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.

Ya Estamos Cansados

27 Jun

This week I accompanied a delegation of ADIVIMA and COCAHICH representatives during a two-day session of meetings to introduce reparations consultants hired by the Organization of American States (OAS) to members of the dam-affected communities. Over the next four months, these consultants will interview survivors in each of the 28 villages and verify damages that resulted from the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. Their final report will be used during the reparation negotiations taking place between the office of the Vice-President of Guatemala and delegates from COCAHICH, who represent the people affected by the dam. The report should be completed in November 2008.

On Tuesday, June 24th, we visited the communities of Chitomax, Colonia Naranjo and Pacux to hear comments and questions about the verification process and the political negotiations between COCAHICH and the Guatemalan government. The visiting delegation included negotiators from the offices of the Vice President and the energy company INDE, the contracted consultants from Italian NGOs ARS Progetti and Movi Mundo, lawyers and representatives for COCAHICH and ADIVIMA, and mediators from the OAS.

Delegation Representatives


The day began in Chitomax, downstream from the Chixoy Dam. Half of the affected communities live in this region among 14 remote villages, almost all of which are located on the north side of the Chixoy River. A decaying suspension bridge connects north and south.

Looking North from Chitomax across the Río Chixoy

None have electricity or water although they only live a few miles from the largest energy generating plant in the country. The meeting took place in the village of Chitomax itself, which is the one village located on the south side of the river at the end of the only dirt road entering the region.

Chitomax Crowd

There were about 200 people waiting for us in the mid-day sun when we arrived. After brief introductions by Roberto Menéndez of the OAS and an overview of the work by Vinício Ramírez of Movi Mundo, the floor, so to speak, was opened to the community members.

The First Testimony

Each community was represented and everyone had something to say. These are excerpts of what we heard from a myriad of voices, both men and women, whose names I will not mention:

“Nos sentimos marginalizado, abandonado… Nos encerraron. No hay como vivir… Nosotras las mujeres tenemos derechos. Yo tengo derecho de venir y reclamar aquí… No tenemos luz. Entraron con engaño… Es una vergüenza que Guatemala está vendiendo luz a otros países y aquí estamos desnudos… Nos dejaron un pedacito de tierra que no vale nada… Para que fecha, para que hora, vamos empezar los proyectos… El gobierno es un engañador… Haga el puente. Haga la carretera y la luz. Ya estamos cansados.”

“We women have rights. I have the right to come here and denounce them”

“We feel marginalized, abandoned… They have us in a jail with no way to live a real life. We have no electricity. All they did was come here and lie to us… It is shameful that Guatemala is selling energy to other countries and we are left with nothing… They only gave us a little patch of land that isn´t worth anything… On what day and at what time are they going to begin the infrastructure projects? The government lies… Build the bridge. Build the roads, and give us electricity. We are tired of this.”

Listening to the Testimony

They spoke clearly and forcefully. The message was strong and the delegation could see first hand what life has been like in these communities since the dam was built. They were tired of participating in study after study and never seeing results; tired of hearing promise after promise that was never kept. They wanted to know at what hour of what day and in what year would these reparations be made. And finally, they expressed their demand for a percentage of INDE profits from now on for their families.

Of course, their discourse did not seem to make an impression on some INDE delegates who were laughing and chatting amongst themselves at times during the discussion. They expressed their indifference in other ways as well.

We Turn Our Work into Energy

The OAS delegates and consultant staff addressed as many questions as possible while counsel for ADIVIMA took notes and transcribed the rapid-fire testimony as best they could, as did I. The downstream residents said what they needed to say.

Colonia Naranjo

The second meeting took place further south of the river in the resettlement village of Colonia Naranjo, located on the margins of the town of Cubulco.

Colonia Naranjo Crowd

OAS Mediator Ortega Greeting the Community

Again, the community presence easily surpassed 200 and although the message was distinct, because their experience in an urban resettlement village is quite different from those who live in the mountains around Chitomax, it reinforced everything that had been said previously during the two-day session. Everyone listened.

Waiting to Testify

Each person discussed a specific aspect of their life before the dam was built and how they have been affected since its construction:

“Hubo gobierno para sacarnos, pero no hay gobierno para ayudarnos… Somos dueños del agua. Yo fue pescador antes. Ahora no hay pescado… No puede pasar ganado al otro lado del río ahora… Nos sentimos triste. Todas las ayudas que ofrecía, no se cumplió… A mi me duele. Conozco la vida de antes y la vida de ahora. Eso es una colonia limitada. Es una ciudad sin trabajo.… Antes no nos hacía falta. Ahora todo es comprado. Nos dejó retrasado porque no tenemos trabajo… Comíamos cosas sanas antes. Nada de química. Aquí no hay dinero para comprar. Tortilla es limitado para los niños. .. Ya estamos cansados…

Listening to the Testimony

El Señor Gaitán Sánchez nos ofrecíamos muchas cosas. ¿Vamos a pasar más 32 años? ¿Va tener fin o no va tener fin? Éramos dueños de más de 300 caballerías en la época… ¿Cuándo va ser el pagamiento?… Muchos han muerto en las aguas del embalse… Nuestra energía va hasta Honduras, El Salvador… ¿Cuál es la razón de todo el sufrimiento que hemos vivido? Es un tiempo muy crítico para nosotros… ”

“This is a refugee settlement with limited resources. It is a city without work.”

