The path of light: A community fight for equitable electricity
Cover photo: Community members at the reopening of the press center in Uspantán, Zona Reina, Quiché, Guatemala.
By Lucía Escobar @luchalibre
To turn the lights on and off, to move a switch up and down is so easy that we do it without thinking, many times a day, without imagining that in this century, in this country, there are still communities where it’s not possible. And there are many other communities that have just recently achieved access to precious electricity.
The public can now discover the efforts behind the collective achievement of four villages that were Communities of the Population in Resistance (Comunidades de Población en Resistencia, CPR), through the 80s and 90s and finally settled in the municipality of Uspantán to rebuild their lives and try to recover part of their collective memory. This is a story of community struggle that began with the war and continues today. The aspiration toward access to electricity in San Miguel Uspantán, Zona Reina, Quiché is documented in the book El camino de la luz: Historias del proyecto comunitario de energía eléctrica, “Luz de los héroes y Mártires de la Resistencia” (The path of light: Stories of the community electricty project, “Light of heroes and Martyrs of the Resistance”).
The Zona Reina has had its name since the era of José María Reina Barrios, President of Guatemala from 1892 to 1898, when he sent military veterans and their families to the region to reward them for their service. It is 257 kilometers from Guatemala City and is bounded by the Cutzalá, Chixoy, and Copón Rivers and Mount Lamay. Uspantán has the largest population in the Zona Reina.
Even though the Zona Reina, in Quiché, in the area of Uspantán, is surrounded by hydroelectric dams, the area has lacked electricity for a long time. The small hydroelectric generator that Uspantán now manages is different in many ways from the megaproject hydroelectric dams like Palo Viejo or Chixoy. First, it was not built for profit nor to generate massive quantities of electricity. It generates 55 kilowatts per hour (kW/h), enough to allow all of Uspantán’s families to enjoy and equitably share its power. Second, it uses a minimal part of the adjacent river’s flow and does not use a dam so as to avoid damage to the local ecosystem.
Members of the community electricity project association emphasized during the book’s presentation that “the resistance doesn’t stop because our country has not changed. We ask that our story be written so that other villages can read it. It’s great, the story, because we had to care for our project. We developed it and now we run it. Our resources benefit us and it’s good to use them without damaging them. The rate we pay is not too high. The people decide it together and it provides for maintenance. It’s not like the businesses that build [hydroelectric dams] to enrich themselves.”
The book has two parts. The first focuses on how life was before: the rural revolution; the military dictatorships; the violence; the CPRs; the time hidden in the mountains; the old ecosystems; the herbs, the roots, the Santa Malanga; the return to public life, the civilian population, and the move through the mountains.
The second part of the book tells of the hydroelectric project: How the community hydroelectric project was conceived; the rural community assessment and the roots of the project; the hopeful beginning, the intervening obstacles, and the rededication to the project; the arrival of the Madre Selva (Mother Jungle) Collective; factors that complicated the project; the benefits of community-based electrification; electricity as a catalyst for other possibilities; light as defense; challenges; sustainability; recommendations; basic observations and lessons.
With this publication, the Madre Selva Collective began the important work of documenting the struggles for the defense of life that it has accompanied in different communities. The documentation of these struggles is key to the continued collective construction of ecological resistance in Guatemala.