criminal charges against the same eight leaders were filed. The agreement remained inactive for almost a year.

Meanwhile, in March 2005, a study on the legacy of the dam, which included a remarkable chronological account of facts and events going back as far as 1950, and an accounting of present community needs, was published and presented by COCAHICH to government officials in Guatemala, and the banks in Washington, DC. The government began to listen. That year, communities retained US law firm Holland & Knight, which had offered to provide pro-bono advice to COCAHICH. Communities now had counseling help at the negotiating table, and were armed with a strong study documenting damages from construction of the dam.

Finally and slowly, the cumulative efforts of many parties working for many years began to lead to results for communities affected by the dam. A new political agreement was signed on September 2006 with then Vice-President Eduardo Stein. The agreement ‘s objectives are to identify the communities that were affected, and how to repair the damages; review previously made agreements to determine if they were fulfilled; identify unforeseen damages to other communities that were not previously taken into account;  and establish monitoring mechanisms for the fulfillment of the agreements.

"Having an impartial facilitator is essential in these kinds of negotiations," said William Armstrong, who was an observer of the Chixoy process for the IDB until 2007. "Because even when they are guided by a document as clear as the political agreement, inevitably the negotiations get off track and the whole process is at risk of being derailled." To ensure this wouldn't happen,The Organization of America States (OAS) was called to mediate the process. Other observers of the process besides the IDB included the General Attorney's Office, Human Rights Attorney's Office, The World Bank, and the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights. Having a facilitator was one reason the criminal charges against community leaders were eventually dropped.

"I am very pleased to see that the IDB and INDE, who did not want to listen to us for a long time, have now come forward and even contributed funds for the development plan," said Carlos Chen as he awaited his turn to declare on the genocide case before the tribunals in Guatemala City.

It has taken a long time for the government and financial institutions to acknowledge that the building of Chixoy Dam had a legacy that needed to be addressed. It has taken the right people to be present at the right moment, political will, and a process agreed to by all parties. But most of all, it has taken trust in each other as people. The process is not over yet, but we continue to trust that those in power will do the right thing for these communities.