In 2010, after a bidding process, the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) gave the Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita S.A Corporation the license to construct the hydroelectric project on the Icbolay River. The Icbolay River is a tributary to the Chixoy River and the project located near the junction of the rivers Dolores and Canguinic in Monte Olivo in the department of Alta Verapaz. The involved area, which is 254 hectares in size, potentially affects 200,000 people, especially the Maya Q'eqchi and Poqomchí communities who inhabit the area (Navas, 2014).
The dam project entails concrete socio-economic factors, such as displacements, land dispossessions, as well as loss of livelihoods, biodiversity and habitat. Moreover, the upstream region has already been suffering from increasing water scarcity prior to the onset of the project. Ecologic repercussions in the form of biodiversity loss, groundwater pollution, reduced ecological and hydrological connectivity, deforestation and increased flood risks all stem from the dam construction.
The evolution of the conflict
The threat of adverse effects related to the project have sparked severe unrest between stakeholders, companies and the government since the approval of the Santa Rita Dam Project in the year 2010. Conflict between environmentalist, local farmers and indigenous Q’eqchi and Poqomchí communities, on the one hand, and Guatemalan national and municipal government, the National Civilian police as well as various corporations, most notably the Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita S.A, on the other hand, have steadily increased.
Since then, 22 communities have used several methods to mount their opposition to the project and enforce their legal rights. Tensions have grown over the lack of public consultation between the indigenous communities and the project developers, resulting in incidents of human rights violations as well as numerous acts of protests, including: injuries during violent evictions and repressive operations like arrests by the civilian police against the communities, murders of opponents, and the reported burning and destruction of facilities and items that belonged to the community (Peace Brigades International, 2014).
Since 2012, the violence linked to the dam construction has reached a peak upon the arrival of machinery and construction material. Such action disrespects the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 and triggered further demonstrations, blockages as well as other types of community mobilization (Navas,2014).
Despite opposition by environmentalists, local farmers and indigenous peoples, the construction works still continue. As of today, the construction work has entailed forced evictions, arrests and intimidation of community leaders, as well as 7 deaths according to human rights reports on behalf of the company (Telesur, 2014).
International involvement in the project
The private equity fund Latin Renewables Infrastructure Fund (LRIF) finances the Santa Rita Hydroelectric Plant’s construction. Investors in the fund include the German development finance institution (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) and the Swiss Investment Fund for Emerging Markets (SIFEM).
Since June 2014, the Santa Rita hydroelectric dam is officially registered under the UN’s carbon offsetting scheme Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) despite preceding pleas opposing its registration by the local communities to the CDM Board (Peace Brigades International, 2014).
The conflict remains violent and, currently, without a foreseeable resolution.
In terms of the project management, human rights organizations deplore the absence of consent given by affected communities in accordance with the concept of a prior, free and informed consultation process, as well as a failure to observe the rights recognized in international covenants ratified by Guatemala.
During the conflict, the state is claimed to have failed to investigate and administer justice in the cases of attacks on residents. This is perceived as particularly unjust while, simultaneously, criminal harassment and arrest warrants are issued by the authorities with speed against leaders and residents within the community when responding to complaints made by companies and other non-government actors.
Finally, there is a lack of effective response in the form of state protection to physical and ecological threats that strongly affect the communities even though also explicitly reported to state authorities (Peace Brigades International, 2014).
In a plea to support the indigenous peoples, 29 civil society organisations have asked the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to immediately address the issue. In 2014, a convention was signed between national authorities, companies and communities on the Santa Rita Dam project – however, violence continues in the region (Navas, 2014).
Disputable project backing
The UN carbon offsetting scheme Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM), under which the project was accepted, has also been strongly criticized. This criticism relates to shortcomings in integrating an adequate conflict prevention and management and for its underlying rules and procedures. A high-level panel associated with the CDM policy dialogue iterated recommendations, including the creation of a grievance mechanism for local stakeholders to voice social and environmental concerns and to help resolve issues that emerge after a project’s registration. There is currently correspondence between the CDM board and the community councils of the affected region by the Santa Rita project. These in particular demand further information on legal incoherence, policy issues and inclusion of the local stakeholders in the decision making process (Presbyterian Fellowship, 2014).