Chalillo Dam

Belize dam pits Canadian firm against environmentalists

Tavia Grant
Inter Press Service
November 2, 2001

Inter Press Service, an Internet news provider on global issues, alerts its members to Canada’s Fortis dam controversy.

 


TORONTO — Deep in the jungle of Belize’s Macal River valley, where howler monkeys howl and scarlet macaws caw, a rare tropical floodplain lies largely untouched by humankind. The valley, however, has become a battleground between environmentalists and a Canadian power company.

Fortis Inc., based in the province of Newfoundland, and the Belizean government plan to build a 30-million-dollar, 35-metre hydroelectric dam that will flood about 800 hectares in the western interior of Belize.

Opponents call the move a "tragedy" that would destroy one of the most biologically diverse areas in Central America and disrupt the habitat of howler monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, river otters, and scarlet macaws – the world’s largest parrot.

Environmentalists from Canada, Belize, and the United States urged Fortis here Thursday to reconsider.

"This is a boondoggle that is the worst possible example of globalisation," said Robert Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This area is unique, it’s been there tens of thousands of years and many species exist there that don’t exist anywhere else in the world."

Concerns about the dam extend beyond wildlife. The project would flood two ancient Mayan ruins, according to the Toronto-based group Probe International. Critics also charge the project is uneconomical and will not benefit the citizens of Belize.

One dam already has been built along the Macal River but during the dry season it goes without water and cannot run at full capacity. So Fortis and its subsidiary, Belize Electricity Ltd. (BEL), are considering whether to build the Chalillo dam and reservoir to generate more energy and provide water to the first dam.

In the nearby town of Cristo Rey, villagers say they’re already suffering the effects from the first dam – water quality has deteriorated and some residents have developed skin rashes from bathing.

Proponents of the project, including Fortis and the Belize government, say it will alleviate poverty, attract foreign investment and reduce the country’s dependence on diesel oil and energy bought from Mexico. About one-third of Belizeans live below the poverty line and 18 per cent lack access to electricity, according to the government.

"Belizeans need new power sources, and this is the cheapest one available," Fortis chief executive Stanley Marshall told IPS. "A country needs to develop its own indigenous power sources, and not always be dependent on the price of oil."

Marshall awaits final approval from the National Environmental Appraisal Committee, a Belizean group of politicians and environmentalists studying the project. Marshall said he expects their decision this month and Fortis could start construction in the first half of 2002.

Environmental groups, who have lobbied against the dam for months, recently launched television and print advertisements in Newfoundland and Ontario and are seeking to make Fortis shareholders think twice about their investment in the company.

Fortis was formed in 1987 as the parent of Newfoundland Power, whose history in building dams dates back more than a century. Today, the company employs about 2,000 people and has some 942 million dollars in assets. It owns utilities in Newfoundland, Ontario and Prince Edward Island and bought 67 per cent of BEL in 1999.

Marshall said he is fully committed to building the dam, regardless of pressure from high-profile figures such as NRDC’s Kennedy, actor Harrison Ford and Canadian artist Robert Bateman. "My assessment is that we can develop this dam without untoward damage to the environment," he said.

The Belize government, meantime, has said it spent decades studying how to boost its energy supply and it sees the dam as its only option. The present government, democratically elected in 1998, had the development of the Chalillo dam openly on its platform.

Belizeans pay among the highest electricity rates in Central America. About 50 per cent of their energy comes from Mexico, 30 per cent from the Mollejon dam and 20 per cent from diesel. Ror many Belizeans, living with power blackouts is a normal part of life.

In a letter written last month to the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, the government said it is "committed to improving the quality of the life of our people and will explore every sound means of electrical power generation to ensure that the needs of our people are met."

One alternative energy source is cogeneration, which uses waste products from Belize’s sugar cane industry to create energy. While the Belize government is considering this option, it has said cogeneration alone would not create enough power.

Ambrose Tillett disputes this claim. While working for BEL as a senior policy analyst, he concluded that the dam was not the best solution for Belize and that cogeneration would be better for the environment and would generate more energy. It also would employ more people – about 10,000 people work in the sugar industry whereas the two dams would employ about 20, he said.

Last October, BEL asked Tillett to leave the company, citing "philosophical differences." He now is a technical consultant for the Belize Alliance of Conservation and Non-Governmental Organisations.

Categories: Chalillo Dam

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