Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

Hydropower and Development

17 Jun

Almost half of all electricity consumed in Guatemala today comes from one source-the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. It is not far from Rabinal, a two-hour drive to the north, or a more vigorous and lengthy walk over the mountains.

Chixoy Reservoir

Many of you may know the story, but for those who do not, let me summarize briefly. The Chixoy (pronounced Cheek-soy) River Basin is the ancestral home of tens of thousands of Maya Achí and has been since before contact. More than thirty Achí villages dotted the river basin before dam construction began and over forty archaeological sites have been documented in the area, one large pyramid complex called Cauinal rivals Tikal in importance. It remains submerged for part of the year.

In 1975, the National Institute for Electrification (INDE), with funding from the World Bank, Central American Bank of Economic Integration Investment, Fund of Venezuela and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), began construction in the river basin without community consultation or notification and without clear title to the majority of the lands affected by the reservoir and the Pueblo Viejo hydroelectric facilities. Some communities are still paying taxes on inundated lands today.

In the early 1980s, resettlement and compensation negotiations did take place between INDE and some communities. Often INDE negotiators imposed great pressure on the community members to move. INDE negotiators offered compensation packages and resettlement plans to move entire communities to equally fertile lands with access to free water and electricity. The Achí negotiators documented every proposal, however no final agreements were made with many affected peoples. Some villages formally rejected the resettlement lands. Others, like Río Negro, were insistent that they had no plans to move, and by 1980 tensions were extremely high.

In one key incident that ushered in the years of intensive violence in the region, it is alleged that INDE security forces tortured and killed several Achí negotiators and confiscated documentary proof of negotiations and INDE guarantees to the communities. Afterwards, a campaign of genocide was implemented by the Guatemalan Army and INDE security forces against residents of villages like Río Negro, who, for not wanting to move from their ancestral lands, were labeled insurgents and guerrillas.

For several years, forced relocation of entire communities ensued and villages that harbored Río Negro refugees were attacked as well. The World Bank and IDB were aware of what was happening and underwrote loans to INDE even after the massacres and evictions occurred. They were also aware that resettlement plans had not been met, normally a condition for any further funding.

The river basin was filled in January 1983, after ten communities had been abandoned due to genocidal massacres. Five massacre sites are currently inundated. Even more communities had to move uphill to avoid being flooded out of their houses, with no help from INDE or the government. To date, there are currently thirty or more communities upstream and downstream from the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam who have been affected by its construction.

Map of Displaced Communities

Members of these communities formed different organizations over the years (ASCRA, ASDINUMA, and ADIVIMA) to fight for their collective rights to reparations and compensation. In 2004, these three local NGOs created a new organization called COCAHICH in an effort to centralize efforts and begin political negotiations for reparations and restitution with the Guatemalan government. Negotiations began in December 2004, after years of relentless national and international pressure on the part of a multitude of NGOs such as ASCRA, ASDINUMA, ADIVIMA, IRN, Rights Action, etc. COCAHICH is partially funded by the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Aside from negotiating for reparations and restitution, COCAHICH has developed an economic development plan published in April 2008 to benefit more than 10,000 people in local dam-affected communities. The plan calls for Q$125 million in investments over five years to fund projects in all social and economic sectors. International investors such as the IDB have taken interest in the project. It will be available online in English in the coming months.

Currently, dam-affected communities are divided into three economic zones, each with its own specializations in the areas of forestry, agriculture, manufacturing, and traditional arts. The development plan is geared to assist families to reach at least a basic level of subsistence, which is a separate process from the ongoing reparations and restitution negotiations with the government of Guatemala. The goal of those negotiations is to ensure dam-affected families have a better standard of living than they did before the evictions.

Urban resettlement families, like Tomasa´s in Pacux, mentioned in my previous blog, live on no more than $1,200-1,500 quetzales per month, or $170-190 dollars for a family of four or more. In the rural villages that income drops precipitously. COCAHICH would like to see this median income rise to the level of $3,000 quetzales per month, which would allow families to pay for staple foods, basic living expenses, and posibly generate savings.

Sustainable forestry enterprises and agricultural production are the cornerstones of the plan and could produce a steady income for all of the dam-affected communities. Traditional arts and craft production could be another profitable venture in the region, however many of the dam-affected communities have no ability to purchase the raw materials they need to embroider and some have lost the skills necessary to weave traditional cloth. One of the projects I will be working on this summer is to identify weavers in the region who would benefit from developing a cooperative to support their work and assist with distribution and market access.

I welcome your questions and comments on development efforts in the Rabinal region. Background information on the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam was taken from Barbara Rose Johnston´s report and personal interviews.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jun 17th, 2008


  • Rev. Marcus W. McClain

    June 18, 2008


    I am proud to say that I am your mom’s pastor here in Santa Fe. She is a wonderful sister and I must say very very proud of you. She turned me on to your blog and I just read about your work and the content of your latest blog. You certainly have been given a powerful assignment and you are responding with due diligence. It is horrible when a life is torn apart and important that there be healing. I see you being used in the healing process for those in need. Please know that you will be in our prayers and we know that our Heavenly Father is watching over you. God Bless You, Pastor Marcus

  • Heidi

    June 19, 2008


    Thank you, Reverend. I appreciate your kind words and thank you for following my work. Heidi

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