Chalillo Dam

Letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Manley

Grainne Ryder

October 12, 2001

Probe International, together with representatives of citizens groups in Belize and Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, call on the Canadian government to withdraw all support for the proposed Chalillo dam in Belize. This demand follows a review of the CIDA-funded study which recommends the dam as viable even though it will cause a "significant and irreversible reduction in biodiversity in Belize."

The Right Honourable John Manley
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0G2

Dear Sir:

We are writing to express our outrage at the biased, incomplete, and misleading analysis of the proposed Chalillo hydro dam on Belize’s Macal River, which was carried out by Agra-CI Power (a Montreal-based subsidiary of British-owned AMEC) for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

AMEC’s conclusion that the proposed Chalillo dam is "technically and economically viable" and "the most economical option for generating power in Belize" lacks veracity and credibility.

The CIDA-funded report also indicates that the dam would cause "significant and irreversible reduction of biodiversity in Belize" by destroying critical forest habitat for more than a dozen internationally recognized rare and endangered species, as well as migratory birds from Canada and the United States. The dam’s reservoir would inundate unexplored Maya settlements, which has alarmed Belize’s Maya communities and leading archaeologists. We are therefore asking you to withdraw all Canadian government support for AMEC’s indefensible report and assure Canadians that no more public funds will be used for this project.

The most egregious failings of the AMEC report are as follows:

1. AMEC’s projections of a reliable power output from the Chalillo dam are based on hydrological records that are incomplete and unreliable. As such, there is a significant risk that the dam will fail to perform as expected and that Belize ratepayers will be burdened with the cost of the dam, plus the cost of alternative power supplies in the dry season – as is the case with an existing hydro facility downstream of the proposed Chalillo site.

2. AMEC failed to conduct the geotechnical surveys needed to assess the risk that extensive karst (soluble rock) formations in the project area will drain water out of the reservoir and render the project useless. AMEC acknowledges that these karst landforms (i.e., sinkholes and underground caves) are a significant factor in assessing the technical and financial viability of the Chalillo project, but inexplicably fails to conduct the surveys.

3. AMEC provides no evidence to substantiate the claim that Chalillo is a least-cost generating option for Belize. AMEC’s claim that the cost of power production at Chalillo is six US cents per kilowatt-hour is unsubstantiated. An August 24, 2001 letter from AMEC’s client, Belize Electricity Company, to Belize’s National Environment Appraisal Committee, indicates that Chalillo power will cost ratepayers 8.65 US cents per kilowatt-hour. At this price, the alternatives – bagasse-fired cogeneration, gas-fired off-peak power from neighbouring Mexico, and high-efficiency gas turbines or diesel units installed in Belize – are competitive. In fact, Belize could purchase off-peak power from Mexico for half the price of Chalillo power but AMEC rules this out. In order to conclude that the alternatives are not competitive, AMEC compared the dam’s production cost (six US cents per kilowatt-hour) and not the actual price of Chalillo power (8.65 US cents per kilowatt-hour) to the alternatives. This is not a legitimate comparison: AMEC’s conclusion is patently false and does not serve the interests of Belizean ratepayers.

4. AMEC ignores the key recommendation made by its own wildlife consultants, the Natural History Museum of London, that the Chalillo dam not be built. "Based on the rarity of the habitat to be inundated, and the dependence on this habitat by several endangered species," the Natural History Museum assessment states, "the ‘No Build’ option is highly recommended as the most suitable and appropriate option for the long-term viability and conservation of wildlife in Belize." In a follow-up letter to the Belize authorities, Alistair Rogers, a senior scientist and contributing editor to the Natural History Museum report, writes: "It is absolutely clear that constructing a dam at Chalillo would cause major, irreversible, negative environmental impacts of national and international significance – and that no effective mitigation measures would be possible." (Lieutenant Colonel Rogers’ letter is attached.)

5. AMEC failed to conduct a proper archaeological survey of Maya sites in the project area, as required under Belize’s antiquities law. "It is unthinkable," writes renowned Canadian archaeologist Elizabeth Graham, Royal Ontario Museum associate and director of the London Institute of Archaeology, that such large-scale construction would be planned without the requisite surveys" in an area containing some of the richest and most complex Maya sites. (Dr. Graham’s letter is attached).

6. AMEC failed to prepare an environmental management plan even though this was a requirement of the CIDA contract. The June 2000 contract between CIDA and AMEC stipulates that AMEC is required to produce a final project management plan which should "evaluate environmental risks, elaborate an emergency plan, propose mitigation measures, specify entities responsible for monitoring, suggest means of complementing existing capabilities and evaluate the costs of monitoring and of implementing the project management plan."

For your information, please find attached further detailed comments about the AMEC report’s inadequacies, which have been prepared by colleagues Sharon Matola, Director of the Belize Zoo and Ari Hershowitz, BioGems Project Director of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. Also, we have attached several letters of concern from leading wildlife experts and archaeologists, which have recently been submitted to the Belize authorities.

