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Guatemala: 'He had a machete in his cheek': how Guatemala's hydropower dream turned deadly

Every morning, Juan Alonzo, a 35-year-old Indigenous farmer, accompanies his eldest son to work in the cardamom and corn fields along the Pojom River. Until 2017, Alonzo’s father also made the journey. But on 17 January that year, Sebastián Alonzo, 68, was killed in a demonstration against a hydroelectric project in the Ixquisis valley, an oasis of rivers and plantations in north-west Guatemala.

Since the tragedy, Juan has developed a stammer. Two of his four daughters sit on his lap as he visits his father’s grave, remembering his prominence in the Maya-Chuj Indigenous community: “My dad was very involved in the struggle for natural resources.” Juan believes it is the reason Sebastián was killed.

In Yulchén Frontera, one of the eight villages that make up the valley, a few miles from the Mexican border, subsistence farmers live in extreme poverty, without electricity and other modern amenities, which drives young people to emigrate to the US.

Yet this region is very rich in one resource: water. Three rivers – Río Pojom, Río Negro and Río Yolhuitz – are the lifeblood of these Indigenous Maya communities. The area can only be reached via pickup trucks that navigate the winding and hazardous mountain roads.

This wealth of resources caught the eye of one Guatemalan company. Previously known as Promoción y Desarrollos Hídricos, Sociedad Anónima (PDH, SA) and since renamed Energía y Renovación, the company’s arrival in 2010 marked the beginning of a long conflict over natural resources in the valley that continues to this day.

In 2012, Energía y Renovación called the eight villages of the Ixquisis valley to a meeting, during which villagers say it outlined the benefits the project would bring: the construction of schools and health centres, improved access to drinking water and, above all, the long-awaited arrival of electricity to the community – although the company denies that power was promised. At first, most of the inhabitants were enthusiastic.

Sebastián Alonzo was a man of few words and no formal education. But, his son says, when he met a company worker who told him a tunnel was being built to divert the Pojom River he immediately realised the threat to his land. “Are you going to leave us with nothing?” he asked.

The company says that although the river was to be diverted, 36% of its natural flow would still run along the original course, enough to sustain the current ecosystem. Despite this reassurance, Alonzo’s opposition to the Energía y Renovación hydroelectric project remained firm from that moment until the day he died.

María Bautista, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, lives in San Mateo Ixtatán, about 28 miles (45km) from the valley, but owns a modest plot of land and a tin house in the village of Yulchén Frontera, next to one of the rivers the hydroelectric project planned to divert.

Bautista feels that the company played on the needs of the villagers in order to persuade them to agree to the project.

Well-educated and fluent in Spanish, Bautista studied the law. After Energía y Renovación arrived, she identified inconsistencies in what she says it was proposing to residents. Under Guatemalan law, electricity generation and distribution are two separate activities. Guatemala’s National Electrification Institute is the only entity authorised to distribute electricity. Thus, Bautista realised, Energía y Renovación was not in fact able to offer electricity to the villages.

“They already had a document they wanted people to sign. I realised our people didn’t understand much of what they were reading ... So I gave my opinion and people didn’t sign,” says Bautista.

She was the first woman to oppose the hydroelectric project. Other mothers and neighbours joined her once it became clear that the electricity produced by the project would not supply the valley but would go to the central electricity grid.

Despite opposition, in 2013 the company obtained funding from IDB Invest to construct two power plants. This private organisation, a subsidiary of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) whose purposes include contributing to sustainable development in the region, receiving funds from 48 countries – including the United Kingdom since 2023 – decided to invest £11.2m of finance in the project.

By 2017, 30% of the project had been completed. The company planned to adjust four other watercourses in addition to the Pojom: the Primavera, Varsovia, Palmira and Negro rivers. Parts of the Yal Witz mountain – considered sacred by local people, who believe deities inhabit it – were dynamited to create tunnels to divert the Pojom River.

With Bautista and Juan Alonzo at the forefront, Yulchén Frontera became the heart of the opposition to the hydroelectric dam, and demonstrations against the project grew louder. On 17 January 2017, between 600 and 1,000 people from different municipalities around San Mateo Ixtatán marched in Ixquisis against Energía y Renovación.

Sebastián Alonzo was there. As the protesters reached a meadow, armed individuals began firing. The gunfire dispersed the crowd as protesters fled in all directions. Everyone except for Alonzo. His body lay motionless on the ground, his green T-shirt soaked with blood.

