Reparations for Maya Achi in Guatemala: The Chixoy Dam Case

By: Monti Aguirre

A longer version of this piece was originally published on the International Rivers blog on November 17, 2014.  It has been modified by the author and highlights more recent events.

On Saturday, March 13, 1982, a young Maya Achi man named Carlos Chen’s life was forever altered. That day, he painfully learned that his wife, children, and sisters had been viciously massacred. They—along with many others—were brutally tortured and murdered, and their bodies were then thrown into a nearby creek and a mass grave. Their crime? Living on land that Guatemala’s military dictatorship wanted to flood for a hydroelectric dam.

By the time the Chixoy Dam was completed in 1985, more than 400 Maya Achi people had been massacred, thousands more displaced, and the livelihoods of 11,200 families subverted. The survivors of the massacre were eventually moved to a village, named Pacux, built for the displaced. But since arriving there, their living conditions have always been poor, and they have lacked access to adequate housing, health care, electricity, water, education, and employment. After the military dictatorship fell in 1996, some survivors began to fight for reparations. In the 1990s, the Maya Achi partnered with international human rights organizations to begin a decades-long struggle for justice against the dam builder and funders.

The Fight for Reparations

The word reparations—feared by people in the world of infrastructure development—means making up for a past wrong. Financiers of large development projects have shunned away from admitting that some projects that their institutions financed have caused harm. International financial institutions also claim indemnity against any legal claims on them. Consequentially, the damages caused to people and the environment do not get addressed.

Who built the Chixoy Dam? The government of Guatemala. Who funded the dam? The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Who suffered, were massacred, and never gained any benefits from the dam? The Maya Achi people.

Dam reparations had never happened before. But after twenty-two years, the perseverance of the people in the Coordinating Committee of the Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (COCAHICH) and the savvy negotiations skills of Maya Achi leaders paid off. On Saturday, November 8, 2014, Carlos Chen and hundreds of community members were part of a historical event in Rabinal, a town close to the resettlement of Pacux. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina asked forgiveness from the communities for the government’s role in the social, cultural, and environmental destruction caused by the Chixoy Dam. That afternoon, President Molina presented the Reparations Executive Agreement, which operationalizes reparations for the thirty-three communities who were drastically impacted by the construction of dam. The Agreement includes more than $154.5 million to fund individual compensation, infrastructure, development assistance, and environmental restoration.

“It is the obligation of the State to repair the damages,” said Juan de Dios Garcia, a COCAHICH leader. While obtaining reparations is indeed a well-deserved victory for the Maya Achi, Juan was able to put this victory in perspective. “What we want most is the end of this type of human rights violations. The international financial institutions, governments, and investors should stop manipulating communities and deceiving people to build their projects.”

The Historical Shift toward Justice

Though ultimately a victory, the Maya Achi’s success was the result of years of politics and struggle. Their achievement must thus be understood in a broader context of justice seeking. Governments, construction companies, and financiers seldom step up to take responsibility for the damages caused by development projects they build and finance. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for many years failed to recognize their obligations to address reparations for these communities, even though community leaders and their advocates sent letters and declarations and made numerous visits to Bank officials.

Then in 2008, something changed. Beginning that year, Bank representatives, government officials, and community leaders participated in a negotiations roundtable for reparations. US law firm Holland and Knight agreed to provide pro bono assistance to communities. After many revisions, all sides finally agreed upon the Reparations Plan of 2010, which established as its general aim the need for the government of Guatemala to provide reparations for the economic, social, psychological, cultural, and environmental damages to those affected by the Chixoy Dam. Setting a precedent of reparations opens the door for thousands of people affected by dam and mining project to initiate the reparations process. At the same time, however, the precedent also put at risk future investments on infrastructure and resource extraction projects. In light of these concerns, among others, political and economic interests got in the way of the Reparations Plan of 2010 and the plan was never implemented.

It was not until January of 2014—when the US Congress instructed the Banks to ensure implementation of the Chixoy Reparations Plan of 2010—that the Banks began to pressure the government of Guatemala to address reparations. The US Congress made new loans to Guatemala conditional on the Guatemalan government moving to begin implementing the 2010 Reparation Agreement. Under this pressure from the US Congress, the Banks in turn pressured the government of Guatemala to address reparations. And so the plan, four years later, gained traction.

The Guatemalan government has approved the 2015 budget allocating funds to pay for these reparations, but it is still unclear where funds will come from. We at International Rivers—an organization dedicated to protecting waterways and defending the rights of communities that depend on them—insist that the Banks make interest-free loans to pay their long-due debt to Maya Achi communities affected by the Chixoy Dam.

Life will never be the same for the Maya Achi. Their loved ones, whose lives were taken to make way for the dam, will not come back. But the Maya Achi will begin to restore their lives and restore their dignity. An important precedent has been set.

Monti Aguirre is the coordinator of International Rivers’ Latin America program. She has supported the Maya Achi people in their quest for reparations since 1999.


The Berkeley Journal of International Law, the Environmental Law Society, and Ecology Law Quarterly will be hosting International Rivers at Berkeley Law on February 11, 2015.  Peter Bosshard, Policy Director, will speak about the Berkeley-based organization’s efforts to stop some of the world’s most destructive dam projects around the world, to protect the natural environment and local communities’ human rights, and to strengthen decision-making processes and standards in the water sector at the national and international level.

1 Comment

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