Today, Guatemala's oil, silver, gold, powerful rivers, and it’s still fertile land, are a source of conflict between local communities and international corporations. What should be a basis for much-needed economic development has instead created a tense atmosphere of violence, intimidation, and mistrust. Struggles arise over the lack of environmental insight, over who should benefit from the profits gained, and who exactly has a say in whether a community's mountains and rivers are drilled, dammed, or mined.
Local communities unheard
Governments shall establish or maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples, with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands.Although Guatemala ratified this convention in 1996, it has yet to define any legal mechanisms ensuring communities and the indigenous people of the many regions are consulted prior to large transnational companies drilling for oil, mining for precious metals, or building hydroelectric dams.
Many communities have decided to take matters into their own hands, and have held good-faith consultations, and casted a referendum vote on how they feel about the presence of mines, oil wells, and dams on their lands. To date, 62 communities have held formal consultations. All of them have voted against the exploitation of natural resources in their region. None of these referendums are recognized by the government.
Santa Cruz Barillas
The river they intended to dam was an important resource for the community: as a place of recreational leisure, by local women for washing clothes, and as a ceremonial site. After the company came into the community, the municipal government also issued a resolution asking them to respect the consultation vote, and leave. As the company continued to buy up local land, hassling local residents who refused to sell their riverside property, and causing tension in the community, the local police forces even issued a statement asking the company to leave. Hidro Santa Cruz paid no attention.
On May 1st 2012, a community member was killed and two others seriously injured, one of whom was a prominent leader that had refused to sell his land. Although the incident has not yet been fully investigated, local residents blamed the hydroelectric dam's private security forces and rose up against the unwelcome company. In the ensuing riots and demonstrations, some of Hidro Santa Cruz's equipment was damaged.
In response, the government of Guatemala finally stepped in: to declare a military state of siege, and move troops into the entire town to suppress the riots and protect the hydroelectric company's assets. Within days, photos began to circulate online: images of Santa Cruz Barillas in 2012, alongside Santa Cruz Barilla in 1982 at the height of the armed conflict; both looked eerily similar.
Although Guatemala today is a very different place to how it was 20 years ago, we continue to ask the same questions: how can a government be so quick to protect the material interests of a foreign company and not the rights of its own citizens?
Anna Moccia-Field, Soluciones Comunitarias