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Sierra Magazine
Beneath the Rio Negro

More stories on refugees: Pages 1 | 2 | 3

In Guatemala, peaceful protests of a destructive dam led to the slaughter of hundreds of villagers.

By Mary Jo McConahay

Some disasters are neither acts of God nor human errors; many environmental refugees are displaced by deliberate development projects. The scale of movement can be huge: In China, the Three Gorges Dam is expected to force resettlement of 1.3 million people whose homes and farmland will start to flood in 2003. In India, the $8.1 billion Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat will flood the homes and lands of 200,000 villagers-and it's just one of 30 large and thousands of smaller dams planned in the Narmada Valley Development Project.

Only about 5,000 people in 15 villages were displaced by a dam in the Rio Negro valley in Guatemala in 1982, but the consequences in the village of Rio Negro are being felt even today en carne propia, as they say, "in their own flesh."

Flying into Guatemala City before dawn, I saw a volcano on fire, glowing lava streaming down its cone, reddening the darkness. Later, from my bus window on the way to the town of Coban, some 120 miles north of the capital, I made out an occasional swinging wooden bridge through the blue haze of the burning season. So it was a relief for the eyes to arrive in the clear air of the busy mountain town, its open stone patios hanging with orchids in every shade-purple, white, the pink of roses. I met with refugees from Rio Negro, Achi Maya Indians. "Come, we'll show you where it all began," they said, and we piled into a borrowed jeep.

The road, built in the 1970s to facilitate construction of the Chixoy Dam, was stony and twisting, climbing first through palm and banana, then pine. The journey was eerie: The passengers in the jeep kept pointing out elements of a landscape that only they could see. "There's Los Chicos," said Carlos Chen, 53, as we rounded a high curve, and all strained to look down in the direction where 30 families had once formed a village named for a chico zapote tree. The eye without memory saw only a slope of scrub leading down to dead water. "It's underneath," said Chen.

Anyone listening to the middle-aged men and women on that journey would have realized the Chixoy Dam drowned more than villages; it drowned the spirit of a place where Achi had lived for a thousand years. In the woods now under water, remembers Chen, a stone altar had stood where Maya priests once prayed that their gods would not abandon the people who lived on the banks of the river they called Black, the Rio Negro.

"Look at La Campana!" said another neighbor, who was returning for the first time in some years. It was a broad mountain, named for a bell believed to be embedded "in an enchanted place" in the mountain's rocks, "put there by some god or force." The men reminisced about hearing the bell while night-fishing for mojarra and boneless quishele to sell in the market, a sonorous ringing as if it came from a bell on a church, although there were no churches around. Roosters crowed at the sound of it. But just as rivers that once flowed white and wild did not even appear alive now, they said, no longer can you hear the mountain ring at night.

In 1975, the Guatemalan government declared the new World Bank-financed dam would be a "development miracle." (Part of the miracle was to vastly improve the value of lowland tracts bought up by generals, members of the military who had ruled the country since a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954 deposed democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz.) Rio Negro residents say they were never consulted. "The population in the area is mainly indigenous," said a Bank pre-feasibility document. "In the tract of the study . . . there is almost no population." Executives of the electricity company known as INDE had arrived in helicopters with the announcement. When our jeep reached the top of the road, Carlos Chen's 75-year-old father, Nicolas, climbed out, looked over the lake created by the dam, and recalled the moment. "INDE came and told us they were going to cover the village of Rio Negro. They didn't ask us anything because we're Indians, we're trash, and that's the way it was."

The people of Rio Negro did not want to move, but INDE made it clear that the military government was giving the orders. As months turned to years, they accepted the dam's inevitability-but with inadequate relocation and no assurance of compensation, they asked the same questions people in Honduras asked after Hurricane Mitch: What to be now? Where to be now? It was a time of guerrilla war, when the local conflicts over land and water resources that emerge in any rural setting threatened to brand villagers as rabble-rousers.

