In mid-August, the Guatemalan government deployed over 1,500 police to Monte Olivo to evict 160 families of the community 9 de Febrero in order to allow the construction of the Santa Rita dam to go forward. As helicopters flew overhead, police destroyed homes and assaulted residents, leaving several people injured. Five people were arrested in Monte Olivo, as well as two others in nearby Raxruhá. In response, hundreds of people blocked the highway leading to the proposed site. In an ensuing conflict, three men were killed, allegedly by police gunfire, and more than 50 people were injured, including six police.
Since 2010, the government and the Hidro Santa Rita SA company have allegedly intimidated and even murdered community members. In the last year, two boys were murdered, one man escaped an assassination attempt, and five others were shot in April leaving one dead.
This is not the only case of violence related to hydroelectric dams in Guatemala. The community near the Chixoy Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in Guatemala, is still trying to get reparations after more than 400 community members were murdered in 1982 through four massacres when they resisted the project. The company received funding from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to both develop and sustain the dam. In 2010, the Guatemalan government and the Organization of American States agreed on a reparations plan, but it has yet to be implemented. There are now many international cases like the Chixoy Dam where the evidence points to World Bank mega-dam projects doing more harm than good for communities.
The Santa Rita dam project similarly is being done in the name of sustainable development but through private funding and certification from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has approved it as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project. The CDM designation is intended to support projects that wouldn’t otherwise go forward, by helping poorer countries sustainably develop while allowing industrialized nations to purchase the "offset" towards their goals of reducing the emissions.
In the case of the Santa Rita dam, the project was approved by the UNFCCC in June 2014 and an agreement was signed on July 30 between Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and Hidro Santa Rita SA, right before the latest round of protests, evictions and violence.
A serious concern about the project was the consultation process. When the company first sought approval from residents for the project, they invited only eight of the 22 affected communities in the area to participate. Typically Mayan communities in an area make decisions together. In the end, nearly all the communities opposed the project because of the consultation process and the destruction that the dam will cause the river that sustains the communities. They submitted a formal letter to the UNFCCC’s CDM board to complain that the consultation was flawed and that they did not give their free prior and informed consent to the project, a violation of the International Labor Organization’s Article 169 adopted by the Guatemalan government. The board ruled that the consultation had been completed fully and correctly. This was the first case to ever be reviewed by the CDM for improper community consultation.
Another critique is that it does not meet the CDM project criteria of "additionality." Additionality means that the project would not otherwise go forward without the financial support from the sale of the carbon credits. Currently, 30 percent of the electricity in Guatemala is from hydropower thus the project probably would have gone forward, much like the majority of CDM-designated projects. Until recently, the majority of proposed CDM projects were hydropower dams. They were just surpassed by wind farms but will still likely account for the majority of carbon credits.
One question about CDM projects, and hydroelectric projects in particular, is whether or not they will actually reduce carbon emissions or improve the lives of communities. Hydroelectric plants take energy to operate. Furthermore, carbon credits do not incentivize polluting countries from actually reducing their own pollution – they just buy more credits to fund more energy projects. Based on past projects, it is unlikely that affected communities will benefit from the generated power.
Finally, the Inter-American Human Rights Court and NGOs such as Carbon Markets Watch have expressed ongoing concern regarding human rights violations related to the Santa Rita project. On August 27, 2013, the same day that the two boys were killed and another man escaped an attempted kidnapping, residents met with a representative from the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Human rights violations in Alta Verapaz are happening as both the CDM board is considering reforms to the program and as the UNFCCC and key stakeholders are establishing rules and financing for the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
The GCF will likely become the source of public funding to assist developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Already the GCF is seen as a marked improvement to past climate financing schemes based on its governing document. It explicitly acknowledges the importance of country ownership, multi-stakeholder engagement, direct access to funding, and gender sensitivity. Questions remain about whether the GCF will make the same mistake as the CDM and fund big dams and fossil fuel projects. But its success will also depend on whether countries give robust commitments to meet a total goal of $100 billion by 2020. The U.S. has yet to announce its commitment.