“The government was there to evict us, but they aren´t here to help us now… We are the owners of this water. I was a fisherman before and now there are no fish… [Since the river was flooded], we cannot get our cattle across [to market]… We are very sad. All of the assistance that was offered was never given… It hurts me. I know the life we had before and the life we have now. Before we never lacked for anything, but now we have to buy everything. They left us without a future because there is no work… We ate healthy food without chemicals. There is no money for food now and we barely have tortillas for our children. We are tired of this.

The Men of Colonia Naranjo

Dr. Gaitan Sánchez (*) offered us many things. Do we have to wait another 32 years [to receive them]? Will there or will there not be an end to this? We owned more than 30,000 acres of land at the time… When are they going to pay us?.. So many have died in the floodwaters of the dam… And our energy goes to Honduras and El Salvador… What is the reason for all the suffering that we have experienced? This is a critical moment for us.”

(*) Dr. Sánchez was contracted by INDE to do the preliminary indemnification research with the communities in 1979.

In both Chitomax and Colonia Naranjo, at least one person compared their experiences with INDE to this past week´s events in San Juan Sacatepéquez, where a large cement factory is to be built by Cementos Progreso without the consent of 12 local Mayan communities who will be affected. Over 10,000 protesters lined the streets last week in San Juan and one of the community leaders in opposition to the factory was killed over the weekend. President Colóm declared a state of emergency in the region. The Director of ADIVIMA, Juan de Dios García, expressed their solidarity with the communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez at the end of the meeting and the delegation drove towards Rabinal.


The day´s meetings ended in Pacux, the resettlement village near Rabinal that is home to many Río Negro survivors. There was a solemn tone to the conversation. The community is composed in large part of older women who survived the massacres, adults who were orphaned children in the mid 1980s and their current families.

Flavia, of ARS Progetti, Explaining Verification Process

Instead of a sea of Mexican cowboy hats and women sitting in the shade on the margins, I found myself seated in the grass amongst fifty or more women and grandchildren while their sons and husbands kept a slight distance.

Río Negro Families in Pacux

Tomasa, who I mentioned in a previous blog, was there with her daughter, Juliana, and her grandchildren. We sat together for a while in the grass and listened.

Doña Tomasa and Her Grandchild

Carlos Chen spoke first, recounting the stories and pointing out the men and women in the audience who were orphaned after the massacres. The conversation was reflective in a way that I had not heard until Pacux. Several younger men spoke about their lives now and the importance that INDE speak with communities in the future so that what happened to them would not happen again.

One woman almost apologized to the INDE representatives for speaking forcefully about her experiences, as these people in the delegation were not at fault for what had happened so long ago. She was clear, though, that the INDE representatives had a responsibility to carry their message back to the company. None of them took notes.

Here are some words from the testimonies in Pacux:

“Muchas de ellos son huérfanos. Costó bastante sangre de nuestros seres queridos… Es lamentable lo que nos hicieron… Deberían primero hablar con la gente… Ya aprovecharon y ahora nos estamos sufriendo… Había 22 caballerías, y ahora, no han cumplido con las tierras prometidas… ¿Y ustedes podrían vivir la mitad del día en nuestras casas donde vivíamos por 25 años… Estamos luchando para hacer medio mejor las casas…

Que me pague todas estas tierras inundadas… Con un lote de 15 x 30 [metros], en este uno no se puede vivir… Que el estado de Guatemala cumple con el deber que hay con la comunidad de Río Negro… Queremos pronto la reparación… Ya estamos cansados… A veces pienso que no soy guatemalteco…No quiero hablar más porque me duele recordar todo eso… ”

Juliana and Child

“Many of these people were orphaned. [The dam] cost so much blood from our loved ones… It is a shame, what they did to us… They ought to talk with people first… They took advantage and now we are suffering for it… We had over 2000 acres and now we don´t even have the lands they promised us… Could any of you spend even half a day in these houses where we have lived for 25 years?… We are still fighting just to make these houses a little better…

I want them to pay me for all of the inundated lands… On a 15×30 meter lot, no one can live like this. The state of Guatemala must pay the debt they owe to the community of Río Negro… We want the reparations now… We are so tired… Sometimes I don´t even feel like I am Guatemalan… I don´t want to talk anymore because it hurts too much to remember all of this.”

Listening to the Testimonies

And we heard more. They talked about the medical clinic that is currently used as a chicken coop because there is no medicine and there are no nurses or doctors. We heard from women who had houses and food and lands at Río Negro who now have been stealing wood for over 25 years because they have no alternative for survival. We heard the strain in their voices; we watched them weep.

When the community meetings ended and the delegation returned to Rabinal, the commentary from the INDE representatives was simple. “We don´t want the consultants to talk about the massacres. That should not be part of their work.”

Obviously, those oral histories will be at the heart of Movi Mundo´s work in Pacux. There is little INDE can do to rewrite history now.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jun 27th, 2008

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