But the residents of Rio Negro felt they had nothing to hide, and kept pushing until they received promises of decent relocation. In 1981, the community sent a trio of young men to a meeting called by INDE, carrying the village's Libro de Actas, a document listing the government's pledges.

They never made it to the meetings. The couriers were kidnapped, their bodies found three days later. The Libro de Actas had disappeared. Then on February 17, 1982, paramilitary members working in concert with the army called 77 men to the market town of Xococ, telling them that their identity papers, taken the week before, would be returned. But it was a ruse, and the villagers were slain. That is why few men were present on March 13 when about ten soldiers and 25 civil patrollers, members of the units set up by the army to help carry out its counterinsurgency campaign, arrived in Rio Negro.

They marched women, the elderly, and children up a hill, including Carlos Chen's 24-year-old wife, Paulina Iboy Osorio; his daughter, Enriqueta, 7; and son, Antonio, 5; as well as his sister, Marta Julia Chen Osorio, who was seven months pregnant. The patrollers forced the women to dance, made them strip, stole their fine huipil blouses, raped them, and then killed 183 people, most of them children. By year's end, the valley was flooded, the dam complete.

The massacre at Rio Negro was only one tragic affair that took place during a 36-year conflict in which 200,000 died, mostly unarmed civilians. But the incidents leading up to the massacre are well documented by the Catholic Church, by a UN-sponsored Truth Commission, and by a historian working with the forensic anthropology team that exhumed bodies buried on an unflooded rise. The dam is a starting point for all, as the team's report concludes: "In Rio Negro, the conflicts between the civilian population and INDE were the principal problem in a series of events, a kind of detonator, which above all served to accuse all in the village of being guerrillas and thus to legitimize the killings." Or as Nicolas Chen put it, "We asked for our rights, and they thought that was subversive."

Early this year I went to a session of a Coban court, which was meeting to determine the sentence for three men found guilty of participating in the massacre. They were civil patrollers, the only people ever brought to trial in the case. A military attorney argued for them as their wives sat in a front row, wrapped in huipiles and skirts woven in the tight, dizzy blue lightning patterns of the Achi. The rest of the rows were packed with other Achi, massacre survivors who had gone to market that day in 1982 or otherwise escaped, who had lost family members and had now come to court to see some justice done.

A few stone-faced young men and women, who had been children at the time, were there too. After the patrollers killed their parents, some of the men took the children to work in their homes-grotesque, unofficial adoptions. One quiet young man, Jesus Tecu Osorio, who had watched one of the patrollers slay his toddler brother by smashing his head against a rock and who had then grown up in the man's household told me he had no mixed emotions, but wished for a death sentence. The chief magistrate said she would reveal the sentence in eight days.

"We believe it was INDE that gave the order," said a voice in the dark that night. We were in a place called Pacux, eight hours' walk from the site of their drowned village. The climate and landscape-no forest, no river, no canyons-were so different from the old Rio Negro you might well have been on a different planet. Residents had gathered on a grassy mound at the edge of the crowded clutch of houses they occupied now, outside the highland town of Rabinal, eager to speak to a visitor.

They too were environmental refugees, "too poor to flee any farther than here," said one man with a bitter laugh. In a few days the judge would announce the sentence for the three patrollers: 50 years in prison. But no authorities are ever likely to be brought to court in the case, and the men and women on the grass, it seemed, wanted instead this night to remember Rio Negro. One after another spoke of the river that gave them life and market products, and the trees-jocote, mango, lemon, orange.

Above our heads dim streetlights sputtered, then died out. The darkness was a bitter irony for a people whose lives had changed forever so electricity, as one said, "might happen somewhere else." They would live out their existence in a wretched place now, where work was scarce, firewood two hours away, and a military garrison so close you could hear the soldiers' radios in the still night. "It was the dam that put us here," said one elderly woman. She spoke in Achi, but used the Spanish word, presa, for "dam," because the word does not exist in their language.

More stories on refugees: Pages 1 | 2 | 3

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