Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues: Overview

Barbara Rose Johnston, Center for Political Ecology
Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Chixoy Dam and its Pueblo Viejo Hydroelectric facility, built by INDE (Instituto Nacional de Electrificación) with financing from the Inter–American Development Bank and the World Bank, is the major source of electrical power for the nation of Guatemala.

Chixoy Dam–Affected Communities and the Rio Negro Massacres
Chixoy Dam–Affected Communities and the Rio Negro Massacres
Designs for this facility were approved, the project financed, and construction begun in 1975 without notifying the local population. Construction began without conducting a comprehensive census of affected peoples, without legal acquisition of all the land supporting the construction works, the dam, and the hydroelectric generation facility, nor legal acquisition of land that would be flooded by the reservoir. Construction proceeded without a plan to address compensation, resettlement and alternative livelihoods for some 3,445 mostly Mayan residents who would be displaced, and, without assessing the losses and developing safeguards measures for the 6,000 households in surrounding communities who faced flooding of land and other property, loss of sacred sites, loss of access to land, and disruptions of transportation routes, socioeconomic ties between communities, and access to traditional markets.

The complete disregard for resident peoples and their rights to land, culture, livelihood, and life remains present throughout the life of the project. When financiers identified the failure to recognize and provide for resident communities as a serious problem requiring immediate attention by INDE, and stipulated in loan contracts and side agreements that INDE must provide prioritized attention, the concerns and needs of projected affected people were systematically excluded. INDE failed to develop resettlement agreement, failed to implement a viable resettlement and reconstruction plan, and failed to obtain and legally transfer title to a portion of the land used to build the dam and electrical generation facility. The Inter–American Development Bank and World Bank granted the initial planning and construction loans without evidence that INDE held title to the development site. And, the World Bank granted subsequent 1978 and 1985 loans without evidence of clear title.

There is considerable evidence that the Banks were aware of the problems in developing a viable plan for resettlement and compensation. Beginning in 1977, triennial reports on social conditions and the resettlement program were prepared by INDE and submitted to the Inter–American Development Bank. The Inter–American Development Bank conducted an evaluation of the resettlement program in 1983, and the World Bank conducted a similar investigation in 1984, finding the failure to create a viable social safeguard program contributed to the serious problems experienced by resident communities, and finding gross violations in INDE’s compliance with contractual obligations. The World Bank ignored procedural policy and directives contained in their 1980 Operational Manual Statement (OMS 2–33 of 1980) on Involuntary Resettlement. In negotiating a second loan to complete construction repairs in 1984, the World Bank failed to correct the situation through loan negotiations.

The failure to implement a viable resettlement, compensation and reconstruction program contributed to violence in the area. With dam construction largely completed some residents acquiesced to relocation terms, moved, and found extreme differences between promises and the reality of poor quality housing and small allotments of infertile land. Some rejected the replacement homes and returned to their old communities, refusing to leave without fair and just compensation for their losses. Other dam affected residents, refused to move and attempted to negotiate more equitable terms. In a number of cases, resettlement negotiations were conducted with the armed presence of the military, and tensions escalated. Communities had their records of resettlement promises and land documents seized, and their leaders killed. The Army declared resistant communities subversive. INDE security officers working at the dam site (Policia Militar Ambulante, PMA) were involved in a number of documented incidents of violence (see Volume 2, 4). In at least two documented cases, construction equipment owned by sub–contractors (a COFEGAR helicopter and trucks) was used to carry out massacres. The Army forcibly evicted residents from original village sites, and later, from emergency housing.

Shortly after the first massacre occurred in the project area, the March 4, 1980 massacre of Río Negro civilians by INDE security, a formal complaint describing the incident and its relationship to dam construction was filed with the Inter–American Commission on Human Rights, and in 1981 the event was included in the Court’s preliminary and final country report on Guatemala (IACHR 1981).

When construction was complete and reservoir waters rose in January 1983, forced removal of the population had been accomplished by military and civil patrols at gunpoint and with massacre. In one village alone – Río Negro– 444 of the 791 inhabitants had been killed. At this point in time, January 1983, compensation and resettlement agreements with the affected population had yet to be finalized, resettlement villages had yet to be completed, and fair and just compensation for various losses – including acquisition of new land – had yet to be determined. And by this date ten communities in the Chixoy River Basin had been destroyed by massacre: Río Negro, Los Encuentros, La Laguna, Agua Fría, Comalmapa, Jocotales, Chitucan, Los Mangales, Pacaal, and Hacienda Chitucan.

