Maya convergences in Guatemala City for defense of natural resources and territorial rights

Communities affected by hydroelectric dam demand reparations; Indigenous and campesino organizations take legal fight to GoldCorp

Earlier this week, on Wednesday July 28, two separate mobilizations of Guatemalan indigenous peoples’ organizations arrived in Guatemala City to demand justice for the historical and ongoing dispossession of indigenous communities from their ancestral territories.

Outside the official Presidential Residence, hundreds of people from the department of Baja Verapaz and allies from around the country blocked one of the capital city’s main streets, sixth avenue, demanding that President Álvaro Colom sign an agreement, otherwise finalized in May of this year, which would allow communities to receive reparations for damages related to the construction of the Chixoy Dam.

Chixoy communities protest

Communities affected by the Chixoy dam occupy the street outside the Presidential Residence in Guatemala City.

Meanwhile, just one block away in the Central Park and across the street from the National Palace, a broad coalition of indigenous, environmental, religious, and human rights organizations gathered for a march to the Supreme Court, marking the initiation of a lawsuit against a current Supreme Court justice for the illegal transfer of communal land titles to companies related to the controversial Marlin mine.

Marlin mine protest

Indigenous, campesino and human rights organizations gather for a march the the Supreme Court building.

Crucially, both mobilizations demonstrate the intersections between human rights violations and campaigns in defense of natural resources and the territorial rights of indigenous communities, themes which have proved able to draw groups together in common struggles at both the national and international levels.  Both of these protests make clear the great strength and growing unity of Guatemalan social movements, and highlight the continuity between injustices of the past and present, as the government and transnational corporations increase pressure on indigenous communities through the imposition of a development model which relies on the destructive extraction of natural wealth from indigenous peoples’ lands.

The Chixoy Dam – Injustices of the past echo struggles of the present

For twenty five years, communities affected by the construction of the Chixoy Dam have struggled for justice.  The hydroelectric dam on the Chixoy River is an infamous case which illustrates the often extreme violence associated with economic development and massive infrastructure “megaprojects” worldwide.  Construction of the dam began in 1976, as the Guatemalan military dictatorships of Generals Carlos Arana Osorio and Kjell Laugerud put into place plans for the development of natural resource-rich, but socially and economically marginalized indigenous territories in the Western Highlands and Northern Lowlands of Guatemala, far from the rich agricultural lands of the South Coast, where huge plantations owned by the country’s elite exploit the cheap labor of impoverished workers.

By the time the dam began operation in 1985, more than 3,500 Maya community members had been displaced, and many more had lost land and livelihoods due to flooding created by the dam.  Horrific massacres were perpetrated by the Guatemalan army its paramilitary forces in communities which resisted the dam project. The hydroelectric dam received financing from the World Bank group, which today continues to fund projects in Guatemala and abroad which do not take into account the existence and livelihoods of local communities. Survivors from communities in the area continue to seek justice for crimes of genocide, as well as material reparations.

Coordination of Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam - COCAHICH, Baja Verapaz

Coordination of Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam - COCAHICH, Baja Verapaz

This week’s protest in Guatemala City was organized by survivors from these communities, including the organizations ADIVIMA (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya-Achi’) and COCAHICH (Coordination of Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam).  From the steps of the Presidential Residence, ADIVIMA coordinator Juan de Dios denounced President Colom’s failure to ratify the reparations plan, and announced the coalition’s intent to keep up a continual presence here in Guatemala City until the signature is in their hands.  Juan de Dios is an implacable organizer who I had the privilege to meet during my first visit to Guatemala as part of a University of Washington human rights course led by Professor Angelina Snodgrass Godoy in 2005.  Despite facing continual threats related to their work, Juan de Dios and ADIVIMA have not backed down from their demands for justice for the acts of genocide suffered by their communities.

