Chixoy dam legacies: The struggle to secure reparation and the right to remedy in Guatemala

Barbara Rose Johnston
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Political Ecology, Santa Cruz, CA, US; bjohnston@igc.org

ABSTRACT: The World Commission on Dams brought global attention to the adverse costs of large dam development, including the disproportionate displacement of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities and the extreme impoverishment of development refugees. The WCD recommended that governments, industry and financial institutions accept responsibility for flawed development and make proper reparation, including remedial activities such as the restoration of livelihood and land compensation for relocated communities. One exemplary case cited is Guatemala'€™s Chixoy dam. Completed in 1982, this internationally financed dam was built during a time when military dictatorships deployed policies of state-sponsored violence against a Mayan citizenry. Construction occurred without a resettlement plan, and forced displacement occurred through violence and massacre. This paper describes an attempt to implement WCD reparation recommendations in a context where no political will existed. To clarify events, abuses and meaningful remedy, an independent assessment process was established in 2003, auditing the development record, assessing consequential damages and facilitating the community articulation of histories and needs. The resulting 2005 study played a key role in reparation negotiations. The Chixoy case illustrates some of the more profound impacts of the WCD review. The WCD served as a catalyst in social movement formation and a force that expanded rights-protective space for dam-affected communities to negotiate an equitable involvement in development.