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

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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.

“However, there are people who only think about doing business with what Mother Earth has,” he said, arguing that the deviation of the river into concrete canals left communities and entire ecosystems without water.

“And who do you think did that?” he asked rhetorically, before providing the answer himself: “European capital.”

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.

As one of the few people to speak Spanish in his community, Caal Xol led his community’s complaint against the project, and in 2016, a court ordered the preliminary suspension of the work on the hydroelectric plants.

Then began what Caal Xol calls a defamation campaign against him. Guatemalan media called him a terrorist, published his picture and where he lived, and accused him of being anti-development.

And the situation got even worse. In what he calls fabricated charges, Caal Xol was accused of having participated in a robbery of a pickup truck together with 100 other people, and a court sentenced him to more than seven years in prison although no one else who allegedly participated in the robbery was brought to court.

“They never existed,” Caal Xol said.

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.

One of the arguments against the directive is that it might lead European companies to simply disinvest from areas with human rights risks.

Not only would this be a risk to economic growth, which has helped billions across the world escape poverty, but it would also leave the space open for less scrupulous foreign companies.

But for Caal Xol, this argument does not hold. He hopes that the CSDDD will serve as an example for other countries as well. “This would open the way for others to follow. But someone has to start.”

The directive is currently in trilogue negotiations between the European Parliament and the EU Council. While this and next week will see discussions among member state negotiators, the next trilogue with Parliament negotiators will take place on 22 November.

The aim is to get a deal over the line before spring 2024, before European elections in early June 2024 put a pause on legislative activities.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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