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February 7, 2016

The Río Cahabón, Guatemala's most important rafting river, is under immediate threat. And I've met the leaders who have a chance to save it. But they need your help.

(to see this letter in Spanish click here)

river photo

My name is Greg Schwendinger. I am a 13-year resident of Guatemala, and the author of the "Mayan Whitewater Guatemala" guidebook. I have written sporadically about the threat that hydroelectric dams pose for Guatemala's wild rivers in the past, but this is the first time I have committed myself to do something about it. If you care about wild rivers as I do, you will quickly understand why.

The Río Cahabón offers a 3-day rafting trip through the eastern Guatemalan lowlands and home of indigenous Q'eqchi Maya people. In 1999 Paddler magazine named it one of the top 12 jungle river trips in the world. It offers a combination of turquoise-colored water, exciting rapids, and true multi-day adventure that is unique in Central America. And a dam called Oxec II is going up right in the middle of it, stealing from the local residents part of their identity, and robbing future generations of a natural and cultural experience that is irreplaceable.

While hydroelectricity has its place, I believe all would agree that each project deserves a rigorous scientific study, public debate, and consultation of the populations directly affected. The Oxec II project has none of that. And its direct and indirect environmental and social effects will be significant.

Fighting such a the dam is a huge challenge in Guatemala. In many cases, the government control that the oligarchy has (this project's owners included) is almost unassailable. But this project is angering thousands of local villagers, and the human rights issues (non-consultation of the local people), among other legal issues such as the land acquisition, is one that the courts have shown a willingness to consider. 

There are several groups lining up against the dam. The central one is an association of 100 local communities led by a directorate of 10 local organizers. The communities are impoverished but the leaders have experience fighting such projects (they have halted a smaller one on the nearby Río Lanquín) and are strongly committed to the cause. The leaders promote peaceful action, since they have seen in other parts of Guatemala that more forceful protest often backfires in Guatemala. An important group accompanying them is Colectivo Madre Selva (www.colectivomadreselva.org), a non-profit that supports such communities with legal support, and by the way also supports community-run mini-hydroelectric projects. Madre Selva has a strong community and human rights orientation, and in my conversations with several of their people I have found them exceptionally dedicated and knowledgeable.

While this fight is on principle, money is also needed. Without it, the resistance is severely handicapped and a long-term and non-violent solution is doomed. As explained in the attached proposal from Madre Selva, about $20,000 is needed not only for the legal costs but for community education and political activities. Madre Selva operates on a bare-bones budget (mostly grants from European Union governments and NGOs targeted for specific projects), and the communities are some of the poorest in Guatemala. Despite having trouble providing for the families, the community members are willing to attend meetings, travel, and protest to save their river, but it is unrealistic to expect them to put up a prolonged fight without outside resources. And according to Madre Selva (and me) their involvement is absolutely critical. All money raised will be administered by Madre Selva in direct support of the communities and their activities.

The first public salvo by the communities happened on December 11, 2015, when one member from each of the 100 communities traveled to Guatemala City to accompany a press conference, a meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner and representatives of the license-granting Energy and Mines Ministry, and also a meeting with the powerful Commission Against Corruption and Impunity. I personally supported this action, providing a $2.80 lunch each of to the travelers. One of the next important steps will be to conduct an area-wide referendum with the assistance of the new town council (the old mayor was voted out exactly because of his support for the project) and preparations are already underway.

Below I have links to more background information for you to chew on. I urge each of you to consider making a generous donation to the Save the Río Cahabón fund. A small donation (< $100) helps, and a large donation (> $1,000) helps a lot. Rarely will you have an opportunity to make your money go so far to directly support an important river issue. As explained below, in the U.S. (and worldwide) you can make a donation via Sierra Rios (www.sierrarios.org), and in Guatemala (and worldwide) you can make a bank transfer to Madre Selva's account.

(Be under no illusions: this will be a drawn-out fight with no guarantee of success. Additional ill-advised projects are planned on the Cahabón, which is why it is critical to make a stand now and find a way to hold these projects up to public scrutiny. Whether we win or lose this battle, your money will raise local and international awareness and encourage those on the ground to keep fighting.)


Please forward to your friends, and any interested organizations. If you have any questions, please write to me at mayanwhitewater@yahoo.com, or to colectivomadreselva@gmail.com.

thanks,
Greg

To donate (please write "Rio Cahabon Fund" in the notes):
1. directly to Madre Selva: deposit to "Asociacion Colectivo Madre Selva," quetzal account 017-015960-8 or dollar account 017-010451-3 in Banco Industrial (both are checking accounts), Guatemala (for international wire transfer details click here)
2. through SierraRios (USA non-profit), paypal your donation to "nonprofit@sierrarios.org" (for other payment options with SR click here) (if you are out of the USA and want to use transferwise.com let me send you an invitation and the money I earn will be donated to the cause also!)

link to facebook page against large dams in Guatemala with photos and updates

link to youtube video showing news report (in Spanish) of the local community resistance

* Madre Selva general information and budget for the Oxec II resistance (in Spanish)

comunique from the communities demanding respect for their rights

Environmental Impact Study (in Spanish) provided by the dam company (a sham)

essay I have written against the dam

 

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