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8 Nov 2023


EU: Guatemalan human rights activists urges EU to implement Due Diligence Directive

"Incarcerated for his advocacy, this activist puts his hopes on EU’s due diligence law"

As representatives of the European Parliament and EU countries negotiate the details of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) in Brussels, visiting Guatemalan human rights activist Bernardo Caal Xol has urged them to implement the directive, which would force European companies to behave more responsibly.

The CSDDD was first proposed by the European Commission in early 2022. Its purpose is to make large European companies responsible for environmental or human rights violations that happen along their entire value chains.

Today, such harm can often be done with impunity in countries with weak judicial systems.

Caal Xol, a Guatemalan primary school teacher, has witnessed this firsthand.

When the Spanish Cobra Group started building hydroelectric dams on the 195km long Cahabon river in Guatemala, deviating the river into a canal for 50km of its length, the river bed all but dried up in the section. This struck the local Mayan communities hard as they traditionally relied on the river for fishing and agriculture.

“Our culture teaches us to love and respect Mother Earth and our environment, that’s why we indigenous people take care of this environment,” Caal Xol told Euractiv in an interview on Monday (6 November) in Brussels, where he is currently telling EU lawmakers his story. [...]

Caal Xol complained that his community had never been asked its opinion on the project. Instead, the Guatemalan government gave the Spanish Cobra Group the license to build multiple hydroelectric plants along the river, starting in 2012. [...]

Amnesty International classified Bernardo Caal Xol as a prisoner of conscience. “After reviewing the criminal case against Bernardo Caal Xol, Amnesty International found that there was no evidence of the crimes he was accused of,” the human rights organisation said in a statement.

For Caal Xol, who was released in 2022 after more than four years behind bars, it is clear that it is an alliance of government and business interests that has tried to silence him.

But what would be different with a European due diligence law in place?

“They would never have imprisoned me,” Caal Xol said. “The companies would have to act responsibly. They could not just run over the rights of individuals and of indigenous peoples.”

Asked whether he was in fact against economic development, as his critics claimed, he asked back: “Development for whom?” – arguing that the electricity generated by the hydropower stations did not even benefit the Mayan communities but was sent towards Mexico. [...]

[In 2016, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Grupo Cobra to respond to the allegations of negative social and environmental impacts and lack of consultation; the company did not respond. The non response is availble only in Spanish here]