More than a decade later, exhumation and investigation of the Río Negro massacre produced a finding by the Guatemalan Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico – CEH) that this state–sponsored violence constituted genocide, and that the massacres in Río Negro illustrate how "many resistant attitudes to administrative decisions, even though they were peaceful, as occurred in the relation to the construction of the hydroelectric dam, were a priori conceived to be instigated by the guerilla and were resolved through violent repression" (CEH 1999:Volume 1, Annex 1, Chapter VI: Exemplary Case No. 10).

Over the past twenty years, investigations have taken place and various parties have attempted to provide modest remedy to the dam–affected communities who continue to suffer from loss of lands, livelihood, and life. In those cases where compensatory measures were provided – cash, property, or social and economic development – compensation did not reflect full and fair value of lost or damaged resources. In a number of cases compensation was "paid" on paper, but never received by the household or community. No realistic (that is, acceptable to the affected people) effort was made to restore the livelihoods of affected people in violation of the Inter–American Development Bank and World Bank legal agreements. While project sponsors identified compensation and resettlement program failures several times over the years, no consistent effort was made to ensure program success, monitor remedial measures, and confirm that promises were actually delivered.

The project developer, Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE), has taken the position that their obligations to the dam–affected communities have been met. They further point out that since privatization in 1998, they no longer have the institutional mechanism, financial ability, or legal responsibility to respond to dam–affected community complaints.

Staff of the World Bank, acknowledging that project planning and implementation was hindered by significant failures in the resettlement program, conducted a social program evaluation in 1996 and announced that, in their view, World Bank obligations had been met. They also acknowledged that serious problems remain with regard to INDE failures to complete compensation and resettlement obligations stipulated in a 1985 loan agreement. And, from 1996, World Bank staff provided periodic assistance in facilitating the acquisition of replacement land, prodding agencies to legalize title, and providing technical assistance to support small economic development initiatives.

Representatives of the dam–affected communities in testimony to the World Commission on Dams (Brazil, 1999), the Rivers for Life Meeting of Dam–Affected Peoples (Thailand, November 2003), and in numerous petitions to the Guatemalan Government, financiers, and the international community have testified that they do not have resettlement and compensation documents establishing their rights and entitlements, nor have they been able to access the documentation used by project financiers and developers to support contentions that resettlement obligations have been met.

Dam–affected communities have not received the compensation and assistance that they are entitled to as defined by the World Bank policy on Involuntary Resettlement, nor even the full array of promises extended by INDE so many years ago. In many cases resettlement and compensation negotiations were aborted or halted and agreements never reached, and even in those cases where agreements were tentatively reached, they were achieved under great duress – with the very real threat of violence and massacre hanging over villagers. Lacking the documentation to prove their rights to even basic entitlements verbally promised so many years ago, resettlement communities have been unable to maintain those entitlements (e.g., the provision of free electricity by INDE). Numerous other dam–affected communities have not received any compensation or remediation for damages resulting from the loss of land and other property, and loss of access to lands and markets. Nor, have communities been compensated for damages associated with the operation of the dam, including loss of property and life as a result of construction failures and flashfloods resulting from the operation of the floodgates. They see the failure to provide equivalent size and quality of farm and household land as a significant factor in the severe poverty, widespread hunger, and high malnutrition rates of the region. They note that dam releases occur with no warning and resulting flashfloods destroy crops, drown livestock, and sometimes kill people. Upstream communities have seen part of their agricultural land flooded, and lost access to land, roads, and regional markets. No rights–protected mechanism exists for affected people to complain or negotiate assistance.

Over the years Chixoy Dam–affected communities have met to discuss common problems and strategies, and testified before national truth commissions and in international human rights arenas. With help from national and international advocates, dam–affected communities have commissioned and participated in a range of research initiatives to document the impact of the dam and the consequential damages to their communities. Given the failure of these efforts to secure a comprehensive, holistic remedy addressing the needs of all the dam–affected communities, and given the varied perspectives on obligations and liabilities mentioned above, an independent assessment of the project record was deemed a critical component in the overall effort to secure meaningful remedy for Chixoy Dam–affected peoples.1 This Executive Summary presents the summary findings from development impact and consequential damage assessment research initiatives.

