Reparations for the Maya Achi Chixoy Dam Affected

By Monti Aguirre

The word reparations ­– feared by people in the world of infrastructure development – is finally starting to find a well-deserved and long-awaited place. Reparations means making up for a past wrong. US President Barack Obama is about to sign a bill that includes in its mandates reparations for the Maya Achi communities who were affected by construction of the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. Financiers of the project – the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank – are now on the hook to right the wrongs that accompanied construction of the Chixoy Dam.

Financiers of large development projects have shunned away from admitting that some projects their institutions financed have caused harm. Consequentially, the damages caused to people and the environment do not get addressed and thousands of peoples’ lives are ruined and their livelihoods destroyed forever. This cannot continue to be so.

Carlos Chen Osorio leads a procession to remember victims of the Chixoy Dam massacres.
Carlos Chen Osorio leads a procession to remember victims of the Chixoy Dam massacres.
Photo courtesy of James Rodríguez/

I began to learn of the horrors of what had happened to the Maya Achi when I first met community representative Carlos Chen in 1999. Surprisingly expressionless, lowering his eyes, Carlos spoke in a monotone before the World Commission on Dams in 1999 at the Public Hearing in Sao Paulo. Just minutes before, 26 buses had arrived with close to a thousand dam-affected people from Brazil. The auditorium got hot. 

Three decades ago, in the midst of Guatemala’s civil war, Carlos’ community was persecuted, threatened and killed in the most horrendous ways to make way for the dam, he said. The Maya Achi suffered five massacres that chillingly took away the lives of more than 440 people.

He described how children were taken by their feet and banged against rocks. I would later see one of those rocks and stand by a tree where some girls’ bodies had been dropped. Can you imagine that?

A sign hangs at Xococ, the site of the massacre of hundreds of Maya Achi people who were killed for defending their land against the Chixoy Dam.
A sign hangs at Xococ, the site of the massacre of hundreds of Maya Achi people who were killed for defending their land against the Chixoy Dam.
Photo courtesy of Bert Hanson

Carlos’ wife and many in his family were viciously killed. I could hear after a deathly silence people in the auditorium sobbing, wailing and shouting in indignation. “How can this happen?” I buried my face in the depth of an infinite pain, one that surfaces every now and then.

And when Carlos later asked me that day: “Can you help us get reparations?” I did not hesitate and in a moment of boldness I said yes. I had no idea how to begin, how to do that. Luckily, Annie Bird from Rights Action had been working with these communities for some years, and better than anyone knew and understood them. She was bringing financial and technical support to Guatemalan communities, and was also in the quest for reparations.

It has been a long journey. Communities and advocates (you might be one of those and we thank you) have written numerous letters to the Banks asking them to address reparations, but seldom have received an answer. When we did, the letters said that the bank’s commitments to the project loan had been completed. We met with both Banks’ officials many times, but the staff’s response to the request to address the wrong fell into a black hole. The World Bank bought a piece of land and attempted to fund small production projects. But there was a disconnect; these new projects were not going to solve the problems of what we thought at that time were 3,500 affected people, which we later found out were 11,000.

When asked at the Second International Meeting of Dam Affected Peoples in Thailand in 2004 what reparations meant for him, Cristobal Sanchez Osorio – another massacre survivor – without hesitation responded “regain our dignity.” We knew we needed to document what had happened, the present conditions of affected people, and what communities needed. In short, how could we help repair the harm and damage?

Anthropologist Dr. Barbara Johnston from the Center for Political Ecology – who has been working for decades on getting reparations for the Marshallese impacted by US nuclear testing in the 50s – became interested in the Chixoy story in 1999. She ended up conducting an independent audit, carefully sequestering information from the archives of the World Bank, which by then had become public. She sought out French archaeologist Bretton in Paris who had been involved in the 80s, heard his recollections, and got access to more documents. National libraries and archives were searched. Barbara organized a meeting in Santa Fe with some of the world’s most noted displacement experts to help make recommendations for a process to address reparations.

Dr. Johnston’s independent audit resulted in the “Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study,” a superb study that gave us a path to follow. Community participation had been high and included work on one specific section of the study. This was their community study. But, now what?

I walked the relatively empty streets of Pacux, a resettlement created by the project. Poverty abounded. Malnutrition and health problems were ever present. The houses were falling apart. Aridity pervaded. “How can this be development?” Carlos asked. It is hard to imagine a dignified future for the children of Pacux.

Procession in Santa Cruz Pacux
Procession in Santa Cruz Pacux
Photo courtesy of Bert Hanson

At dawn people from Pacux and others got on the back of trucks and off they went to the dam site. Once more, as they had done in different settings, they protested and demanded reparations. Word got out. Communities were able to get government officials to sign an agreement to hold a meeting to address the communities’ concerns.

In a serendipitous way, the protest helped to open up doors to present the Chixoy Legacy Study to the government. At a well-attended press conference, community members who had come to Guatemala City from far away told their personal stories and the recommendations of the Chixoy Legacy Study were presented. Banks and government officials listened. Or did they?

After a few starts and failures and a couple of years, a negotiations roundtable to address damages and harm was set up. US law firm Holland and Knight was brought in to help with the negotiations, and the Organization of America States to mediate the process. Finally, there was progress. Juan de Dios Garcia joined the team of community leaders and sought out the support of local lawyers, economists and anthropologists. His work and vision have been invaluable.

Six years went by in negotiations, several additional studies and reports were produced, and many meetings took place in Antigua and Guatemala City. Finally, in April 2010 the most complete Reparations Plan ever produced for a case of development wrongdoing was finished. The government of Guatemala, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and communities had something historical to celebrate.

But they did not.

Communities insisted on making this document legal and that the President of Guatemala should sign an agreement that would ensure compliance with the Reparations Plan during future administrations.

The process suddenly fell into a hollow, enormous and somewhat inexplicable black hole.

The government refused to talk, Banks’ officials did not answer questions. We could only suspect that economic and political pressures both in Guatemala and outside had stepped in. It seemed like all the hard work done by all parties would go to waste. It seemed like we were back to ground zero.

We resumed writing to the presidents of the World Bank and the IDB. Again: no answer. Then, in late 2013, Juan de Dios was going to Washington, DC for meetings at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. We decided to give it another shot and scheduled a meeting with the US Treasury. This time, we got somewhere.

In addition to Treasury staff, members of the staffs of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island participated in the meeting with Juan. And they listened.

On behalf of Carlos, Juan, Cristobal, Annie and Barbara, and all the other people who have been fighting for the wrongs of Chixoy to be righted, I want to express our deepest appreciation to Senators Leahy and Whitehouse and their staff for their leadership in getting the reparations for Chixoy victims included in the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

The Chixoy River in full bloom.
The Chixoy River in full bloom.
Photo courtesy of Bert Hanson

I look forward to soon again participate with Carlos and other members of the community in their yearly ceremonies to remember lost family members, rejoicing at the new projects they will be building to strengthen their communities, and looking forward to a time when no more communities around the world suffer from misguided development projects.

We will continue to monitor compliance. We, the international community, won’t go away.

The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank need to know this. This time, things need to be done right.

We are often moved to tears at moments like these. I think about my wonderful daughters Venus and Aurora and their future, I think about all the children, all the beautiful animals and rich forests on this planet and what they do, and Ha! those amazing beautiful, gorgeous rivers that give us so much! At a moment like this, it feels so wonderful to be alive! I can only thank you.

Thursday, January 16, 2014