The Inspiration of Xalala - Part 2

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Victor Caal from Las Margaritas Copon

Aviva Imhof

Our next stop was Las Margaritas Copón: a village of some 45 families that's an hour's walk away from the river. To get there we took a boat upstream along the Chixoy River: a gorgeous turquoise tropical river surrounded by forests and plots of maize. Parts of Las Margaritas would be flooded by the reservoir, and much of their land would be lost: land where they currently grow cardamom, corn and beans. Here we participated in an assembly of ACODET, the community organization that has been formed to fight the dam (ACODET stands for Association of Communities for Development, Defense of the land and natural resources). The ACODET assembly gathered people from around 10 surrounding communities, many of whom had walked hours to be there. We gave presentations about dams and how to fight them, and talked of victories in Thailand and other countries where communities had stood up against forces much greater than them, and listened to stories of their lives and fears of the dam. "Where are we going to go?" said Victor Caal, one of the young leaders in Las Margaritas. "We don't have any other land. If the government does buy land for us, it won't be equal to the land we have. The land we have is fertile and rich. There's no vacant land in this area that's comparable."

It was here that I realized just how groundbreaking this movement to stop Xalalá was. The project has no feasibility study or environmental impact assessment, yet already 125 communities in the area are organized to oppose the project. They've got a community organization, they've organized a community referendum, they've been traveling the country to spread their message, and they've got several international human rights and environmental organizations to support their cause. CIFCA, the Copenhagen Initiative for Central America and Mexico, has alraedy produced a comprehensive report on the project (in Spanish).

Community Assembly at Las Margaritas Copon

Aviva Imhof

Last November, the government put out a tender to the private sector to bid on producing the EIA and feasibility study for the project. The successful company would have been given the license to construct and operate the project. Although 7 foreign companies expressed an interest in the project, in the end not a single company put in a bid for the contract. The reason? Some say the financial crisis, some say the way the tender was packaged. But what they all say for sure is that the community opposition scared them off – noone wants to be responsible for a project where there is already organized strong opposition.

The failure of the tender process has sent the government scrambling for new options. They're thinking about developing the project themselves and seeking funding from the Inter-American Development Bank or World Bank. What's for certain is that no matter which direction the government goes, the communities and their allies, including International Rivers, will be there to block them.