The major conclusion emerging from this Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study is that hydroelectric energy development occurred at the cost of land, lives, and livelihood in violation of national and international laws, and considerable profits were achieved. Inter–American Development Bank, for example, reports revalued interest income of US$139,628,376.29 from Chixoy Project loans 301(0C), 301A(OC), #456(OC), #169(OC) (BID July 21, 2004:1–2). With respect to the lives and livelihoods of the former residents of the Chixoy River Basin, these profits have been accrued at their personal expense, and hydroelectric development has by no measure improved their quality of life.

Damages resulting from the violations of laws and fundamental human rights in the Chixoy Dam Development include personal injuries and losses as well as consequential damages associated with the loss of the means to sustain a healthy way of life. In order of proportionate responsibility: INDE; The Government of Guatemala; World Bank and the Inter–American Development Bank have an obligation to provide remedy for the consequences resulting from their failure to protect the right to life and livelihood, the right to fair and just compensation, and the right to remedy.

No one can go back in time and undo the violence that accompanied this dam development project. No amount of money can bring back to life the many who died as a result of forced evictions and the failures to provide just compensation and create meaningful resettlement programs. While many other Mayan communities displaced by the violence have returned to their former homes and begun the process to rebuild families, communities, and way of life, the dam–displaced communities cannot go home. No amount of money can move these communities back in time to a "before–dam" river valley and the associated way of life.

Governments and financing institutions can, however, provide official and formal recognition that their failures helped shape rights–abusive conditions and generated lasting injuries for which they share responsibility. They can provide restitution for the physical, economic, and spiritual losses. They can take action to restore the dignity, identity, and integrity of previously self–sufficient communities. They can help protect sacred sites, insuring the creation and protection of memorials and cemeteries to mark the massacres that occurred in this area. And, they can support community efforts to transform the region, building an economy and society that involves all of its members in the common goal of securing a self–sustaining way of life.

Summary of Recommendations

This study recommends the creation and implementation of a negotiation process that results in a legally binding reparation agreement (see pages 38–41). Recommended elements of that agreement, include:

  • Compensation for personal injury and loss of life.
  • Restored access to or full replacement of lost lands and other property.
  • Renewed commitment to providing free household access to water and electricity as an entitlement to communities whose lives and lands subsidized the construction of the Chixoy facility.
  • Improved housing conditions.
  • Access to health and education funds, personnel, and programs.
  • Infrastructure and development to reestablish the socioeconomic linkages between communities whose social fabric was disrupted by the reservoir.
  • Infrastructure and economic development of the region in ways that enhances and revitalizes Mayan traditions, while restoring the degraded environment.
  • The establishment of a social/economic/cultural development trust fund, held in perpetuity, with interest used to finance projects that benefit the dam–affected communities in Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, and Quiche.
  • And, the passage and enforcement legislation that strengthens indigenous rights, and legislation that establishes a free and prior informed consent requirement in development.

This study urges the inclusion of these elements into a five–tiered plan for remedy that involves immediate emergency relief as well as long–term actions to restore the dignity, integrity and viability of dam–affected communities:

Tier I. Immediate actions to address the dire needs of resettled, disenfranchised, and stigmatized communities including: emergency relief to households and communities who suffer from the lack of water, electricity, and deteriorating housing; and, an assessment and remedy for the gaps in their delivery of social, economic, education, and public health services in the Alta and Baja Verapaz Districts. Other immediate needs include a thorough survey and census of the entire dam–affected population.

Tier II. Economic, sociocultural, education, health, and infrastructure development of dam affected communities and the broader region.

Tier III. Implementation of community and family specific remedies to restore, repair, and improve the conditions of life of those communities and families most seriously affected by the Chixoy Dam Project.

Tier IV. Reparation and reconciliation with respect to violence accompanying the construction of the Chixoy Dam including violence associated with resettlement negotiations, the assassination of community leaders and the theft of community records, and the massacres of the Río Negro community and the communities that sheltered Río Negro survivors.

Tier V. Political actions and initiatives that acknowledge and address the historical wrongs of this case of hydroelectric dam development subsidized by the lands, livelihood and lives of societies’ most vulnerable people, and political action that insures "never again."

The overarching goal of this reparation plan is to not only provide redress for past wrongs but also to ensure that project affected peoples are provided with the legal means and the right–protective space to participate as free and informed actors in development, that their participation is supported in full by the agencies and institutions involved in the project, and, that should they agree to large scale development proposals, they actually enjoy the social and material benefits of development.

Read the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study in English, or Spanish.


Barbara Rose Johnston, Center for Political Ecology