It’s noon and for some incomprehensible reason we decided it would be a good idea to hike the last hour to a community north of where we spent the night. Sweat drenches my shirt, which I have tied tight to protect against the mosquitoes. It’s somewhere between 90 degrees and Hell, and I curse myself for all the last minute things I put in my backpack a couple days before. Oops, my boot is stuck again. Heel up, toe down, just like they taught me on the farm. The foot deep mud slowly lets loose my foot, only to slurp it back down in the next step.
“Buenas tardes!” a man calls out, trotting around a bend in the path. Harnessed to his back with a strap that wraps around his forehead is a pack of corn twice the size of my backpack. He’s practically jogging through the mud, picking his way with a machete. We chat for a minute, and I explain that my partner, Charissa, and I are the new accompaniers. He graciously welcomes us to his community, an enormous smile filling his face as he shakes our hands goodbye. “Just a little bit further, you’re almost there,” which we compute into gringo speed and calculate to be another 45 minutes. Our new friend continues on after the obligatory chorus of “bueno, bueno! bueno...” and Charissa and I watch in awe-filled silence as he trots out of sight, not a single step lost in the mud. We shrug, laugh, and nearly fall over each other as our first steps disappear into the muck.
To my perpetual amazement, we always arrive. We step out from the path carrying a new layer of mud and enormous smiles from our (kind of pathetic) accomplishment. “Acompañantes! Acompañantes!” Groups of little kids form near us, giggling at the way we say “hola," and randomly sprinting back to the safety of their mothers' skirts when their courage runs out. Accompaniers have been coming to these communities in the Ixcán for decades, so the adults greet us warmly as if we're old comrades. Trust is a precious gift, and we feel it dearly as folks invite us into their homes for a quick drink and to cool off from the heat. It’s not just hospitality though; the fact that we are allowed to be here at all is an honor. For years these communities along the Chixoy River in the Ixcán have carefully guarded their territory against outsiders, and with good reason.
In the 1970s, military dictators made the first proposals for the Xalalá dam. They wanted to make Xalalá the second biggest hydroelectric dam in Guatemala by building it at the powerful confluence of the Chixoy and Copón Rivers. In the US, we often think of hydroelectric energy as one of the options for clean, safe, renewable energy. And it can be, when it’s handled properly, distributed equitably, and consented to by the people who will be affected. But the Xalalá dam is none of these things.
Keep in mind the context of 1970s Guatemala. The military is burning down entire villages and shooting every adult and child they can find. The survivors, if there are any, flee to the mountains or Mexico and the government and international businesses use their territory for giant projects that remove resources from the land and water. Sometimes the plans for these projects came before the massacres. For example, the Chixoy Dam, located just downstream of the proposed Xalalá site, is marked with the blood of Maya Achi people who refused to leave their land for the dam to be constructed. In response, the military massacred 444 of the 800 inhabitants of Río Negro between 1980 and 1982. Many survivors have returned; many still live without electricity.
The Maya Achi of Río Negro are one of thousands of indigenous communities who for centuries have been and continue to be on the front lines of defending life. For the Q’eqchi’ people who live on the land that the Xalalá dam would destroy, their struggle is formed by a fundamental belief in the peaceful coexistence between nature and indigenous people. In Q’eqchi’ worldvision, “nature serves as the axis of balance between humanity and its sustenance, as well as the base of relationships within families and communities” (see NISGUA timeline below). “El río es nuestra vida,” people often tell us: the river is our life.
The proposed Xalalá dam would flood dozens of Q’eqchi’ communities, displace thousands of people, and destroy the foundation of life and meaning for thousands more. What’s more, the (usually poor and indigenous) communities near hydroelectric dams rarely see a single watt of electricity in return for the destruction of their homes. One company builds the dam, promising light, and another comes in to distribute the electricity, funneling the light to other countries and leaving only broken promises in its place.
In 2007 over fifty Q’eqchi’ communities along the Chixoy river formed ACODET, the Association of Communities for Development and the Defense of Land and Natural Resources. ACODET is community-based and indigenous-led, and although its chief focus is resisting the dam, it has multiple community and conservation projects. In 2007 the affected communities in the Ixcán held a community consultation. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have traditionally used community consultations to reach consensus, but since 2005 they have also used this communal form of voting as a strategy to protect their land. Although the Guatemalan government systemically isolates and excludes indigenous people, it is party to the United Nations’ International Labor Organizations’ Convention No. 169, which guarantees indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent to the use of their territory. Therefore, community referendums, like the one in the Ixcán, can be used to demonstrate that the state and/or corporation does not have consent from the communities in question. In the case of the Q’eqchi’ people in 2007, 90% voted against the dam.
Below is a timeline of ACODET’s struggle against the Xalalá dam. I think that it gives a sense of just how creative the government and corporations can be to push forward their agendas; there were “emergency contracts,” troops to combat “drug trafficking,” and plain old deception. It also shows just how strongly and resiliently the Q’eqchi’ people have resisted the imposition of a dam in their territory. Despite violence, threats, and defamation, people with almost no access to financial resources have successfully stopped a project of major “national interest” for almost five decades. All across Guatemala ACODET is pointed to as an example of indigenous organizing at its most ingenious.
These days the resistance in the Ixcán continues, but thankfully threats have reduced. The communities in the Ixcán remain vigilant against the constant possibility of extractive invasion. Strangers are not allowed to enter without permission from community and ancestral leaders. ACODET organizes the communities to defend life in its most complete sense. There are annual commemorations of the community consultation, and in November women from across the Ixcán gathered three times to organize against gender violence. ACODET also has a pilot project for a type of stove that burns less wood and reduces smoke in the kitchen, which is safer for the women and children who spend the most time inside. The communities of ACODET are not just prepared to defend their territory, but to care for and preserve it, from the plants to the river to their bodies themselves.
For people who are my age, people who grew up in the Ixcán resistance, the fight to protect their land continues to be of essential importance. “Que siga la lucha,” a young woman water defender recently told me, her gaze taking my breath with its intensity. We were drinking coffee together, talking about her involvement in the resistance, the fight against Line 3 in Minnesota, and barriers that all women face when participating in the defense of life. Yes, I thought. May the struggle continue.
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"More than 98% of the people say no to chemical mining of metals. Welcome to peoples in peaceful resistance." Photo from San Juan Bosco, Guatemala.
PC: Sandra Cuffe, Mongabay
Communications Fellow with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Intersectional feminist, aspiring farmer, and plátano enthusiast.