Based on our review of the environmental, technical, and economic information, we conclude that the costs and risks associated with the Chalillo dam far outweigh any benefits that might accrue from the dam, and the project will cause irreparable damage to Belize’s natural and cultural heritage.

The minister responsible for CIDA must now take responsibility for its role in promoting this indefensible project.

Not only did CIDA fund AMEC’s misleading and flawed analysis of the Chalillo dam, the minister responsible for CIDA has misled Canadians, saying that by funding AMEC’s study it was helping Belize "make an informed decision" about its energy options. CIDA’s role in this process has had the opposite effect. First of all, the contract between CIDA and AMEC clearly stipulates that CIDA’s purpose in funding AMEC is to help AMEC win contracts to build the Chalillo dam. Second, CIDA has protected Canadian proponents of this dam, including AMEC and Fortis, Inc. of Newfoundland, (which is the majority owner of Belize Electricity, Belize’s national utility), from public scrutiny. CIDA did this by arbitrarily exempting AMEC’s environmental assessment from Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act. Under the Act, CIDA is obliged to: give public notice that an environmental assessment is underway, disclose the terms of reference, post the environmental assessment in Canada’s public registry, invite public comments, and have the environmental assessment reviewed by an independent advisory panel. CIDA failed to carry out any of these steps. When Probe International requested AMEC’s report using Canada’s Access to Information Act, CIDA stonewalled, arguing it had no legal obligation to disclose AMEC’s report. CIDA’s refusal to put the public’s right to know before a multinational corporation’s alleged need for secrecy has effectively thwarted an open and rigorous review of the Chalillo dam project.

CIDA’s abdication of its responsibility to ensure effective and timely public oversight of AMEC’s assessment is an international disgrace. While the Belize authorities have allowed the public a paltry 30-day period to comment on AMEC’s 1,500-page report, the dam’s proponents in Belize have used AMEC’s seriously flawed report to rally political support. (A letter of complaint from the Belize Ecotourism Association about the inadequacies of the Chalillo dam EIA review process is attached.)

Given this deplorable process, it is incumbent upon the Canadian government now to review all the evidence and set Canada’s record straight.

We ask that you issue a public statement that the CIDA-AMEC report is inadequate and that no more Canadian tax dollars, through CIDA, the Export Development Corporation, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, etc., will be used to support this project.

Given that Fortis, Inc. of Newfoundland intends to start building this dam in three months, based on Canada’s flawed analysis, we ask that you take a stand urgently.


Gráinne Ryder
Policy Director
Probe International

Endorsed by:

Ari Hershowitz, Biogems Project Director-Latin America, Natural Resource Defense Council, USA

Sharon Matola, Director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, Belize

Tony Garel, Chairman, Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO), Belize

Ambrose Tillet, Technical Advisor, BACONGO, Belize

cc. Maria Minna, Minister for International Cooperation
Len Good, President, Canadian International Development Agency
MichJle Tremblay, Environment Specialist, CIDA
Robert Derouin, CIDA Industrial Cooperation Program

Keith Martin, M.P., Alliance Critic for Latin America
Deepak Obhrai, M.P., Alliance Critic for CIDA and International Cooperation
Brian Pallister, M.P., Alliance Foreign Affairs Critic
Svend Robinson, M.P., NDP Foreign Affairs Critic
StJphan Tremblay, M.P., Bloc QuJbJcois Critic for CIDA and International Cooperation

Stanley Marshall, President and CEO, Fortis, Inc., Newfoundland, Canada


1. Comments on Macal River Upstream Storage Facility [Chalillo] Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by Natural Resources Defense Council, Sept.23, 2001.
2. Comments and Concerns Re: Macal River Upstream Storage Facility [Chalillo] Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by Sharon Matola, Director, The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, Sept. 2001.
3. (Undated) letter from Dr. Elizabeth Graham, Royal Ontario Museum associate, Lecturer, London Institute of Archeology, Director Lamanai Archaeological Project, to National Environmental Appraisal Committee, Belize.
4. Sept. 27, 2001 letter from Drs. Arlen and Diane Chase, Directors, Caracol Archaeological Project, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Central Florida.
5. Sept. 18, 2001 letter from Dr. Anabel Ford, Mesoamerican Research Center, University of California.
6. Sept. 17, 2001 letter from Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Rogers to Ismael Fabro, Chief Environment Officer, Department of Environment, Belize.
7. Sept. 10, 2001 letter from Dr. Katherine Renton, Research Associate, Institute of Biology, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, to National Environmental Appraisal Committee, Belize.
8. Sept. 10, 2001 letter from Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, Director of Science and Exploration, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, to National Environmental Appraisal Committee, Belize.
9. Sept. 10, 2001 letter from Bruce and Carolyn Miller, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, to National Environmental Appraisal Committee, Belize.
10. Sept. 5, 2001 letter from the Belize Ecotourism Association to Belize’s National Environmental Appraisal Committee requesting that the CIDA-funded environmental assessment of the Chalillo dam be made available on a web site, that public hearings be conducted, and that the Belize authorities extend the review period to 120 days.


Categories: Chalillo Dam

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