“When I looked back, he was already lying there with a blow to his eye and a machete in his cheek,” recalls Juan. His father remained there for four hours without medical assistance. When his friends returned, he had two bullet wounds, one in the back of his head and one in his chest. Sebastián died a few hours later while being transferred to the nearest hospital, three hours from Ixquisis.

Between 2012 and 2022, 1,335 land activists, like Sebastián Alonzo, were killed in Latin America – about 70% of all deaths – making it the most dangerous region in the world for environmentalists. As in about 95% of these murders, the crime remains unpunished as police investigations into Alonzo’s death are still “in progress” almost seven years later. To date, apart from a few interviews with witnesses, the police have not carried out any in-depth investigation into the events.

Cristian Otzin, a lawyer specialised in the defence of Indigenous rights, whom the Alonzo family asked to investigate the murder, argues that private security guards from Energía y Renovación shot at protesters and fatally wounded Sebastián Alonzo in 2017. “It’s the most likely hypothesis,” he says.

Interviewed in his office in Guatemala City, Alfonso de León, director of Energía y Renovación, said the security guards were not responsible for the shooting.

“For [the protesters], everything is the company’s responsibility. If it rains or doesn’t rain, it’s the company’s fault,” De León says. “It is up to the authorities to determine what happened that day.”

Since the farmer’s death, women like Bautista are at the heart of the battle for water. She says that she believes Sebastiàn Alonzo’s death was intimidation: “It was like saying to us: ‘Don’t protest any more.’ But on the contrary, it pushed us to continue the struggle.”

They face numerous obstacles. Between 2014 and 2022, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defence (AIDA) registered almost 100 acts of violence, including intimidation of leaders, poisoning of pets, and physical assaults on opponents of the Ixquisis hydroelectric project.

For months, Bautista says she received anonymous death threats every day, as did other women who did not fall in line.

“[The anonymous callers] told me not to get involved in this problem and not to cry when something was going to happen, because they had warned me,” she says, adding: “Those of us who demonstrated were called ‘whores’. They threatened they were going to rape us, and we were afraid to walk alone at night.”

Fear didn’t stop her, though. She says: “At first, my family was not so supportive of this struggle, and my parents would always tell me, ‘Be careful. We don’t like you being involved in this, don’t go any more.’ But I say, I feel it is a job I started, and I must finish it.”

Led by Bautista, the women documented how the hydroelectric project and the modification of the rivers were affecting them and submitted a formal complaint. In response, IDB’s Independent Monitoring and Investigation Mechanism (MICI) withdrew its support for the project in April 2022 – a first for the institution. The development bank claimed the company had said there were few Indigenous people in the project area – when, in fact, they made up 86% of the population – and, among other issues, had failed to conduct a proper consultation process. .

Chuj and Qʼanjobʼal Indigenous people from Ixquisis and San Mateo area perform a traditional ceremony which includes lighting candles in the shape of a cross on the ground
Chuj and Qʼanjobʼal Indigenous people from Ixquisis and San Mateo area perform a traditional ceremony to ask the gods to protect their rivers and sacred mountains

After losing its major investor, the project is now at a standstill. But De León remains confident in the project’s future. He says: “It has technical and social viability and must continue. We will look for new investors.”

The role of women was crucial to the withdrawal of funding for the project. MICI recognised that the project did not comply with its gender policy since women were disadvantaged, as they were the most dependent on water from the rivers.

“Without water, we are finished,” says Catalina, a woman from Bella Linda, one of the villages in the valley, who is pregnant with her fifth child. “From 5am, I use the river water to heat my coffee, and then to cook and drink, and to clean my clothes, like all the women here. The best future we can give our children is to protect the water. We owe it to Sebastián.”

With the support of international associations, some of the female activists have received legal training law, allowing them to help lead the struggle for water rights. They now attend and speak at the assemblies in Ixquisis, where the future of their villages are decided. The youngest says: “Now we feel we are part of the decisions and our opinion counts. It’s new for us.”

At the end of an assembly held in the spring of 2022, Bautista explains how overwhelmed she is by the progress that had been made. “I was moved because there are few opportunities for women to express themselves, to defend themselves. No matter what happens, we will protect our rivers.”

Behind barbed wire, the company’s facilities remain, waiting for investment.