The violent precedent of the Chixoy dam remains urgently relevant to communities which would be affected by new hydroelectric projects, such as the Xalalá and Xacbal dams in the department of Quiché.  During my previous time here as a human rights observer in 2008, I accompanied communities and organizations resisting the Xalalá dam project, which would displace 18 predominately Maya-Q’eqchi’ villages.  Like the Chixoy dam, these projects were originally proposed by the military governments of the 1970s.  As in the case of Chixoy, none of the communities which would be devastated by this project have been consulted by the Guatemalan government.  This is a clear violation of international law: under the legally binding International Labor Organization Convention Number 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (known widely as ILO 169), to which Guatemala is a signatory, indigenous communities are guaranteed the right to be consulted by governments regarding any measures which would affect their territories or livelihood.

In the face of the national government’s failure to carry out consultations, Guatemalan indigenous communities have organized their own consultations at the level of local government.  In 2007, a consultation in the municipality of Ixcán, one of the regions threatened by the Xalalá dam, manifested inhabitants’ in near-unanimous rejection of large hydroelectric dam projects.  The argument that these projects will improve the economic condition of marginalized communities rings hollow for those who survived the Chixoy project—as Juan de Dios stated at the protest, many communities in the area of Chixoy remain without electricity to this day; others, despite promises that they would receive free electricity as a form of reparations, must pay for electrical access.  At the national level, Guatemala is already a net exporter of energy.

The Marlin Mine – Dispossession and defense of communal lands

Wednesday’s other historic protest in the capital city is also closely related to themes of indigenous people’s territorial rights and defense of natural resources.  Owned by the Canadian transnational GoldCorp, the Marlin mine is an open-pit gold and silver mine in the Western Highlands department of San Marcos.  The local communities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa have faced deep social conflict and division over questions of environmental contamination by cyanide used in the mine’s extraction of metals, depletion of water resources, damages to health and livelihoods, and the legality of the mine’s operations.  Residents have been targeted by the mine with legal persecution related to acts of resistance against the project, and violence has escalated in recent months with the shooting of a local woman involved in opposition to the mine.  These communities were the genesis of the movement of locally-led consultations based in ILO Convention 169 which have swept Guatemala since the first popular referendum was held in Sipakapa in 2004.

This May, the movement in opposition to the mine won a powerful victory when the International Commission for Human Rights of the OAS ordered the Guatemalan government to suspend the operations of the Marlin mine while human rights violations are investigated—the government has issued such an order, but has done nothing to enforce it, and GoldCorp continues to receive 98% of the profits from ongoing mining.  The ILO has also issued recommendations that the government suspend the authorization of new mining licenses due to its failure to consult local populations.

On July 28, a coalition of respected indigenous and human rights organizations brought the legal fight to GoldCorp and its Guatemalan subsidiary, Montana Exploradora, initiating a lawsuit alleging that the company’s original process of land purchasing was illegal.  As I arrived at the Central Park the groups were assembling for a march to the Supreme Court. Maya-Mam men and women in traditional dress held aloft flags and banners announcing their affiliations and collective rejection of mining and demands for integral development policies which would take into account the economic needs of rural workers and communities.  The march was supported by long-established organizations including the campesino (rural worker) and indigenous rights organizations Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), Coordination of Campesino and Indigenous Organizations (CONIC), and the Movement of Campesino Workers (MTC); and human rights organizations such as the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office and the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation.

Communities resisting the Marlin mine begin their march at the National Palace, Guatemala City.

Communities resisting the Marlin mine begin their march at the National Palace, Guatemala City.

While the presence of internationally renowned figures such as Bishop Álvaro Ramazzini and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum at the head of the march drew the attention of local and international media, the most hopeful sign of the event was the leadership of new coalitions of indigenous peoples’ organizations: the National Maya Convergence “Waqib’ Kej,” the San Miguel Defense Front (FREDEMI), and the People’s Council of Western Guatemala (CPO).  The growing unity of the country’s social movements around issues of natural resource defense is one sign pointing towards the eventual possibility of broad and systemic change in favor of indigenous people and social justice.

