- Darius Brooks
- BBC News World
In the mountains of northern Guatemala, wealth and poverty coexist conspicuously.
On the one hand, the department of Alta Verapaz is one of the richest regions in natural resources from the country: there are mineral and oil deposits, extensive forest resources, and large volumes of water in its rivers.
At the same time, it is the region with the most human development problems, with one of the highest rates of poverty, child malnutrition, illiteracy and lack of public services.
That is why for many local communities, such as the kekchí of the Mayan culture, the defense of land and water that consider sacred it’s key.
Bernardo Caal Xól, a professor from the Santa María Cahabón community, is one of the leaders of what they consider the “last resistance” to the large private projects that have already been installed in Alta Verapaz to take advantage of river water.
But his activism was cut short in 2017, when he was jailed for a complaint that points to him as responsible for the theft of construction equipment and the illegal retention of four workers from a construction company.
His case is being appealed before the Supreme Court of Justice of Guatemala due to the strange circumstances in which it occurred.
And it happened just after his movement got the suspension of the Oxec private hydroelectric project, which today has two dams and one more in the construction stage.
“The teacher Bernardo Caal Xól is one of the most emblematic and well-known leaders of that peaceful resistance “, tells BBC Mundo Jorge Santos, coordinator of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a non-profit organization.
For its part, Amnesty International considers it a “prthat of conscience “ of the Guatemalan State and recently warned that Caal Xól “is locked up in disgusting and overcrowded conditions” in a prison that is not vulnerable to deadly riots.
On the other side, both the government and private companies reject that energy projects have been built in violation of the laws and with the repression of movements like that of the kekchí.
The power of being able to read and write well
From a very young age, Caal Xól became a natural leader of the Mayan communities of Alta Verapaz for the simple fact of knowing how to read and write well.
Being a primary school teacher, when there were assemblies in the communities of the region, they asked for his presence to put on paper the agreements of their assemblies or to draft documents of social demands before the authorities.
“In rural communities there are no schools or health centers. And they called him so that he could take the minutes, make any document. He was the one who knew how to write, the one who knew how to write,” he tells BBC Mundo Isabel Matzir, Caal Xól’s wife.
When the Guatemalan government authorized hydroelectric dam projects at the beginning of the last decade, Caal Xól and the communities opposed the redirection of the rivers.
In addition to ensuring that the towns were deprived of caudal natural rivers, denounced the illegal logging of 15 hectares of sacred forest and the violation of the international rights of indigenous peoples, such as that of be consulted to authorize this type of project.
The projects, however, went ahead.
Today on the Cahabón, Oxec rivers and their tributaries there are seven dams -called Renace (I, II, III, IV), Oxec (I and II) and Chichaic- that operate in “ladder”.
This system is very favorable for energies considered “clean”, as they reuse over and over again the flow of water that passes between each power generator in the dams.
But the community opposition not only occurred because the Cahabón is sacred in Mayan spiritualityBut because they depend on it for fishing, agriculture and vital access to water.
“When the kidnapping of the river begins, they arrive [de las comunidades] ask Bernardo if he knew anything. And so little by little the communities were organizing themselves and ended up appointing him as a representative so that he could investigate, “explains Matzir.
There were proceedings before the Ministry of Energy and Mines and local authorities, and demonstrations at government headquarters. But then something happened that led Bernardo Caal behind bars.
Caal Xól is incarcerated for the crimes of aggravated robbery and illegal detentions with aggravating circumstances. He was sentenced in 2018 to 7 years and 4 months in prison, according to the resolution to which BBC Mundo had access.
Four workers from the Netzone company, a contractor for the construction of the Oxec dams, were the victims.
The ruling states that on October 15, 2015, Caal was the leader of a group of about 100 people who “carried firearms and machetes” and who set out to “intercept” Netzone workers on a highway.
Construction equipment valued at more than 30,000 quetzals (nearly US $ 4,200) was taken from them.
Judge Walter Fabricio Rosales considered valid laffidavits what the workers gave two years after the incident, since the trial against Caal Xól took place after his arrest in July 2017.
And it dismissed the evidence presented by the defending which indicated that the Mayan leader was not in that place at the time in which the theft and retention of the denounced workers occurred.
The questions to the case
Both for Isabel Matzir and for national and international organizations for the defense of human rights, the process of Caal Xól before the justice is questionable.
“Why they did not make the complaints when they were allegedly attacked, when the alleged robbery occurred,” wonders the activist’s wife, who also criticizes that the judge has accepted as evidence only the statements of the complaining workers.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights agreed on this: “The sentence of Mr. Caal Xól to more than seven years in prison on charges of illegal detention and aggravated robbery of a drill, a toolbox and fiber optics, it seems disproportionate and was based mainly on testimonies from members of the Oxec company. The conviction of the Kekchi leader is an apparent attempt to silence and discredit the legitimate exercise of the rights of the indigenous community. “
Various pronouncements by NGOs and international organizations have expressed their surprise that Caal Xól’s arrest took place shortly after his movement got the Supreme Court of Justice to grant an amparo for the suspension provisional of the works Oxec, and that the Constitutional Court endorsed the holding of a consultation among the towns affected by the diversion of water in Alta Verapaz.
Jorge Santos, from UDEFEGUA, warns that the case against Caal Xól is part of a “criminalization” against social leaders, particularly indigenous communities, when they oppose private investments sponsored by the State.
Part of the phenomenon is the “smear and stigmatization campaign” that took place against Caal Xól, activist Ana Rutilia Ical Choc and the Madreselva Collective in the media and social networks before their incarceration, he says.
“We come from a growing process of acts of criminalization against people who defend human rights, and more deeply against those human rights defenders who oppose these large-scale investments,” he explains.
“It is evident that the large capital behind the installation of the hydroelectric plant is an extremely powerful actor that undoubtedly was behind the campaign strategy and also the financing,” he says.
BBC Mundo requested comments from the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines, but there was no response to the questions posed prior to the publication of this article.
Both the Oxec and Renace companies, which BBC Mundo contacted for interviews, have defended themselves against the accusations and have shared separate statements on social responsibility actions Y attention to demands of the affected peoples.
“From the beginning, the communities that are in the territory were duly informed and consulted,” says Oxec, ensuring that it has agreements “that have resulted in education, health and infrastructure projects.”
“The communities perceive profits generated by the operations of the hydroelectric plants, whose resources they can invest as they see fit. This does not represent any bribery for their approval as the opponents pretend to do it,” he explained in a recent statement.
Renace, for its part, asserts that “its insertion and establishment” in Alta Verapaz “has been accompanied by very robust socialization processes whose premise is to inform, establish dialogues in good faith, reach agreements and work together with the communities “.
It ensures that 88% of its works are underground, so the impact on the environment is minimal. And it also points out that it offers programs to improve education, health and infrastructure. ‘
In Jorge Santos’s opinion, however, there is an erroneous and “even perverse” understanding of social responsibility when creating projects of such magnitude in the midst of marginalized communities.
“Corporate social responsibility is seen as a mere act of philanthropy. Beyond a symbolic act, it requires the installation of mechanisms that allow observing compliance with fiscal, labor, environmental laws and with social responsibility itself “, he considers.
From Santa María Cahabón, Isabel Matzir says that what is really “outrageous” It is to see the destruction of the environment and that poverty persists despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Where there is no work, where there are no roads yet, where there is no health center, where there is a lot of poverty, what we have is the mountains, with the rivers to be able to subsist on a daily basis,” he says.
“We know well that the message they want to impose by imprisoning a defender is a lesson to anyone who wants to speak out. The people, however, continue to resist.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.