Rivers at Risk in Guatemala

Across the northern indigenous hinterlands of Guatemala people are up in arms. You may have heard about it. They are up in arms over the companies involved in damming and mining—particularly hydroelectric projects; over their questionable business practices; deficit of environmental concern; and lack of respect for community well-being and consent, putting rivers at risk.

rivers at risk

Paddling through Oxec II project (Río Cahabón) December 2016

Incidents both positive and negative continue to play out. In Alta Verapaz, the 195 communities in the Cahabón municipality have been organizing against the Oxec I & II projects for the past year. On Jan. 12, they self-financed a movement of 85 truckloads of villagers to Cobán to demand justice and a “good faith” referendum.

In Huehuetenango, the companies’ response has been violent. On Jan. 17, a 72-year-old man was shot when peacefully protesting the Ixquisís project. And in Quiché, residents of the Río Copón area are continuing the longest-running, anti-dam resistance movement in the country, being vehemently opposed to the Xalalá project just downstream on Guatemala’s biggest river, the Chixoy.

rivers at risk

Oxec II project (Río Cahabón) under construction 2015

This project, first conceived in the 1970s and enjoying strong government support again starting in the 2000s, would gravely affect 58 Q’eqchi’ communities and have severe environmental impacts.

In late 2006, a government worker gathering information on community leaders under false pretenses was discovered murdered in the Copón area under suspicious circumstances. The government has continued to strong-arm the local leaders for years.

The affected municipalities have responded with popular-vote referendums, with a resounding over-90 percent “no” vote on the project. The situation remains tense.

rivers at risk

Nils in the Peyan Gorge of the Río Chixoy Saatan-Copón 2017

It turns out that the Río Copón is also known, to a very lucky few, to be the best whitewater expedition in Central America. We were a group of four kayakers intending to make only the fourth descent of the river, plus run an unexplored tributary.

I had been a member of the previous three descents. The first descent was in early 2006 and was organized by Guatemala’s most experienced raft guide, Roberto Rodas. He assembled a group of 12 international guides and clients for a four-day descent from near Saraguate community in the Zona Reyna of Quiché.

Forgoing a 10-hour journey from Cobán on difficult roads, we flew in on a Cessna 185 plane. Six trips were needed for all the people, food and gear. The dirt landing strip on the side of the mountain was the most dangerous obstacle of the whole trip.

rivers at risk

Local spectators at the San Pedro Cotijá bridge Saatan-Copón 2017

The people in Saraguate were a little suspicious of our motives, having never seen such strange toys before, but were ultimately helpful in getting all our equipment down the four-hour muddy trail to the river.

It was an excellent adventure running the rapids of the pristine Copón canyon and lower gorges, camping sometimes in the rain, and eventually making it all the way to Playa Grande near the Mexican border. We had found something special.

Subsequently, I made two more trips with kayakers in 2007 and 2008, starting successively higher on the Putul tributary near San Juan Cotzal, where we found even more gorgeous and challenging whitewater.

The next ones to attempt the Copón were not so lucky. The group of nine paddlers came with kayaks, catarafts and riverboards in 2012. Arriving in the afternoon after making the arduous drive, they found themselves quickly surrounded by hundreds of angry villagers who refused them access to the river, held them “hostage” during long discussions and, after an impassioned speech by Max Baldetti, future director of Ríos Guatemala, demanded they sign an agreement never to return.

rivers at risk

Protesters hold up their empty water containers, January 2017

They faced threatening mobs in four more villages on the overnight drive out. The locals simply could not be reassured that the tourists were not part of some subversive development project. One of the paddlers was a Q’eqchi’ raft guide from Cahabón in Alta Verapaz, who it was hoped could offer a more complete explanation in the local language. But even this strategy backfired, as there had been a recent murder in the area and the main suspect was someone from Cahabón.

While these incidents are unfortunate, this resistance movement is the best chance to preserve some of Guatemala’s most beautiful places. Obviously, trust was the crucial factor that was lacking between the locals and the strange beings called paddlers who were in fact on their side. So what made us think we would enjoy more trust in 2017?

The main reason was Colectivo Madre Selva, an environmental nonprofit working in the area and sponsoring of all things mini-hydroelectric projects that promote energy independence and reduce the need to chop down forests.

I made a connection with Madre Selva in 2015 after finding that it was one of the main supporters of the resistance movement in Cahabón, Alta Verapaz, against the ill-conceived and underhanded Oxec hydroelectric projects.

rivers at risk

Rapids on the Río Copón Saatan-Copón 2017

I and other paddlers are particularly concerned about this project, as it would destroy Guatemala’s most famous and accessible multi-day rafting trip on the Cahabón River. It is a river that should be preserved for generations to come, and instead it is being dammed by unscrupulous business owners with Spanish financing and approved by corrupt officials at the municipal and national ministry levels.

For example, Erick Archila was the minister of energy and mines at the time and has been holed up in the United States since 2015 after having been accused of corruption by Guatemalan courts.

So for the past year and a half, I have been helping with fundraising, and with the help of fellow paddlers and La Antigua Guatemala residents we have made a difference with logistical and moral support for the residents of Cahabón.

rivers at risk

2006 First Descent trip Roberto Rodas rowing through Xalala

A side benefit of our strong bond with Madre Selva was its backing for our Copón trip. The organization sent a letter to the communities explaining our purpose and our common goals of conservation, and the communities fully agreed to our right of passage and even welcomed us into their homes and cooked for us.

For three Europeans and me, the lucky American, it was an unforgettable experience of beauty both on and off the water. In La Taña, we shared river photos and videos with an excited gentleman who hikes extensively in the nearby mountains.

Downstream in San Pedro Cotijá, the most indelible image was crossing over the long pedestrian bridge that had half its wood planks missing. Luckily, the locals also helped carry the kayaks. We finished the trip in two days, elated from the journey and with the hope that more people will be able to experience these incredible places in the future. Stay tuned.

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