Team Retreat to Rio Negro

Below is the first in a series of short, weekly blogs to be written by the Voces y Manos team about our solidarity work with the Maya-Achí community in Guatemala. Writing from a community grappling with the acute shocks of climate change, poverty, and the attendant issue of forced migration, we are motivated to write these blogs because of the deep concern and interest so many of you have expressed in understanding and addressing root causes of these issues. We believe that the stories of people in Rabinal offer an important perspective not only on the impact of these conditions on daily life, but also on the unscrupulous role that the United States has played and continues to play in creating them.

Before sharing our first blog, let me briefly introduce you to the blog’s authors, the 9-person Voces y Manos team (read our bios here). We come from Berkeley, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Rabinal, Guatemala and are united by our shared commitments to justice and working in solidarity with communities experiencing the pernicious effects of poverty, discrimination and injustice. The blog below discusses one of the first activities we did together as a team: a retreat to Rio Negro, one of the communities of Rabinal that has tremendous historical significance as the site of one of the bloodiest massacres of the Guatemalan genocide (1960-1996). Rio Negro will be one of five participating communities in our climate change resiliency project.

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With no direct route to Rio Negro, our arrival involved a four-hour drive winding northward through the sinuous mountain roads of Alta Verapaz, crossing a heavily armed checkpoint to enter the Chixoy Dam facility, and then taking a 30-minute boat ride across the Chixoy reservoir. Upon docking, we were greeted by Don Julian, who at 67-years-old is spry and built like a marathon runner. He guides us to the beautiful, two-story wood cabin where we will spend the next three days. Looking out over the idyllic landscape, it is hard to believe that submerged under the waters of the reservoir are the homes and bones of hundreds of innocent people who were killed to make way for the dam.

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During the retreat we learned firsthand about the history of Rio Negro, and reflected on what this history means for the design of our climate change project. In 1975, thanks to substantial loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (both largely funded by the United States), Guatemala’s National Institute of Electrification released plans to create the largest hydroelectric facility in the history of Guatemala on the Chixoy River. The Maya-Achí community of Rio Negro was one of 33 indigenous communities slated to be displaced by the proposed project, yet none were consulted in this fateful decision. Instead, the Guatemalan government created a so-called “model village,” later named Pacux, to house the forcibly displaced residents of Rio Negro. With virtually no land to grow crops or harvest firewood in this community of tightly packed houses (the so-called “model village,” common during Guatemalan military rule, was designed to facilitate maximum surveillance of indigenous communities), a great many families refused to leave Rio Negro.

Responding to the community’s resistance with shocking and overwhelming brutality, the Guatemalan military and paramilitary killed 444 people in a series of five massacres between the years 1980 and 1982. A great many children lost one or both of their parents. In the end, the community of Rio Negro was abandoned, and all survivors were forcibly relocated to Pacux.

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The Pocoxom mass grave in Rio Negro, where 70 women and 107 children were killed

In our conversations with Don Julian throughout the retreat, we learned that after more than a decade of living in Pacux, three families took the bold decision to re-establish the community of Rio Negro. Don Julian tells us the story:

One day, I went out to cut firewood for cooking. Because we had no land in Pacux, I had to chop wood on communal land. Then, a man approached and started swearing at me, asking what I was doing on the land, which he said was not for people from Pacux. I had to return home to my family empty-handed, with no way to cook our food. I cried in pain and frustration. It was then that I decided to return to the community of Rio Negro.

Don Julian and his family carried nothing more than several pots for cooking and plastic sheets for protection from the rain as they set out with the two other families on the 25-mile footpath to Rio Negro. Their first simple meals were cobbled together from the few edible plants in the region and fish from the reservoir. They slept beneath their plastic sheets.

Slowly, the families began to reestablish the community of Rio Negro. A parish provided them with aluminum roofing to construct more permanent homes. Eventually, the community advocated for and won its own school and health clinic. Seeing the resurgent potential of Rio Negro, more families made the decision to relocate there from Pacux. Today, Rio Negro is home to 19 families who support themselves by fishing, farming, weaving, and leading historical tours for visitors.

As we discovered through conversations with Don Julian and others in Rio Negro, the community continues to grapple with profound challenges. While they now have an elementary school, students must travel far outside the community if they wish to attend middle or high school. The health clinic is usually unstaffed and lacks basic supplies. And as climate change progresses, farmers are increasingly concerned about the impact that reduced and unpredictable rainfall is having on their ability to grow corn, beans, and squash. Yet Don Julian tells us he is happy to be back on the land where he was raised, and to be able to pass on to his children the cultural practices and ways of life that he learned from his parents and grandparents.

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Meeting with Don Julian

The visit to Rio Negro was a powerful reminder that climate change is not the first existential threat faced by this community. On our retreat, the Voces y Manos team came to the realization that the ways of life that have enabled Maya-Achí communities to survive genocide and colonization — tight-knit, harmonious relationships among community members and with the natural world — will be the very same elements of resiliency that enable them to face the challenges now posed by climate change. For those team members from the U.S., it was deeply disturbing to learn about our own implication in this horrific chapter of history. For the team as a whole, we left Rio Negro humbled and honored to be able to work in partnership with this extraordinary community and contribute in some small way its ongoing survival and resilience.

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