Chalillo Dam

Cry me a river over threat to sanctuary

Kelly Haggart
Metro – UK
March 1, 2002

Probe International’s Grainne Ryder goes in search of the endangered scarlet macaw.

For a city dweller, there are few emotions stronger than those stirred by entering a river valley few have ventured into. In the remote north-western corner of the former British colony of Belize, the jungle-shrouded Macal River is seemingly undisturbed since the time the ancient Maya carved their cities out of its rainforest thousands of years ago.

As I float down the waters of the upper Macal and its tributary, the Raspaculo, my bright yellow inflatable kayak is the only discord in a natural landscape that teems with bird and animal life. Iguanas sprawl on tree branches in their spiky green and rust-coloured armour. Crocodiles bask on rocks in the midday sun, deceptively lifeless, then gone in an eight-foot splash as we approach.

I am lucky to be with Mayan Indian Greg Sho, a nature guide, and Sharon Matola, the director of the Belize Zoo And Tropical Education Centre. “This is one of the last wild places in Central America where birds and animals live unmolested by hunters and poachers,” says Sharon.

During our two-day trip, we see countless Amazon kingfishers and bats, the forest falcon, American finfoot, scarlet-rumped tanager, and a great black hawk. The jaguar, ocelot, howler monkey and river otter eluded us, but they too live by these waters.

At night, we camp by the river, a stone’s throw from a marshy cove where crocodiles live. Greg and Sharon insist on cooking our meal without my help, so I keep watch by the shore for a glimpse of crocodiles out cruising for their dinner. By the time darkness falls, I haven’t spotted one and am too hungry to care. I don’t know what the crocodiles ate that night but our feast of sardines and rice was fit for a Maya king.

Beyond our campfire in the inky black night, we are treated to an after-dinner show of several 650-pound tapir – Belize’s national animal – lumbering noisily through the bush to the river bank opposite us. By flashlight, we watched these short-sighted herbivores slurp on the nightly deposit of figs from the giant trees lining the water’s edge.

At dawn, we drink Belize coffee before heading out for a three-hour paddle up the Raspaculo, to a waterfall where we are guaranteed to find the scarlet macaw – the last population of a sub-species of parrot that has been all but hunted to extinction in the rest of Central America. I am awed by the first sighting of this brilliantly-coloured bird, a three-foot long swathe of scarlet across the sky above the waterfall. We watch them fly in pairs high above the river, cavorting and preening in the tree-tops, their loud squawks piercing the valley. In Belize, the Quamwood trees lining the Raspaculo are the only known nesting sites for these endangered birds.

A few years ago, while following the scarlet macaw, Greg stumbled across the remains of several Maya settlements, long reclaimed by the jungle. He bushwhacks a path for us to see four of these sites, each housing temples, plazas and walkways that archaeologists believe date back to the classic period of Mayan civilisation (600 to 900 AD). These stony mounds, now entwined with mahogany trees, could hold vital clues to the collapse of Mayan civilisation.

The cloud of doom looming over this region is a plan by a Canadian power company and its British partner, AMEC, to build a dam that will flood this sanctuary. Many archaeologists and scientists have sounded alarm bells, among them Royal Marine Col. Alastair Rogers, who has led five scientific expeditions to this area for the Natural History Museum. The museum warned last year that the dam would cause “irreversible harm” to at least 12 different endangered or rare species of wildlife, and could drive the scarlet macaw to extinction.

As Greg puts it: “We should be protecting this valley’s nature and history. To never again see the scarlet macaw in the wild is just too sad for me to imagine.’

Categories: Chalillo Dam

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