Dawn Marie Paley

UK owner of Guatemalan energy firm urged to act after protest deaths

Posted in Guatemala by dawn on 21/10/2012

This piece, which I co-wrote with Jon Watts, was published in The Guardian earlier this month. Aquí, la version en español.

guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 October 2012 19.20 BST

A British financial group has been urged to take action after six indigenous protesters in Guatemala were shot dead by the military during a demonstration against an electricity price increase by one of the group’s utilities.

Nine soldiers including a colonel will go on trial over the deadly crackdown, which aimed to clear a road of demonstrators opposed to rising energy bills issued by Energuate, a company majority-owned by Actis, a private investment firm spun off from CDC, Britain’s development finance arm, in 2004.

People who took part in the protest against Energuate said Actis and the Guatemalan government must prevent similar incidents.

“Our demands need to be listened to … As indigenous people we are consuming their energy, but they are getting rich off the people,” said Juana Celestina Batz Puac, who lives in Totonicapán and witnessed the killings. “Our actions are directly linked to electricity.”Energy rates for peasant families in Totonicapán have more than doubled in the past year to £7.33 a month, according to Batz. “This is way too much,” she said.

Representatives of the 48 communities of Totonicapán, a highland municipality with a majority Maya-K’iche’ population, erected blockades on the Inter-American Highway on 4 October to protest against the price increase and other measures they deemed unfavourable to indigenous people, including constitutional amendments and a revision of the teacher training programme.

According to a UN report released on Thursday, demonstrators threw stones at troops in three army vehicles, who responded by teargassing the crowd. As people tried to flee, soldiers opened fire with live ammunition, killing six people, the report said.

Thirty-three demonstrators and 13 army personnel were injured in the confrontation.

Members of the 48 communities pay for street lighting they say does not reach them. In May, locals occupied Energuate offices in Totonicapán to demand the cancellation of a contract for public lighting.

The electricity company said it was not to blame: “Fundamentally this situation produced a conflict that we didn’t cause,” said Maynor Amezquita, a communications and external relations officer with Energuate. “We only charge what the [National Electric Energy Commission] stipulates that we can charge.”

Amezquita said municipalities set the price of electricity for streetlights and public lighting, and the company billed homeowners for the service.

Energuate, formerly named Deocsa and owned by Gas Natural Fenosa, was purchased by Actis in May 2011. It supplies electricity to 1.4 million people in Guatemala’s rural areas, covering 94% of the country’s land mass.

Actis said it was “very distressed by these recent incidents. Like others, we believe that the current system of paying for street lighting through a flat charge on customers’ energy bills is unfair. We continue to lobby the Guatemalan government to change it. Actis made a significant investment in the energy sector in Guatemala in May 2011. We are committed to providing high quality reliable electricity to customers at the right price.”

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