The legal case brought by these organizations rests on the fundamental claim that the lands currently occupied by GoldCorp’s Marlin mine legally remain the communal property of the Maya-Mam people of the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahaucán, where the majority of the property occupied the land lies.  The case accuses current Supreme Court Justice Erick Alfonso Álvarez Mancilla of illegally transferring this property to Peridot, a subsidiary of the transnational owners of the mine, which he represented at the time that it carried out land purchases.  This case is sure to encounter many difficulties in its progress through the Guatemalan judicial system, but it offers an important chance for the legal vindication of indigenous peoples’ collective territorial rights.

Joint military-police patrol in front of the National Palace, Guatemala City, in violation of the 1996 Peace Accords.

Joint military-police patrol in front of the National Palace, Guatemala City, in violation of the 1996 Peace Accords.

The role of Northern solidarity

While struggles of Maya communities in Guatemala may seem distant from the experience of people living in the North (North America and Europe), the policies of Northern governments play an important role.  In the case of the Central American mining, the majority of profits go straight to Northern corporations.  Mining companies benefit from Canada’s lack of international regulations on their operations, and they employ U.S. subsidiaries to benefit from the jurisdiction of the free trade agreement CAFTA.  Pacific Rim, another Canadian mining company, is currently involved in a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the government of El Salvador due to its decision—based on widespread opposition and environmental concerns—not to authorize exploitation licenses for its El Dorado mine.  If GoldCorp’s extraction activities at the Marlin mine are halted due to legal intervention, it is sure to open a similar lawsuit against the government of Guatemala under the same free trade agreement.  The U.S. and other Northern governments also hold significant stakes and wield great influence in international financial organizations like the World Bank and International Development Bank, the latter of which is financing “social studies” related to the Xalalá dam, which entirely lack transparency and may have more to do with quelling local opposition than legitimately consulting communities.

(See below for an English translation of the July 28 Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente press release on lawsuit against Marlin mine – original release in Spanish available here: “Contra el despojo y la usurpación de la Madre Tierra”)

Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente


Representatives of the Maya-Mam People of San Miguel Ixtahuacán (Frente de Resistencia Miguelense, FREDEMI) of the department of San Marcos, members of the People’s Council of Western Guatemala (Consejo de los Pueblos de Occidente, CPO); accompanied by the National Maya Convergence “Waqib’ Kej,” the communities of San Juan Sacatepequez, and other communities affected by mining. With the support of Bishop Monsignor Álvaro Ramazzini of the Diocese of San Marcos; Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, of the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation; Nery Rodenas of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, ODHAG); the National Coordination of Indigenous and Rural Workers’ Organizations (Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Indígenas y Campesinas, CONIC); the Committee of Rural Worker Unity (Comité de Unidad Campesina, CUC); and other human rights organizations.


1. That the entire territory of the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, San Marcos, belongs to the Maya-Mam People, as registered in the Second Property Registry of Quetzaltenango, under the property number 20,697, folio 58 of book 133 of the department of San Marcos.

2. Despite this, on the date of 6 September, 2001, ERICK ALFONSO ALVAREZ MANCILLA, current president of the Supreme Court of Justice, in his capacity as legal representative of the corporation PERIDOT S.A., began proceedings for supplementary titling of a portion of said property before the 8th Civil Court of the Civil Instance of this city (File C2-2001-7813), which is prohibited by the Law of Supplementary Titling which stipulates: “whoever attempts by means of the proceedings of supplementary titling to title a property for which titling is prohibited by law, or which is already registered in the Registry of Property, will commit the crime of DOCUMENT TAMPERING, established by the Penal Code”.

3. That this crime has been committed by ERICK ALFONSO ALVAREZ MANCILLA and JORGE ASENCIO AGUIERRE, in their capacities as legal representatives of Peridot S.A., for which we have submitted a lawsuit against them, with the intent that the appropriate institutions of the Judicial System proceed to investigate and prosecute those responsible, and in consequence order the eviction of the corporations Peridot S.A. and Montana Exploradora de Guatemala S.A., property of the Canadian transnational GoldCorp, for illegal occupation of our territory.

Guatemala 28 July, 2010


About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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