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Volume 17, Number 12
December 3, 2011
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Ixhil women of Nabaj. Photo by the Guatemalan government

Guatemalan archbishop unable to sway Italian energy giant
by Tobias Roberts

Tension filled the cramped block-wall room in the rainy highlands of western Guatemala as indigenous leaders and representatives of ENEL, an Italian-based energy company building a huge hydro-electric dam on ancestral indigenous lands, held their final negotiation session.

After months of talks --- which I had been invited to monitor --- the Mayan Ixhil representatives spoke bluntly. "Five hundred years ago, the Spanish came and tricked our ancestors out of what was rightly theirs with meaningless gifts and promises," indigenous spokesman Miguel de Leon told ENEL negotiators. "Now, the story is repeating itself as you come here and ridicule our rights and show contempt for our customs."

De Leon's comments came at a September 2 meeting, after ENEL refused to consider a profit-sharing arrangement that would have given the indigenous communities of the San Juan Cotzal region a 20-percent share of revenues from the 84-megawatt Palo Viejo dam.

The parties have not met again since. Meanwhile, construction of the $228-million dam, which is set to open in March, 2012, continues.

When the two sides began meeting four months earlier, indigenous leaders invited two prominent religious figures to help facilitate the negotiations: Vitalino Vinaloch, a Presybeterian church leader; and Alvaro Ramazzini, an outspoken Guatemalan archbishop who has received international recognition for his defence of human rights.

The Mayan Ixhil leaders also invited me, a newly arrived American development worker sent to the region by the US-based Mennonite Central Committee, to sit in on negotiations as an observer. They hoped our presence would increase the chances of a fair outcome.

During negotiation sessions --- some of which took place in the offices of the Cotzal Catholic Diocese --- Archbishop Ramazzini challenged ENEL incessantly to see beyond the logic of insatiable profit and to consider the right of the communities to benefit from energy produced by their rivers. "It is obvious that the company ENEL is here to make money," he said at one point. "But in this dialogue it is necessary to find a balance between the earnings of the company and the contribution of these earnings for the people of Cotzal."

The negotiations marked the first time in Guatemalan history that a multi-national company had been forced to negotiate directly with communities affected by a large development in their ancestral territory. In a part of the world where companies have a reputation for acquiring land rights by dubious means --- usually with the cooperation of governments --- and then disregarding local interests, people in the San Juan Cotzal communities hoped their face-to-face negotiations with ENEL would set a new precedent for fair and transparent dealings.

The company agreed to negotiations only after community members non-violently blocked access to the dam construction site. The blockade was prompted in part by awareness among indigenous leaders that people in the neighbouring municipality received no benefits or reparations from the HidroXacbal Dam built there in 2010.

The Guatemalan Government responded to the peaceful blockade by sending police and soldiers with tear gas and helicopters to confront protesters on three occasions. The company, which had begun construction of the dam without consulting local people, responded at first with legal action against protest organizers. Later, it agreed to drop the lawsuits and enter negotiations in exchange for free access to the construction site.

But negotiations proved frustrating. Ramazzini said the purpose of the dialogue was "for both parties to win" and that his would require "a focus on justice, equality and transparency." but that proved illusive. Despite the patience of the communities and the constant guidance of Ramazzini, ENEL representatives ultimately refused to talk about any sort of profit sharing mechanism, stating that the community's demand for a 20 percent slice of the revenues was not "reasonable."

The communities proposed to use the funds for development projects to benefit the local people, 87 percent of whom live below the poverty line. "If our country supposedly needs so much energy, and they need our rivers to supply that energy, what are we going to get out of this deal," asked elder Concepciòn Santay during negotiations. "The International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, says that we should have been consulted before any of this began, and that we also have a right to benefit from the profits that the dam will create."

The ILO Convention 169 states that indigenous communities have the right to prior consultation regarding any exploration or exploitation of resources on their lands, as well as the right to compensation for damages and a share of the benefits of such activities.

"Why do you consider our demands unreasonable?" Miguel de Leon said in reply to ENEL's refusal to continue negotiations. "This is our land and our rivers and we are only asking for 20 percent of the profits that our rivers create. We don't ask much, but your greed makes you see our simple demands as unreasonable."

ENEL is the largest utility in Italy and the second largest in Europe, with revenues of more than $100 billion in 2010. It also has a broad international scope, selling electricity and natural gas to over 60 million customers in 40 countries. The company's involvement with the Palo Viejo project --- which will be the third largest dam in Guatemala --- is part of that country's effort to attract $2 billion in foreign investment to develop Guatemala's energy potential, particularly the hydro-electric resources in the western highlands. Currently, 36 percent of the nation's electricity is hydropower; the Guatemalan Government wants that figure to be 67 percent by 2022.

Within 35 miles of the Palo Viejo dam, two other hydropower projects have been approved for construction and four sites are being explored by international energy companies.

Meanwhile, with the failure of negotiations, indigenous leaders of San Juan Cotzal are currently in the process of organizing a community referendum on hydroelectric projects on their ancestral lands. Archbishop Ramazzini and the Mennonite Central Committee continue to monitor the situation.

Tobias Roberts lives in Nebaj, Guatemala where he and his wife are on assignment with the Mennonite Central Committee, a development and peace agency of the Anabaptist churches in the US and Canada. He is a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The translation of quoted materials was done by Roberts.







    

Also in this section:
Finmeccanica scam unravels on Italian end, Martinelli and Varela accuse each other
Test case in El Bebedero: Martinelistas flout election laws in a by-election
Guatemalan archbishop's intervention doesn't sway Italian energy company
President puts on a water show at a plant that has never worked right
"Intermediary" skimmed Panama's Italian radar, helicopter mapping contracts
FARC, Bogota's mayor offer their country different visions
The president struts his stuff at the Bomberos' Torchlight Parade
Martinelli names his high court replacements for Cigarruista and Spadafora
UNDP/OAS report: Our Democracy in Latin America (a long PDF file)
Wendy Reaman's scenes from a rained-upon Thousand Pollera Parade in Las Tablas
Italy investigates suspect Panama deals
Former political prisoner says Martinelli personally participated in his torture
Italian photographer catches up with Lavitola in Panama
Martinelli's contrived women's dignity protest breaks up in confusion
Floods and landslides cut off the city of Colon
PRD activist, radio journalist slain in Penonome, government employee held



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